Fear Eats the Seoul
Director: Nick J Calder
Well, here’s something you don’t see every day: a Korean/American miserabilist slacker zombie film.
Fear Eats the Seoul is very artistic and very indie. It’s all shot handheld and mostly framed off-centre or super-close so that characters are partially cropped. It’s 100 minutes long and much of that consists of people sitting around talking, or sometimes standing around talking, generally in a flat, listless monotone with lots of pauses before and after. And then, every so often, the pace picks up a bit when someone fights a zombie.
This makes the film sound pretty poor and in truth it’s not. It’s an impressive, original, sincere and mesmerising horror film. But if the previous paragraph puts you off, this probably isn’t the movie for you. It’s not conventional horror, it’s not for gorehounds. It’s for horror fans who want to see something different and who like to, you know, think.
Amber Green stars (and narrates) as Nadia, an American living in Seoul for a couple of years teaching English. Something unspecified has happened and the city is now virtually deserted except for roaming, hungry, animalistic zombies. Referred to as ‘demons’ in the publicity, we never get a really clear look at any of these as the zombie attacks are very fast-cut and very shaky. We can see that they have very long, sharp fingernails/claws. It’s a different look for what are, to all intents and purposes, zombies - and it works well. All credit to make-up FX designer Cho Young Hwa.
Nadia, a strong, bitter woman, is holed up in her flat with three other American EFL teachers that she has met since the unspecified disaster: grumpy Rufus (Miles Meili, also in ‘deep south horror’ Zydeco), meek Mary (Elinza Pretorious, who is actually South African) and relaxed Alex (writer/director Nick Calder, who was also DP and editor). They make occasional forays out into the city in search of food, where they target private property, so presumably the shops are by now all empty. Occasionally they have to face off against demons/zombies, smashing their heads in with whatever implement is to hand. The rest of the time, they sit around and mope. Not a lot else to do in Seoul these days, it seems.
On one excursion they come across Miji (Kim Hyun Do), a Korean nursery school teacher, and accept her into their group. But that’s four, now five, people holed up in a tiny one-bedroom flat and tensions are inevitable. Miji brings news that the zombie/demon problem is confined to South Korea and that a nuclear strike is scheduled a few days hence to wipe out the threat. Nadia proposes heading for the coast and commandeering a boat but first they need to find a car. This isn’t some dumb American thing where automobiles are routinely left with the key in the ignition when zombies go wild, or can be easily hotwired by any passing idiot. No, they actually need to find a car and the car keys that go with it. It’s not easy, but Miji thinks she can help.
Before this happens, they visit Olympic Park, just to get away from the confines of the apartment, but the fenced-in area is not as secure as they think it is and they are attacked, leading to tragic problems later on. I won’t reveal the ending, or whereabouts it lies on the bleakness-to-optimism scale, but it is slightly anticlimactic. Although I suppose that is in keeping with the generally bleak and depressing nature of the story and characters.
The film is divided into four sections, with title cards, and contains several flashbacks to earlier times, before the disaster. For example, after Alex realises that he has passed his 24th birthday without noticing it, there’s a scene of his older sister visiting him when he turned 23. The movie also has the unique schtick of dual subtitling: English subs for all the Korean dialogue and Korean subs for all English. I suppose that means it’s easily marketable in both territories...
Despite the violence of the zombie attacks (and the tension of trying to avoid them) this is a slow-moving, grim film, not unlike Andy Parkinson’s first two features in its outlook. If you reduce it to the core plot, it’s not too different from a hundred other zombie pictures but the mixture of western and eastern - both on screen and in the general approach - plus the restrained, pessimistic tone throughout (leavened only by the flashbacks of When Things Were Better) mark Fear Eats the Seoul as something unique. And yes, the title is a crappy pun, but this is a film about people’s crappy lives so I think it’s kind of appropriate.
A few cast/crew points of interest. New York-born Calder actually did work as an EFL teacher in Korea. However, he doesn’t speak Korean. Furthermore Kim doesn’t speak English so all conversations with her had to be translated (via Jo Young Hoon). Green and Pretorious starred together in Suicides in Vegas, a played which premiered in Seoul before touring Canada. Producer Whitney Thompson is not the skinny bit from America’s Next Top Model. Associate producer Raoul Dyssell is South African but now lives in Seoul. William ‘Sonny’ Sonbuchner, credited with ‘Demon Sound Design’ makes short comedies at www.thesonnyside.com. And there’s even a British contribution because the effective score was provided by my mate Scott Benzie!
Fear Eats the Seoul premiered in September 2011 with a Korean theatrical release the following month and a US premiere in New York in December. It’s a very impressive debut from Calder, who is still only 24, and it will be interesting to see where he goes next.
MJS rating: A-