In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
DVD REVIEW – SEOUL STATION – ****
Directed by Yeon Sang-ho. South Korea 2016 92 mins Certificate: 15
Released on DVD and Blu-Ray from Studio Canal on 3rd April 2017 (Digital Download from 27th March 2017)
Released a month after TRAIN TO BUSAN in its native South Korea, SEOUL STATION is a vivid reminder of the animation skills of writer-director Yeon Sang-ho, whose earlier features THE KING OF PIGS and THE FAKE are equally dark and distinctive. BUSAN was his live-action feature debut: a wired, intense, emotionally involving hybrid of fashionable, frenetic zombie pandemic cinema and old-school disaster movie that warranted its high placing on so many genre best-of lists for 2016. SEOUL STATION is the animated prequel, unfolding a day prior to the events in BUSAN and serving as both a faithful companion piece and a stirring genre work in its own right.
It opens at the eponymous location, with an elderly man staggering around the station and, before collapsing, biting / infecting a nearby homeless man. This triggers the epidemic that is already in force at the outset of BUSAN, and what subsequently unfolds is a smaller-scale variant on its successor’s ensemble crisis, as the unfortunate transient’s life intersects with others. A disparate group of people are brought together in a time of escalating threat, notably a young couple so financially desperate that the guy has begun pimping out his girl. Caught up in the early stages of the mounting panic, the young woman, Hae-sun, is at great risk while her father and boyfriend attempt to find her.
“The homeless are on the rampage…” is a key line emphasising the underlying themes of this movie, which conveys a sense of a city on the brink of social and economic collapse even before the zombie explosion gets underway. We become aware of a faltering system, a homeless problem with no solution, an unresolvable national debt issue, and class conflicts frequently resulting in discrimination and violence. As the virus spreads, the movie – like its more famous cinematic brother – also offers a succession of suspenseful, brilliantly edited near-escapes and confrontations (in an apartment block, a police precinct, etc.), here captured via a striking, realistic animation style that befits the subject matter.
Although these sequences compel and thrill in ways that far more lavish Hollywood counterparts so often singularly fail, the movie is less action-based than TRAIN TO BUSAN, and far more sombre. Sang-ho lingers, to an unusually protracted degree, on scenes of characters overtly and loudly sobbing, adding to a sustained sense of despair that shows no sign of waning. People lament “It’s all going to shit” while the authorities’ actions – in the form of the ominously titled “Capital Defence Command” prove as sinister as the threat itself. There is a Romero-inspired sense of disdain for the “System” before and during the catastrophic events to which we bear witness.
The quietly devastating, downbeat final scene reinforces the tonal comparisons to Romero’s work in the sub-genre, and some of the stronger recent entries (including the best of the [REC] series), and overall SEOUL STATION offers a more nihilistic and brutal vibe than BUSAN’s breathtaking thrill ride. Yet, it still manages to convincingly unfold in the same universe and the two features together highlight that Sang-ho is a filmmaker to be reckoned with, like so many of his prodigiously talented South Korean peers.