Billed as coming from the same studio (Next Entertainment World) as the breakout 2016 zombie thriller Train to Busan, Kim Sunghoon’s Rampant has a fine pedigree and a promising premise: what if zombies, but in medieval Korea? Set in what appears to be the 17th or 18th Century, a complex conspiracy works to both topple the sitting Joseon King (and his son the Crown Prince) while also introducing a horde of zombies among the dissatisfied and rebellious populace (rebellious because they resent the neighboring Chinese Qing dynasty’s suzerainty over Korea). This sets the stage for lots of fun fights between mindless armies of bloodthirsty undead and warrior heroes armed with arrows and big swords.
Alas, apparently that wasn’t enough for Kim and his writers, because they’ve decided to pack their zombie movie with lengthy scenes of palace intrigue, discourses on the requirements of filial and fraternal piety, and the true source of governmental legitimacy (the sovereign or the people). Where the fights scenes are fluid and exciting (these zombies are of the fast-moving variety, though they are vampirically afraid of sunlight), the court drama plays out like one of those palace rivalry soap operas that seem to be ubiquitous nowadays in Chinese television (if not Korean). Rather then the increasing tension of the set-piece upon set-piece constriction of Train to Busan, which spends only a few quiet moments fleshing out its characters and hints at broader themes in-between the fights, Rampant spends the first 90 minutes or so of its two hour(!) run-time acquainting us with the various rivalries at court, with only occasional breaks for zombie mayhem.
That would, of course, be fine if the palace intrigue stuff was the least bit interesting. But it’s rote genre stuff played like serious drama (there’s a hint of an idea about the zombies coming from European traders, and so being a metaphor for Western influence on the country, but it doesn’t go anywhere and more time is spent bemoaning China’s relation to the country instead). It’s basically Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, but without the humor. Zhang Yimou’s upcoming Shadow has a similar problem: it desperately wants to be a silly action movie, but it plays its non-fight scenes so straight they simply come off as overwrought, repetitive and dull. But, as with Shadow, the final half hour or so of Rampant, once all the masks are dropped and there’s nothing left to do but kill the unkillable, is a lot of fun. Director Kim stages his fights well, with a hint of CGI wuxia wirefu amid the beige and grey, while lead actors Hyun Bin and Jang Donggun are solid: Hyun as the happy-go-lucky second son of the King turned People’s Hero and Jang especially as the power-hungry villain. And for Hong Sangsoo fans there’s even a special treat: the King is played by Kim Euisung, star of Hong’s first film and featured actor in many of his later ones (and also Train to Busan), and the Crown Prince is played by Kim Taewoo, star of Woman is the Future of Man, Like You Know it All and Woman on the Beach.