Midnight Express in Seoul

Seoul Station and Lost in the Moonlight 

Ho-won NAH

Ho-won NAH is an animation researcher and lecturer in the Department of Film Animation at Kunkuk University. He earned masters degrees at CalArts in Experimental Animation and at the Royal College of Art in Animation Theory. He has nearly completed a Ph.D in Animation Theory at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. He produced short animated films such as Gongmudohaga (toilet paper, 1999) and Plastic Trauma: Requiem for Narcissus & Ophelia (stop motion, 2004). Nah was a winner of the Literary Contest in Cartoon Critique in the Daily Sports Seoul as well as the Contest of New Film Critic of Kino. He writes movie and cartoon reviews and translated Kit Laybourne’s Animation Book and Olivier Cotte’s Oscar Animation. Currently he contributes animation columns and critiques to many journals and magazines.

좌) 서울역 Seoul Station (2016)/ 우) 달빛궁궐 Lost in the Moonlight (2016)

#01 Trailer: Lost in the Moonlight overlapped Seoul Station

The successful box o ce record of the film Train to Busan raised expectations for Seoul Station. The word ‘prequel’ seemed able to bring abundance to Train to Busan once again. Or there would have been people who worried that Train to Busan could have been a fifth wheel. Seoul Station is a film about the starting point of an itinerary and also a story about the origin of an accident. Train to Busan and Seoul Station are able to be divided but still have the power to pull each other. The contradictory formats of live action and animation may create the appropriate tension between the two films.

It was at the Seoul Station premier that the momentary overlapping of Seoul Station and Lost in the Moonlight occurred. When the introductions on stage ended and the lights in the theater were turned down, trailers for upcoming films were shown. It was Lost in the Moonlight that fascinated and captured the eye of the audience. They burst out with gasps and questioning utterances, both consciously and unconsciously. The short trailer not only introduced the planned release and sparked interest in the film, it also unintentionally shook the audience. Before long, the online responses to Lost in the Moonlight came to be more passionate than those of Seoul Station.

The two films seem to be like two opposite extremes without anything in common, but through their short overlap they hinted at a way we can analogize a kind of correlation. The conflicting pair of R-15 gore vs. a family fantasy and present vs. tradition shares as common elements zombies and ghosts, Seoul, and nighttime. These factors make it possible to deal with the two films together sufficiently.

#02 Archive Footage: Rushing Train

The incident when a train stirred audiences can’t be omitted from the foundation myths of film history. Many people recall, as common sense, the myth that the first audience of the first film rushed screaming out of the theater, thinking that the train depicted in the film slowly entering the platform of La Ciotat Station was actually rushing towards them. Of course, the response of the audience was exaggerated, and the stories are far from the historical fact. L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat was not shown at Le Grand Cafe on December 28, 1895, the o cial birthdate of the film. The film wasn’t actually produced until January of the next year and then made public. To some, motion pictures were a surprise that appeared abruptly, but to others it was a familiar fashion. The cinematograph of the Lumiere brothers was already the talk of the town since the summer of 1895, when it started being shown to groups of professionals, included the photographers association. Attractions featuring photographs in motion were already being introduced in various forms to the classes who enjoyed culture in Occidental metropolises, including the Parisiens of the time, before the cinematograph appeared. Representatively, Edison’s imaging device for one person, the Kinetoscope, had already been attracting people since around 1894.

Of course, L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat made the visual achievement of catching a train approaching more three-dimensionally through the diagonal composition of the scene. And by showing the looks of ordinary passengers instead of casting actors and actresses, this film provided the enjoyment of finding their acquaintances, like Where’s Waldo?, at least to the nearby residents of La Ciotat Station. However, from then on the shock effect of “The train rushes!” seems to have functioned as an icon representing the visual pleasure of films. As the film The Countryman’s First Sight of the Animated Pictures (1901) by R.W. Paul shows, the icon was already a laughingstock in the early 1900s.

#03 Archive Footage: Wandering Ghost

Edison’s Kinetoscope realized motion pictures earlier than the Lumiere brothers’ cinematograph. Nonetheless, one of the reasons the Kinetoscope did not come to be the origin of cinema was that it did not provide a collective appreciation based on its function of projection. Even if one was looking into the Kinetoscope and being surprised by the images in motion were flung out of the place, such an episode would be less dramatic than the myth of the audience who gathered at Le Grand Cafe. History wants collective shock.

