Tom Watches Movies
Yeon Sang-ho’s’s Train to Busan has been turning heads since its release last year, garnering praise as one of the better zombie movies in recent memory. Just this week in fact, James Gunn even named it as one of his favorite horror films, a bump that will doubtlessly add to the film’s North American fanbase. The same year that Sang-ho released Busan he also directed Seoul Station, an animated film that acts as a loose prequel to the live-action film. In many regards, Seoul Station is actually superior to its live-action companion, though the odds are that Busan will remain the more popular of the two. For everything that Seoul Station does right, however, there are a few key factors that keep it from greatness, most notably when it comes to the animation itself.
Taking place amidst the same rage-zombie outbreak chronicled in Train to Busan, Seoul Station follows two groups of survivors in the slowly unfolding chaos: in one narrative thread we have teenaged runaway Rye-sun, a former prostitute who has just been ditched by her slacker boyfriend and soon finds herself on the run with a local homeless man, while elsewhere, Rye-sun’s father and the aforementioned boyfriend desperately search for her amid the increasingly large zombie hordes.
While Train to Busan’s biggest weakness was the lack of any really meaty subtext or new allegorical spin on the tried and true zombie formula, Seoul Station has a bit more going under the hood, namely a scathing commentary of South Korea’s attitude toward the homeless. Zombie outbreak movies that put the focus on homeless characters, ones with no home to go back to or family members to search for, is definitely something we haven’t seen much of, and this fresh angle does a ton to help the film stand out. The first victims of the outbreak are the homeless, and the film pulls no punches in depicting societal apathy towards their plight.
Overall it feels more driven, more intent in its subtextual outrage at the shortcomings of South Korea’s attitudes. It’s darker, more depressing, less prone to schmaltz like Busan’s ending. It sidesteps more tropes, like how it actually has a fairly wide range of locations and backdrops — it’s a relatively old trick for zombie movies to keep the the cast bottled in, leading to tensions among the group and the inevitable drama. Seoul Station prefers to keep things moving, and the result is a number of interestingly varied and tense sequences that keep the film engaging. If there is any major shortcoming in terms of writing, it’s that the film goes slightly off the rails at the end, but even this comes after a well-executed twist.
The major thing that holds the film back from definitively surpassing its live-action counterpart is the animation itself. In terms of art direction, Seoul Station is on the plain side, with very simple character models and backgrounds. The real problem arises in the animation itself. For starters, there is a very low framerate when it comes to character animations, which means movements are jerky and stuttered, especially when it comes to facial animations. When you combine this with generally awkward and stiff character movements, it’s easy to get flashbacks to the clunky, lo-fi character animation of early CGI video games. Granted, framerate and movement quality aren’t something every audience member is going to be paying attention to, but it’s not hard to imagine that even casual viewers would find something “off” about the way characters move. By the end you can mostly get used to it, but the low quality of the animation from a technical standpoint remains the biggest stumbling block. The visuals generally keep the characters at arm’s length, the awkwardness of the presentation keeping us from empathising with any of them too much. For many audience members, it’s likely that the animation will outright kill it for them. For others more tolerant of the unrefined visuals, it will just hold them back from getting as immersed in the story as they should.
It’s not at all hard to wistfully imagine a world in which Train to Busan got the animated treatment, with Seoul Station instead being the live-action entry in the duology. Seoul Station’s more interesting narrative, unfettered by awkward animation, would be a far superior film to either Train to Busan or the version of Seoul Station that we got. As it is, we’ll have to make due with a decent but very middle of the road zombie movie, only an interesting location to set it apart from the horde and its crudely animated but far more original, subversive, and atmospheric brother.