Monday, October 29, 2018

Rampant: Joseon Zombies

Zombies have gone global. There are examples of the shuffling hordes in films from dozens of countries, but none has had the ravenous impact of Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan. It might just be the best zombie movie since the original Night of the Living Dead, but his film is not radically dissimilar to Romero’s world or that of the Walking Dead. However, Kim Sang-hoon puts a distinctly Korean-spin on the genre, by turning fleshing eating zombies loose in a Joseon-era tale of courtly intrigue. The kingdom faces foreign, domestic, and undead peril in Kim’s Rampant (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Technically, Prince Ganglim has been a hostage of the Qing emperor, but the wastrel playboy loved every minute of it. Much to his regret, he has returned to Joseon to protect the late crown prince’s wife and unborn son. Alas, the heir apparent martyred himself in front of the oppressive King Lee Jo (their father) to protect his rebellious followers. Logically, Ganglim must now be the crown prince, but nobody is happy about that prospect—least of all him.

Naturally, Prince Ganglim is rather put out when he is not met by a welcoming party that befits his stature. He is even more annoyed when a gang of assassins arranges a tardy reception. Arguably, the zombie attack is somewhat fortuitous, even though Ganglim probably could have handled them on his own. He might be a profligate hedonist, but the prince is also a skilled warrior. Regardless, the incident forces the Prince to get real, acknowledge the rampaging “demons,” and forge a reluctant alliance with the local rebel underground, including the attractive but contemptuous Deok-hee and the badass Buddhist Monk Daegil. Frustratingly, the king and his treasonous ministers are difficult to convince. Mostly, they prefer to keep their heads buried in the sand, but Minister of War Kim Ja-joon fully understands the demon apocalypse, which he intends to exploit for his own political gain, sort of like FDR deliberately allowing the Japanese sneak attack on Pearly Harbor—allegedly.

Hardcore zombie fans should understand there is not a lot of undead action in the first half of the film, but in this case that is a good thing, because it means Kim and screenwriter Hwang Jo-yoon invest the time to fully establish the political intrigue and royal family dysfunction. The Joseon court is not merely a colorful backdrop. The conspiratorial skullduggery and the zombie uprising are thoroughly intertwined, which is a major reason why Rampant is so satisfyingly cool.

Hyun Bin cuts the right figure for Prince Ganglim. There is no question he has the leading man look and the action chops, but he nicely brings out the Prince’s humanity over time. Jeong Man-sik shows a hitherto unseen shtickiness as Ganglim’s man-servant Hak-su, but he still manages to redeem himself at crunch time. In contrast, Jang Dong-gun is cold, clammy, and ruthless as Kim Ja-joon, but he never seems to enjoy being evil.

When the zombies attack in earnest, Kim Sang-hoon goes big, creating huge, inspired centerpiece sequences that combine zombie horror with martial arts sword play. This is movie magic at its finest. Yet, the awakening of the Prince’s sense of responsibility and idealism is also pretty stirring stuff. Comparisons with Yeon Sang-ho’s smash hit will be inevitable (especially since the publicity materials herald it as the new zombie film from the production company that brought you Busan), but Rampant really is its own film. Highly recommended for fans of zombie movies and action-historicals, Rampant opens this Friday (11/2) in New York, at the AMC Empire.