In fact, such an example of an audience shivering and being terrified by projected images can be found if one looks back a hundred years before 1895. It is the record of the phantasmagoria, a kind of magic lantern screening. Magic lanterns had already been widely utilized since the late 1600’s. It was occasionally used for entertainment purposes, but it enjoyed popularity rather as an audio-visual media for delivering religious messages most effectively. For instance, threatening preachings such as “You will burn if you sin!” were accompanied by projecting images of purgatory in darkened churches.

The phantasmagoria also added the particular element of space to the message. First, wheels were attached to the magic lanterns in order to allow them to be moved back and forth. And rather than on surfaces such as walls or screens, images were projected on a smoke-filled space surrounded by seats. As a result, the images could float in space freely like ghosts. The most important fact is that the phantasmagoria showings occurred at churches or deserted buildings in areas where massacres had been carried out during the French Revolution. Audiences who saw skeletons and ghosts flying over the places where the vivid memories of tragedies remained would have felt that revengeful spirits had been revived. That would have been a much more terrible visual experience than the movement of a train on a two-dimensional plane. And it could serve as a model of space-specialized art, which many people talk about nowadays.

#04 Archive Footage: Haunted House

With the appearance of films, the projected images of ghosts, phantoms, and spirits became fixed on screen surfaces. Unlike the wheeled magic lantern of the phantasmagorias, the projectors in theaters were set on fixed surfaces (initially between the audience and later projected from a room separated from the audience). The fact that the images on screen don’t jump into the audience was proved through the survival experience of the audience who safely appreciated the scene of the train entering La Ciotat Station.

Film images never harm the audience. As phantoms could not make the audience terrified any longer, ghosts became a subject of entertainment. After the cheating photography of early films went through a period of trial and error, a new genre of films appeared and enjoyed popularity starting around 1907. It was the birth of ghosts combined with animation. These are films made by a method which could be called ‘stop-motion animation’ or ‘object animation’ now, and they mostly contain stories in which the normal everyday objects move by themselves, threatening and driving people out from their homes. James Stuart Blackton in America and Segundo de Chomon and Emile Cohl in Europe made profits while creating this genre.

An interesting point is that such a genre, in which ordinary objects come to life and cause great turmoil, sometimes had titles such as ‘haunted house’ or ‘electric / automated house.’ In other words, sometimes shamanistic or superstitious causes were emphasized and other times enlightening or scientific reasons were given. It’s likely the emphasis was different depending on which types of audiences were targeted. Anyway, this genre conveys, in highly embarrassing situations, a message that the owners of a place are not humans (staying for just a while) but objects (always staying there, abruptly awakening and being activated). This is the point in where we first encounter the typical (yet not always agreed upon) regarding of animation as ‘injecting spirit into lifeless objects.’ Animation as film has performed a shamanistic play with audiences from the start.

달빛궁궐 Lost in the Moonlight (2016)

#05 Insert: The Map of Seoul

Lost in the Moonlight starts off by showing a map of Seoul. At this time,
Seoul is limited to the area between Bugak and Mongmyeok mountains. That is, not today’s Seoul as a metropolitan city but Hanyang (old Seoul) in the Choseon Dynasty, when Changdeok Palace played a central role within the four main gates and was featured in front. The gods who preside over Bugak and Mongmyeok mountains are set not to stay in the past but to awaken any time now. Though the events in the storyline unfold around Changdeok Palace, at times Gwanghwamun and the Namsan area emerge as well. The situation of the present in chaos could give the audience a link between the past and the present, fantasy and reality.

By the way, if you mark the route of movements on the map from Bugak through Changduk Palace and Gwanghwamun to Mongmyeok / Namsan, you find an omitted place. It is Seoul Station and the Hoehyeon / Myeong-dong area. If you are quick witted, you already detected it. The place emptied in Lost in the Moonlight is the main stage for Seoul Station. So, in order to complete the map of Seoul in which the four main gates are centered, Lost in the Moonlight and Seoul Station should be overlapped. In other words, somehow, the two films don’t allow the the route of movements to contact one another. Why?

