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The South Korean industry proved it could do the zombie apocalypse as well if not better than everybody else in 2016 with Train to Busan, and so in an attempt to duplicate that film’s massive success the producers of Rampant have doubled down on the visuals by relocating a zombie outbreak to dynastic Asia. Cue the courtly ladies and imperial armies frothing at the mouth and twitching across the peasant landscape in search of brains. Directed by Kim Sung-hoon, who reunites with his quickly emerging heartthrob leading man from last year’s Confidential Assignment, Hyun Bin, Rampant would appear to have all the parts necessary for a serviceable creature thriller, particularly over Halloween weekend. But where Train to Busan had a clever premise, a laser-focused narrative and rare emotional stakes, Rampant is a little all over the map, with its biggest flaw securely rooted in its inability to maintain consistency in its mythology — an unforgivable genre crime.
Rampant dominated its weekend when it opened in South Korea, but didn’t come close to posting the numbers that Venom or the homegrown Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days did earlier in the year. Nonetheless, the film’s stellar production values and a pair of idol types — one past, one current — headlining should carry it to moderate success in the region. The temptation of another creative Korean zombie thriller could generate interest in overseas markets where Train found cult audiences.
It is the Joseon era in Korea, and the current king (Kim Eui-sang, the weaselly businessman in Train to Busan) is kowtowing mightily to the Qing emperor next door (how much that says about current geopolitics is open to interpretation), which doesn’t sit well with the crown prince (Kim Tae-woo). The prince leads a cabal of rebels trying to usurp the king and restore Korea for Koreans, one of whom meets with a Dutch trader in order to secure arms. On the ship, he sees a poor possessed soul in a cage, all red eyes, and snarling and demanding raw meat. Curious. At the same time, power-mad war minister Kim Ja-joon (Jang Dong-gun) is inciting bureaucratic rebellion in order to seize the throne for himself. While this all goes on in the capital, nocturnal “demons” are running, ahem, rampant in the countryside, leaving the small port village of Jemulpo as the last stop between them and the capital.
Into this fray walks the younger Prince Ganglim (Hyun), returning from a stretch in the Qing empire (why he was there is unclear). Despite encountering the demons — or ghosts or zombies — in Jemulpo, the vain, self-centered Ganglim is determined to fulfill his brother’s wishes, get back to the palace and get his pregnant sister-in-law (Han Ji-eun) out of Dodge. But the combination of the monsters, the refusal of the princess to abandon the kingdom, honorable rebel leader Park Eul-ryong’s (Jo Woo-jin, Real) dedication to restoring the realm and defeating the demons, and his own quest to exact revenge from Minister Kim, compels Ganglim to stay and fight the good fight.
The idea of wedging monsters into alternative periods isn’t original (think Charlie Huston’s vampire noir detective Joe Pitt book series), but it always has the potential to be subversive or visually arresting. However, after its long-winded setup, Rampant settles into a familiar zombie pattern without bringing anything new of note to the table, except for a few jabs about Korea’s loss of sovereignty and how the king serves the people, not the other way around . Brightly colored han-bok-wearing zombies streaming across the landscape and a grandiose all-hands-on-deck finale make for a pair of engaging enough set pieces, but otherwise this is rote stuff with barely a whiff of the emotional heft that sets Train apart.
Which could have been made more tolerable had the cast seemed more invested. Hyun is the picture of movie stardom, all perfect teeth and dimples, but not even his undeniably photogenic charms can make Ganglim more than an archetype of the privileged man-child that has a rude real-world awakening. Jang appears to be leaning into his elder statesman status by making Kim as conniving and irredeemable as possible, and for the most part it looks good on him. If only he had more to work with. Writer Hwang Jo-yun demonstrates little of the polished detail he brought to Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy: Are the demons zombies or vampires considering how they burn up in the sun? Do they require beheading to defeat or is a slash across the torso enough, especially if it’s in the context of a showy swordfight with Ganglim? Is the transformation slowed if you cut your hand off or not? These are questions zombie fans want answered. The less said about the always-welcome Jeong Man-sik’s (Miracle in Cell No.7) footman Hak-su the better. If his effeminate, fussy worrywart was supposed to be funny, it falls flat.
Yoo Daewon’s effects, Kim Taekang’s action choreography and the rest of the technical work is beyond reproach, and it props up director Kim’s more pedestrian tendencies, though editor Kim Sang-bum could have flexed more muscle and trimmed some of the film’s considerable fat.
Production company: Leeyang Film, Rear Window Productions
Cast: Hyun Bin, Jang Dong-gun, Jo Woo-jin, Jeong Man-sik, Lee Seon-bin, Kim Eui-sang, Cho Dal-hwan, Park Jin-woo, Seo Ji-hye, Han Ji-eun, Gong Jung-hwan, Kim Tae-woo
Director: Kim Sung-hoon
Screenwriter: Hwang Jo-yun
Producer: Kim Nam-su, Yoon Seok-dong
Executive producer: Kim Woo-taek
Director of photography: Lee Sung-je
Production designer: Chae Kyoung-sun
Costume designer: Cho Sang-kyung
Editor: Kim Sang-bum
Music: Park Inyoung
World sales: Contents Panda
No rating, 122 minutes
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