Rampant (Kim Sunghoon, 2018)

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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.

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Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Paul WS Anderson, 2016)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
                               —William Butler Yeats “The Second Coming”

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The long-awaited sixth film in Paul WS Anderson’s survival horror saga has finally arrived, and it’s everything his believers could have hoped for. When the last film in the series came out, Anderson attracted a lot of attention in certain quarters as a symbol of so-called “Vulgar Auteurism” sparked by comparison of Resident Evil: Retribution with The Other Paul Anderson’s The Master, released the same week in September of 2012. The White Elephant/Termite art comparisons were irresistible to the wags of film twitter, and thus a movement was born, or at least a trend piece. The next six months or so were abuzz with discussions pro- and contra- Auteurism such as the film world hasn’t seen since the heady days of the Paulettes and the Sarrisites, a veritable Algonquin Roundtable of blog posts and tweet threads. Not above drifting with the winds myself, and binging on contemporary action cinema in a desperate attempt to keep conscious while caring for a newborn, I wrote a multipart essay on the Resident Evil films, Anderson and Auteurism in general, using the director and his films as raw material for an application of the critical method as Andrew Sarris initially described it back in the 1960s. I concluded that Anderson hadn’t quite reached the highest echelons of Sarris’s scheme, because he hadn’t yet established the kind of tension between himself and his material that marks the nebulous “interior meaning” that is the hallmark of personal filmmaking. I therefore placed him in the “Lightly Likable” category and wrote:

Anderson’s films can more rightly be described as competent treading of well-worn terrain. His last few movies, however, show potential, and so I’m unwilling to write Anderson off as an impersonal filmmaker. Perhaps he has it in him to perform the auteurial jujitsu necessary to turn the generic qualities of his movies into virtues, into a truly compelling and original statement about the world and/or the cinema itself, merging the blankness and fungibility of his characters with the schematic structures of their worlds and the interchangeability of their dialogue to say something truly meaningful. But I don’t think he’s made that complete a filmic statement yet.

Well, it’s four years later, and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is that statement.

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