As a part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, two Korean zombie movies directed by Yeon Sang-Ho were both playing at the same time. Smash hit Train to Busan sold out, so my friend and I saw Seoul Station.
Zombies are a relatively new pop culture phenomenon in South Korea as it undergoes a revival in Western culture. It’s been ripe for parody on sketch comedy shows and a theme in kitschy cafes and bars in Seoul, but there are few actual zombie movies. Yeon Sang-Ho has struck gold with the genre by blending it with his affinity for dark films showing the uglier side of humanity.
Seoul Station is a huge, grand station complete with fancy restaurants, luxurious shopping malls, and services the city metro as well as the ultra-fast KTX trains to other cities around Korea. But you don’t see any of that in this movie. Instead, we go below Seoul Station late at night as the station closes, into the rabbit warren of exits underground, to see a sick homeless man, one of the many hundreds living in the corridors of the station. A friend rushes around to find help for him, only to be turned away in disgust by citizens, the police and a medical centre. Meanwhile, a poor young couple argues in a park near the station over an unimaginable predicament for most of us: Hye-sun is an ex-sex worker who has come to live with her boyfriend, Ki-woong, for safety, but instead he betrays her by pimping her out for money online.
It’s a grim, urban drama, much darker than your average K-drama with shiny pretty rich people. Then in the middle of it all, the zombies come. The zombies are truly gross, like masses of veiny writhing worms, and make revolting guttural noises against the soundtrack of nauseating, distorted pansori drumming. The characters are trapped with unexpected people: Hye-sun with a homeless man, and Ki-woong with a man who appears to be Hye-sun’s angry father. Yeon Sang-Ho sends them running and screaming through an illustrated Seoul with extraordinary detail on every sign, slogan and ad that glow impossibly in the murky darkness.
It’s a stressful, tense watch. Unlike an action movie, Seoul Station emphasises every moment of the characters’ exhaustion, hysteria and pain.
Reminiscent of classic Korean monster movie The Host, Seoul Station criticises riot police, protests, social welfare and healthcare issues that plague Korea. They’re the same problems but different incidents a few years on: the riot police scene is a far-too-accurate retelling of the Sewol anniversary protest riots, and the hasty response to the zombie outbreak echoes the Korean government’s fumbling to contain the MERS disease outbreak year. The decision to include the most disenfranchised people in Korean society ‒ the homeless, sex workers, young people and the poor – and subject them to the brutality around them adds an extra layer of emotional outrage. Ultimately, the zombies aren’t the scariest part of the movie at all.
Like any Korean movie, don’t expect this movie to end neatly and without emotional devastation. The ending in Seoul Station had such an impact that the entire cinema screamed and two days later, my friend and I are still talking about it.