Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Cast: Ryu Seung-ryong, Shim Eun-kyung, Lee Joon
August 18, 2016
It starts in Seoul Station, where dozens of homeless people are bunked down for the night. A man neglected and discarded by society is the first to turn but others follow quickly. These are fast zombies, chasing down their victims with numb hunger, pausing to gnaw on them only for a few minutes before moving on to the next body. The people they kill—you know how it goes—they get up and kill. It starts in Seoul Station not just because it’s convenient for the plot, but because transient people go ignored by the rest of us and so a plague among them could spread quickly without our notice. It begins with the vulnerable—all social ills.
Train to Busan, to which Seoul Station stands as an animated prequel, was South Korea’s first zombie film. It’s a remarkably kinetic film, for such a claustrophobic setting—a train—and Seoul Station is similarly non-stop, with survival dependent on Revenant-like feats and pure luck, guaranteed for no one. In these films they’ve killed the grandma. They’ve killed the pet. They’ve killed plot critical characters absent justice or “their due.” Neither Train to Busan nor Seoul Station has heroes, just people trying under circumstances where just trying seems impossible or unwise. Zombies are implacable and divisive—maybe you’re hiding a bite and will be the next to turn; maybe you don’t understand the rules of survival; maybe you deserve it.
In every zombie film there are moments of solidarity and care, moments when our leads count backwards from ten and begin to formulate a plan to get out, get even, or just extend their last breaths a few minutes longer. How those moments are disrupted are often where you find the film’s message. In 28 Days Later, the characters’ brief pastoral idyll ends with a chance infection, capitalized on by a group that can best be summed up as militarized toxic masculinity. In The Walking Dead there’s always some ghoulish new adversary, some man who is the real monster. In George A. Romero’s oeuvre there is always one more zombie ready to seize on a dumb mistake or moment of discord. Do we outpace the tick of the clock, the slowly building but eventually overwhelming extinction event, or does everything get burned? Where Train to Busan gave us hope that eventually we could find a barricade that would hold, Seoul Station gives us just smoke and the knowledge that the barricade was built with the blood and bones of the inconveniently still living.
Surviving the Seoul outbreak is harrowing, with the film’s runtime mostly concerned with a series of narrow escapes and rescues, small cowardices and shining moments of empathy. In fleeing, characters shed dignity, clothing, humanity, life. Do people make it out? Some do, I guess. By pure luck or by privilege, some do make it out safe. But let’s piece it together—in Train to Busan and Seoul Station the government is not just bumbling, it’s malicious; corporate fat cats don’t just cut corners to make a buck, they cut your hamstrings and leave you behind as bait. The zombie hoard isn’t just a difficult to control outbreak, it’s a culling that takes the poor and privileged alike. At first, police and military forces are convinced that the poor and homeless are rioting. They respond with a bone deep disgust for transient people: their scent, their bare feet, their presence is all offensive; to be ignored if possible, destroyed when necessary.
If these unfortunates are too loud, trying too hard to get your attention, you must drive them out. Likewise lead character Hye-Sun, a runaway and sex worker whose day just keeps getting worse. She left home for reasons we never learn, left a pimp for reasons that become very clear, left a gaslighting boyfriend who would coerce her to return to sex work, rather than help support them with a part time job—and then zombies. Hye-Sun is just a sex worker, just a runaway, just a filthy scammer who can’t be trusted, who doesn’t work hard enough. When she gets mixed up with the longterm homeless during the initial outbreak, she almost, for a moment, elicits some sympathy from the police. Unlike the homeless people the cops immediately turn violence on, they see, for a moment, a scared human girl. But then they see her feet. She lost her sandals fleeing. Is she also homeless? They call her a “filthy bitch” and push her, along with the other survivors into a cell. The hate in Seoul Station is institutionalized; rather than manifesting during the outbreak as a gross calculus of “the good of the many,” it merely transforms. From words to actions: slurs to barricades and bullets. There are no middle class illusions about the warm embrace of the state to be dispelled here, because Seoul Station focuses on those who have already been pushed to the margins.
These films, Train to Busan and Seoul Station, are South Korea’s first zombie franchise. Train to Busan was its first zombie film. They are blockbuster action flicks, it’s true, but they’re also deeply sad films. Redemptive, empathetic action is recognized and helps to propel both films, but it’s not rewarded and it’s not sustainable—there are just too many people looking for a whipping boy or an easy out. Institutions are chronically untrustworthy and ordinary people are too deep into a social compact that puts someone else on the bottom. These responses, by authorities and ordinary people—violence and denial—are based on the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, where 300 passengers died on a sinking ferry as the captain and crew rowed away to safety, and the 2015 MERS outbreak where schools shut down and people panicked because of government and public health officials’ secretive handling of the situation. Message control was a priority in both crises, with the government even disseminating misinformation.
In Seoul Station, those who are perceived to be wholesomely ordinary working folks are told repeatedly by authorities to calm down and go back to home or work. Those who are a drain on society, that gross, shoeless underclass, should suffer more and preferably out of view. There is a scene about three quarters of the way through the film where a group of working and middle class survivors learn just how much they weigh against maintaining order—which is not at all. First the homeless, then the marginally and illegally employed, then the working class, then then then. Even those who survive the disaster are ruined, wracked by trauma endured or complicity eagerly offered. They deserved it but I didn’t.
This isn’t a hopeful film. It doesn’t offer a roadmap to a better world. Seoul Station is a razor sharp critique of authority, of national pride, and of institutionalized oppression. But it does give us one thing: the reminder that we can love each other and offer everyday rescue, and that life without it, without care, is compromised. So you survived the zombie apocalypse. With whose blood and bones did you build your new world?