#06 Chase Films

The route of main movements in Seoul is the escape route. Escape originally occurs when you get out of your position. In Seoul Station, Hyesun appears in the state of running away in the story. Hyesun was already away from home, and during the runaway period fled from her workplace. In this situation, the route of movement couldn’t be Bugak – Changdeok Palace – Gwanghwamun – Namsan. That route is essentially a tourist course, a landmark, and a place institutionally managed. The only route open to Hyesun is back alleys with cheap motels and the underground of Seoul Station, where the homeless stay.

Also in Lost in the Moonlight, Daram, who corresponds to the ‘mouse’ in the Chinese Zodiac of Borugak Jagyeongnu, storms off its original position and sets the events of the film into motion. This behavior collapses the flow and order of time, as well as getting it out of its original place. Hyeonjuri, the heroine, is made fun of by children when she goes forward to the center

of the stage, not satisfied with the role and position she was given in the musical. To Hyeonjuri and Daram, their designated places can be considered statuses that make them invisible. If they want recognition (and in order to be recognized), they need to get away.

Chase/escape films are the backbone of slapstick comedies and are also the basis of cartoon animated films, which inherit their nature. The causes and consequences of the escape are not so important. The core of escape films lies in a kind of chaotic vector value, snowballing through a series of domino effects in haphazard situations. Why the zombies appear and what Mrs. Maehwa wants are secondary. The key is how vigorously they scamper on the route on the map.

#07 Set

In escape films, space is the orbit of the route of movements, and the buildings and landscape which occupy the space are like a kind of background set. Like in Seoul Station and Lost in the Moonlight, if the space in a film stays true to the real world, the viewers who know the place well are provided with a basis by which they can infer the amount of travel, speed, and duration, to some degree. On the other hand, to viewers who don’t know the geog- raphy (of Seoul) well, the appearance of certain buildings and areas doesn’t hold the coordinate specificity. However, if the landscape as a background is attractive or impressive enough, the film could serve as a kind of city tour image. This is the reason why many (global) metropolises invite filming, gladly providing convenience and incentives for the production of large-scale films.

The appearance of a city being destroyed is, on the one hand, a sign that shows the destructive dynamism owned by the city but also, in sharp contrast with this, a sign that shows that the city is so rigid that it has lost its dynamism. Whether it is an excess of dynamism or a lack of dynamism, the destroyed city appearing as a cinematic spectacle gives the audience the catharsis to come and go between order and chaos. At this moment, the local audiences who are familiar with the geographical landscape watch the (destroyed) scene with the same eyes as an overseas tourist. If it is an escape film, the pleasure of speed is a bonus.

서울역 Seoul Station (2016)


#08 Genre: Zombies and Romantic Fantasy

As mentioned earlier, animation is often regarded as a medium that ‘injects spirit into lifeless objects.’ Apart from mythical/metaphorical rhetoric such as spirit, breath, and the steam of breath, the definition that animation puts objects in motion can’t be wholly followed. As seen in production techniques such as pixilation, rotoscoping, and motion capture, living creatures can meet animation. In order for an organism to transform itself to animation, it has to take a step. It has to get rid of its own life and make itself an object (or act like an object). When an organism, which is now an object, meets the format of animation, things get quite bizarre. A scene where a human mimics an (animated) object is just as uncanny as a scene where an object imitates a human.

The movement of a body without a soul is that of a zombie. The two characters appearing in Norman McLaren’s film Neighbours (1952), which was the starting point of pixilation, fight hand to hand and bit by bit  eventually come to resemble the appearance and movement of zombies.

In contrast to Seoul Station, which puts zombies up in the forefront, the Borugak Jagyeongnu, which is the motif and starting point of Lost in the Moonlight, operates similar to the mechanism of an automaton, called ‘automata.’ (Western automata were basically made applying clockwork, and many of the automaton craftsmen were watchmakers). Daram refuses to function as a part of the automata and runs away to find a life for itself. The behavior follows the fantasy of the Romantic era. Once the settings of zombies and fantasy are presented, the two films only have to advance according to the conventions of the genres to which they belong. In the case of appreciation and evaluation, it should be considered how much each film is faithful to the genre, or whether it attempts a variation of the genre.

