Thursday, May 2, 2013

BH: The Political Timeliness of SEOUL STATION — Animated Prequel to TRAIN TO BUSAN

Yet another article rescued from the gaping hole that was once

SEOUL STATION. No, it’s not where the Soul Train departs from. It’s the animated prequel to the smash hit zombie film TRAIN TO BUSAN, from South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho. Released just a month after BUSAN, the director’s live action debut, SEOUL STATION depicts ground zero of the outbreak: a train station that serves as a den for the homeless.
SEOUL STATION sees the director returning to his comfort zone of animation, but it’s inextricably linked with BUSAN. And I don’t just mean the plot. Where TRAIN TO BUSAN was a piercing comment on how the population is so easily manipulated by the media and those in authority, SEOUL STATION pushes its political aspirations to the limit.
The lesson that Yeon Sang-ho has rightfully learned from George Romero is that zombies are an incredibly versatile source for political and social commentary. Whether it’s DAWN OF THE DEAD’s indictment of mindless consumerism or LAND OF THE DEAD’s attack on the class system, zombies are a deadly force of nature that brings out the worst in the humans caught in the middle.
That is certainly the case in SEOUL STATION, where the zombie outbreak first spreads among the abandoned and destitute population of the homeless. Patient Zero could have been saved (or at least properly quarantined) if there was any truly effective medical system in place, but the local authorities prefer to keep the smelly, depressing homeless out of sight and out of mind.
Once the virus begins to spread in earnest, it hits Seoul Station’s homeless population first, sending only a few survivors into the unforgiving night. The authorities at first don’t understand the severity of the virus, assuming that the hobos have just gone crazy. They mercilessly take down as many of them as possible, ridding themselves of what at first seems to be a messy nuisance.
Unfortunately, this is also how the few survivors are treated. They’re homeless (and in our main character’s case, a teenage runaway who was just kicked out of a pimping boyfriend’s apartment), so in the eyes of the station guards they’re just as likely as the others to flip out and attack.
As the rules and regulations of society begin to break down, the citizens of South Korea cling to the social and military structures that they have been taught to trust and respect. People wield their patriotism and service to their country as badges of honor that should somehow exempt them from the bloody death being dished out left and right. Unfortunately, the zombies couldn’t care less about this. Nor could the authorities, who are just as obsessed with self-preservation and more equipped to pursue it.
I won’t go further because I’d hate to get into spoiler territory, but it’s needless to say that things don’t go great for everyone. Desperate survivors clinging to the social strictures that bind them are a throughline between the two films, but SEOUL STATION introduces the most important, immediately concerning political idea of the two: the problem with the homeless.
The real life Seoul Station in South Korea might not be under siege by a legion of bloodthirsty zombies, but it really is facing a homelessness epidemic of disastrous proportions. Destitute foreigners and South Korean citizens flock to the station to live, suffer, and die in poverty, languishing under a system that would prefer to sweep them under the rug.
The director has made a habit of tackling controversial social issues in his animated films (his feature-length debut THE KING OF PIGS is about murder, bankruptcy, and bullying, his follow-up THE FAKE is about the hypocrisy of organized religion, and his short THE WINDOW covers military violence), but SEOUL STATION strikes right to the core of an urgent and immediate need, not just in South Korea.
In America, the popular topic is health care rather than specifically homelessness, but a major issue is the ability for the poor to access proper medical care, a major kernel at the center of SEOUL STATION’s political manifesto. Whether you’re approaching the film from an Eastern or a Western perspective, it holds up a mirror to a part of society that is suffering, humanizing the issues of an entire class of people that has been ignored for too long.
Between TRAIN TO BUSAN and SEOUL STATION, it looks like zombie cinema has found the perfect person to take up the mantle of George Romero’s groundbreaking political horror. One can only hope that Yeon Sang-ho’s success will allow him to continue his reign of terror with that unique, unflinching perspective.
SEOUL STATION is currently available on iTunes! Check it out if you want some animated zombie mayhem with political bite!

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