Continuing on my way working through SBS’ offerings while the Korean Film Festival problems remain unresolved, film number five brings together wuxia action with zombies in the pseudo-historical Rampant [Changgwol] (2018).
Nine years after China’s Manchu Qing dynasty brought Korea’s Joseon kingdom under their control, Crown Prince Lee Young’s (Kim Tae-woo) plans to purchase firearms from Dutch (or possibly German) gunrunners and rebel against the Qing are uncovered by Minister Kim Ja-joon (Jang Dong-gun) and revealed to King Lee Jo (Kim Eui-sung). The Crown Prince commits suicide and Minister Kim raids the gunrunners’ ship, which just happens to include a locked-up crewmember infected by a zombie plague. Younger brother Prince Lee Young (or Prince Ganglim according to the subtitles) (Hyun-bin aka Kim Tae-pyung), who has largely been raised in the Qing court, returns to his home to fulfill his older brother’s last request by removing his pregnant wife Kyungbin (Han Ji-eun) from the precarious politics of the court and taking her to sanctuary with the Qing. He and his servant Hak-soo (Jeong Man-sik) land at a strangely quiet village where they are intercepted by Kim’s assassins, but the attempt on his life is interrupted by a zombie attack – he escapes with the assistance of a band of survivors led by his brother’s co-conspirators, while the surviving (bitten) assassin returns to the capital to report. The Prince is persuaded to request military assistance from the court while extracting Kyungbin from house arrest, but Minister Kim’s plans to use the zombies to usurp the throne are about to come to fruition.
Set in 1645, Hwang Jo-yoon’s script feels free to take liberties with the details of established history, but also takes inspiration from that history as the basis for bringing in a plague of zombies. Although there is no evidence that Crown Prince Sohyeon conspired against the Qing, he is known to have clashed with his father King Injo over attempts to bring Catholicism and western science to Korea, and was found dead in his father’s room soon after his return to the court. Although the generally accepted explanation for his death is that he was hit over the head with an ink slab, some historians have speculated that he was poisoned, citing as evidence the appearance of black spots on his body and a rapidly decomposing corpse which was buried with undue haste. When compared to the zombies of the film, which display a black discolouration along the veins as the infection takes hold, the path of inspiration for the story is clear. From this point, history takes a drastically different turn from the film – in real life, the King didn’t die for another four years, the Crown Princess was executed, and the course of succession took a rather different route.
I’m going to detour a moment for a sidebar on western conceptualisations of Asian history. I saw more than one description of this movie as being set in “ancient South Korea”, and have seen many Hong Kong movies with a similar period setting described as “ancient China”. Consider that Shakespeare died almost 30 years before this film was set – do we ever describe the Elizabethan era as “ancient England” or “ancient Europe”? The period covered by most conceptions of “ancient history” ends by 600AD, so to characterise 17th century Asia as “ancient” suggests that it is in some way less developed than contemporary Europe. I assume that this sort of misconception stems more from a poor understanding of Asian history among westerners in general, but the description immediately struck me as wrong and I am by no means an expert – I’ve read only one relevant book (China: A History by John Keay), with everything else I’ve picked up coming from Asian movies, a couple of Jin Yong novels, and cross-referencing of Wikipedia articles. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a little more precision.
And now, back to the fiction. The zombies here are of that more common modern breed whose speed of movement isn’t at all impaired by their status as corpses, although they aren’t quite as resilient as some zombies – decapitation or a sword to the heart will stop them, burning the bodies will destroy them, and their skin begins to smoulder in the daylight (although we never see whether continued exposure would cause them to ignite). Their bites are infectious, as is traditional, and they’re attracted to noise.
Although the film was marketed as “from the creators of Train to Busan”, what this hype actually means is that both movies were financed and distributed by Next Entertainment World – there’s no creative overlap at all between the two films, other than both being zombie movies which have a couple of actors in common. Director Kim Sung-hoon does a decent job, with the climactic zombie pile-on in the palace throne room being a particular highlight, but his work here just isn’t in the same league as Yeon Sang-ho’s more imaginative approach to Train to Busan (2016) (previously reviewed here). I was surprised to learn that screenwriter Hwang Jo-Yoon had previously co-written Park Chan-wook’s amazing Oldboy (2003) – although I appreciated the creative reinterpretation of history, the story of court intrigue here is fairly standard. Perhaps it had to be straightforward to allow room for the zombie elements, which taken in combination with the political manoeuvring do make the story much more interesting, but the writing is not at all on the same level as Oldboy. The narrative arc is fairly conventional – wastrel younger prince with no interest in power comes to a reluctant and then willing acceptance of his responsibilities to his people – and the romantic subplot is very thinly sketched, but it does provide sufficient framework to support the pleasures to be gained from the swordplay and zombie action. If given the choice between watching this movie and the more conventional historical action movie The Great Battle (2018) (reviewed here), I’d pick Rampant any day.