Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Rampant (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Prince Lee Chung (Hyun Bin), after hearing that his brother had taken his own life, has to return home but it is certainly not as he left. The region has become infested with Night Demons, causing the dead to rise again and swarm the living. Unless he and a group of resistance fighters can stop them, the entire nation will be theirs.

For better or for worse, I always make it a point to highlight the actors in whatever film I cover. However, that task proves quite difficult this time around. Not strictly because it’s a foreign film that speaks both Korean and Mandarin, and I have a hard enough time understanding plain friggin’ English, but mainly because nothing here stands out. Or, more specifically, nothing here is given a chance to stand out. When making a zombie action flick, creating characters that are worth investing in and caring about their success against the undead horde is a major component of the experience. If the main draw of the film is a mass of nameless figures, it helps to flesh out the ones who have actual identities to them.

Nothing of the sort is really found here, save for our main hero and our main villain. Hyun Bin as the young and crass prince works well enough as a central, galvanising force for the people fighting against the demons, but only because he’s the only one in the group with enough resolve to take that position. Everyone else in the supporting cast ends up relying on him to get things done, and even when others try and take the spotlight, it doesn’t last for long. On the other side, there’s Jang Dong-gun as the Minister of War, who mainly sticks to stone-faced malice to get the menace of his character across. While he does nicely enough as the conniving minister who is responsible for all the carnage we see (no spoilers on that, the film really is that obvious), it’s still too low-key to make for the kind of antagonist this story needed.

I’ve talked before about my love for dumb zombie movies; hell, my favourite movie ever fits that description to a T. I’ll admit that I’m not too familiar with zombie films outside of the West, and considering a lot of cultures have their own versions of undead horrors, that tends to seep through in non-American offerings. So what brand of zombies are we dealing with here? Well, for a start, they’re fast zombies. Not speeding-bullet fast, but they’re rarely shown stumbling around, especially during the flashier moments. For another, they’re described as ‘night demons’, and any attempt to link that to Korean mythology only leads right to this very film. And for a third, they are described as having a thirst for blood and burn in direct sunlight, while largely functioning as zombies in every other respect: Non-sentient and ravenously hungry. This is the same pseudo-hybridisation I’ve seen in some of the lower-budget zombie flicks  out there like Against The Dark with Steven Seagal, even down to the talking since the switch between living and undead is conveniently different for whoever gets bitten. All this equals a rather generic version of the living dead, and while it helps that they’re largely played by real actors lest we get the CGI tidal wave of World War Z all over again, it’s all a bit plain.

Of course, if you watch enough zombie movies, you pick up on how zombies are never just zombies. From the capitalist commentary of George Romero’s canon to the well-intended apocalypse of 28 Days Later, even the pop music ribbing of Scouts’ Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse, they usually end up being commentary for something in the culture that created it. Here, while it doesn’t appear to be tapping into any specific local demonology, it still seems to be taking inspiration from the local culture. With South Korean having quite a bit of Buddhist influence, like in Joseon where the film takes place, there are some moments where the idea of reincarnation gets brought up. And weirdly, it isn’t in direct relation to the zombies. Rather, it gets brought up with people who are about to turn, get killed, and then someone prays that they don’t get reincarnated in this world, the one that is under threat by the rotting masses. It hints at some potentially interesting ideas, but it doesn’t really get explored much. I mean, just making that connection between figurative rebirth as a zombie and metaphysical rebirth as per Buddhist philosophy would’ve given this something meatier for me to work with, but it ultimately ends up just trying to add to characters who don’t really have much to them in the first place.

In lieu of continuing to beat this dead horse concerning the lack of characterisation here, there is always the other main draw for zombie action flicks: The action. Much like with the cultural fascination with disaster movies, there’s something a bit perverse about the entertainment value of zombie movies. It basically boils down to how gory and flashy a filmmaker can get in killing off the zombies, usually with some combination of fire and decapitation, but because they aren’t technically human anymore, there’s no inherent guilt in seeing them die… again. This is likely the reason why there aren’t a lot of films that show society after the zombie apocalypse has ended; I don’t think there’s a storyteller alive who could properly capture how awkward that situation would be, having killed so many zombies who were once people you knew. Doubly so if some kind of cure for the condition is involved.

Man, that was a tangent, but getting back to the point, this film’s action cred in dispatching zombies is… kind of average. There’s a lot of sword-fighting going on, and again the practicality of the zombies gives those fights more staying power, but it feels like yet another instance of not taking full advantage of what’s on offer. The fight scenes themselves are more utilitarian than anything all that high-flash, sticking mainly to single strikes against singular zombies, repeated into the ether until the next scene rolls around. Even the finale, which features the prince and the minister sword-fighting amidst a slew of zombies, only just goes above the baseline. It’s not all that impressive on its own, and yet it isn’t outright incompetent so it has at least some value to it. Kind of a neat summary of this whole film, come to think of it.

All in all, this is just a meh offering. The acting isn’t so much under par as much as the characters they’re portraying are unfortunately underdeveloped, and even the ones who have the most grounding as actual characters aren’t that fleshed out, the visuals are good but still feel restrained, as if the clash between setting and genre wasn’t used to its full potential, and the action is rather bland against a rather generic brand of the running dead. There’s also the 2-hour running time on top of that, meaning that this can’t even skate by as just a mild distraction; it’s a little too tedious for that.

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