Chang-gwol (original title)
Director: Sung-hoon Kim
Writers: Jo-yun Hwang, Shin-yeon Won, Hwang Jo Yoon
Starring Hyun Bin, Jang Dong-gun, Kim Eui-sung, Jeong Man-sik, Jo Woo-jin, Lee Sun-bin, Kim Tae-woo
“From the studio that brought you Train to Busan,” trumpets the tag-line for this one. The studio? Do people really fall for that? That’s like being convinced to pop into to 7-Eleven for a bag o’ Funyuns because you really enjoyed the Twinkies they once sold you.
Besides, inviting comparison to Train to Busan is really doing Rampant a disservice. The former is, in my humble opinion, a modern horror masterpiece, setting a bar in the zombie sub-genre that the latter has no hope of reaching. But Rampant is still a pretty damn good film in its own right.
The film is a creative mash-up of action, historical epic and bloody horror. Taking place during the era of Korean dynasties, Joseon is ruled by tyrannical King Lee Jo (Kim Eui-sung), whose more compassionate son, Prince Lee Young (Kim Tae-woo), attempts to overthrow him. Young commits suicide, but not before sending a message to his exiled brother, Lee Chung (Hyun Bin), requesting him to return to Joseon and escort his pregnant wife to the safety of Qing, a Chinese empire. Meanwhile, treacherous military minister Kim Ja-joon (Jang Dong-gun) is secretly plotting to overthrow the king with the help of trusted underlings and…legions of zombies.
The undead are referred to as Night Demons, which have been plaguing surrounding villages, coming out at night to attack hapless peasants. They are mostly the stuff of rumours in Joseon and Lee Chung doesn’t believe the stories either until he’s attacked on his journey home. But Kim knows better and keeps one in a cellar with plans to wipe everyone out – starting with King Jo – and building his own dynasty.
Actually, Rampant does share a few qualities with Train to Busan that draw favourable comparison. First, the story takes time establishing its main characters (though some might say too much time). Lee Chung’s transformation from arrogant prince to heroic zombie slayer is engaging. While his comic-relief sidekick, Hak-soo (Jeong Man-sik), isn’t particularly funny, his sheer likability sets-up one of the story’s most poignant moments. Kim Ja-joon may not be the most complex villain to ever grace the screen, but he’s suitably hateful & menacing. Like the best films of the genre, Rampant’s real monsters aren’t the zombies.
However, the story takes a while to get moving. It’s almost relentlessly talky during the entire first act and little of the political intrigue is interesting enough to justify the amount of time we spend listening to it. But once it gets down to the business of zombie slaying, Rampant is a bloody good time. The undead siege on Joseon is loaded with close-quarters action, great swordplay and tension-filled moments (the prison escape sequence is particularly noteworthy). My only nagging question is this: After being bitten, why does one major character’s faculties remain intact while everyone else turns into mindless, white-eyed ghouls? I dunno…maybe I missed something.
Despite being a bit overlong, with some pacing issues and questionable plot developments, Rampant is ultimately a big, fun spin on the genre, with an intriguing setting and great production values. It’s no Train to Busan, but you shouldn’t hold that against it.