#09 Uncanny and Home

The uncanniness that zombies and ghosts (it is not so different even if they are purified as ‘spirits’) arouse is incorporated into each genre and functions specifically. However, while Seoul Station and Lost in the Moonlight abide by their respective genres, they have a common denominator. It is ‘home.’ The story in Seoul Station proceeds along with people who don’t have homes, such as runaways, people who left their hometowns, the homeless, and so on. In reality, Seoul Station has two natures: normally it is a place used by people going to their destinations (homes), but when its doors are closed, it is a place where the homeless stay. Seoul Station selects the latter. A home for the homeless.

Then, how about Lost in the Moonlight ? This film makes its story through
the physical objects that make up Changdeok Palace, including Borugak Jagyeongnu. Instead of the events which happened in Changdeok Palace and the related people, the buildings and objects awake and move. Changdeok Palace makes way for the objects, stepping back to into the background just as a set. The characteristics of the palace as a home or dwelling place disappear. One might ask, “If it were not for Borugak Jagyongnu in Changdeok Palace, would Lost in the Moonlight have dared to select Changdeok Palace?” Though the scene depicting Mrs. Maehwa obsessed by the garden in Changdeok Palace is evoked at the end of the film, we still don’t know much about her. Running recklessly is up to the zombies.

Home is also the starting point of Freud’s tracing of the concept of uncanniness. The English word ‘uncanny’ corresponds to the German word ‘unheimlich.’The word ‘Heimlich,’ derived from ‘heim,’ which means ‘home,’ has meanings of ‘a part of a house,’ ‘familiar,’ ‘domestic,’ and ‘friendly and private.’ Its negative form ‘unheimlich,’ ‘uncanny’ in English, is linked to the state of being away from home.

#10 Epilogue: What about Spirited Away ?

Zombies live in the streets and ghosts live in the houses. It is at a model home that the Hyesun couple while running away from zombies met Seokkyu, the pimp (who pretends to be her father). Though a model home, also called a ‘show home,’ presents an appearance of the most ideal home, ultimately it is only a set imitating a real home. A model home functions when no one lives there. At the moment when people enter it to live, the model home becomes a mirage.

Lost in the Moonlight has similarities with Spirited Away, enough for the production crew to complain of plagiarism (of course, this writing is not intended to make judgement on that point of controversy). However, strangely enough, Spirited Away has the phase value which fills exquisitely the gap between Lost in the Moonlight and Seoul Station. The ghosts and spirits in Spirited Away are revengeful spirits who can’t leave their home. One of the reasons everyone talks about this film is that it is not a simple fantasy, but has relationships with reality. The ghosts are being held by the house, rather than the house being possessed by the ghosts, and the house is the product of the development of a new town and a property bubble. So, although Spirited Away is seemingly connected to Lost in the Moonlight, it could rather be more closely linked to Seoul Station in its attitude toward the concept of ‘home.’

#11 Additional Epilogue: The Enemy of Fantasy is Reality?

How does the text of a work meet context? The factors of reality in genre films flow through the conventions of the genre. And they crawlingly infiltrate reality. However, sometimes the context of reality overwhelms genres. For example, the Theater of the Absurd appeared as satire to mock the world, but it didn’t last long. Because the world was more absurd than the drama of the Theater of the Absurd. Initially, Lost in the Moonlight was a film made far from reality compared with Seoul Station, but regardless of any intention, at the moment that I am writing this sentence Lost in the Moonlight is much nearer to reality than Seoul Station. If Lost in the Moonlight has been ignored or avoided being appreciated for several reasons, at least in the mood of early November 2016, this film will approach audiences pretty enjoyably.

Let me quote a passage from “Let’s change our clothes (makeover song)”, a song from the original sound track. “We are seven friends in the little lady’s room / clo-thes, clo-thes, Let’s change clothes / We’ll make you pretty clothes / beautiful clothes like an angel’s …” (Ah, of course these lyrics sing the beauty of Hanbok, Korean traditional clothes!)