Ma Dong-seok does it again in Netflix’s Badland Hunters. Like most of his notable roles post-Train to Busan (2016), he plays a haymaking Byronic hero with a pained past, this time around as the star of the very loose sequel to last year’s Concrete Utopia. The post-apocalyptic landscape following the nation-state destroying earthquake of the first film, supplemented with the undead and rogue alligators, lends itself to a character like Ma’s Nam-san. After all, the star persona the actor has built is essentially that of, well, a badass hunter of the badlands.
Like the genre flip between Army of the Dead and Army of Thieves, also courtesy Netflix, this second film has little to do with the first. The former at least share characters; the only carryover from Um Tae-hwa’s Concrete Utopia is the apartment complex that survived “the end of the world,” as the characters observe in Badland Hunters. Three years later, a few communities have gathered in vieux jeu slums and survive off the scraps of 21st-century Seoul. Nam-san’s community lives near the former bus district, and his role is indeed very much that of a hunter in this post-modernity hunter-gatherer civilization. We’re first introduced to him when his business partner Choi Ji-wan (Lee Jun-young) braces for his death before an alligator attack. (Yep, you read that right.) The gator slides out of the frame as Nam-san pulls its tail and swings it with the ease of a child with a stick. (It’s a shame this won’t play widely in U.S. theaters because this is the kind of character introduction that would earn an eruption in a group setting.) This scene also captures a bit of what American action blockbusters have lost: the ability to will its performers to industry stardom.
A group of mostly men wearing the same sort-of-matching outfit, the kind that one doesn’t see often after the apocalypse, shows up and offers to take Choi’s crush Suna (Roh Jeong-eui) and her grandmother to their utopian apartment complex, which is supplied with clean water and armed guards. We are told there are few people remaining at her age, 18, and their survival is being prioritized for obvious reasons of species conservation. As in the first film, building life centers around a cult of personality; this time, that personality is Dr. Yang Gi-su (Lee Hee-joon), an ambitious research scientist concerned only with bringing the dead back to life and creating a future where humans require little food or water for sustenance. And as it turns out, the utopia turns out rather to be a dystopia, one where children aren’t protected but exploited for the dreams of a twisted future gerontocracy. Community cast-off and former soldier Lee Eun-ho (An Ji-hye) joins Nam-san and Ji-wan as they begin their risky and action-filled extradition of Suna from what we presume is the last-standing apartment in Seoul.
Based off Badland Hunters, Heo Myeong-haeng, a first-time director, looks to have a promising future behind the camera. He’s no stranger to action, though. Heo has worked as an actor, stunt person, and action and fight choreographer on many of the greatest films to come out of the country following the New Wave, including Train to Busan, The Roundup, Okja, I Saw The Devil, and Extreme Job. Having an experienced hand in action filmmaking, Badland Hunters‘ fights demonstrate tremendous clarity despite the close camera and energetic editing. Every punch delivered here by Ma lands with death-bringing velocity and force — it’s astonishing even according to the elite standards Ma has set with The Roundup series. If you come for the action, Heo will not disappoint.
On the other hand, Badland Hunters is never allowed to be a fully serious actioner, and this is a good reflection of the industry. Something has been lost in the way that the action film has become synonymous with the action-comedy, a global trend spurred on by the line production of global box office-topping superhero flicks. One of the film’s most emotionally dramatic moments frustratingly subverts itself with glibness, and while there’s of course nothing wrong with action-comedy, the comedy here comes across as a shoehorned afterthought to the action, which is what actually motivates Heo’s debut (and derives the best from Ma).
Kim Bo-tong and Kwak Jae-min’s screenplay also creatively toys with political images of South Korea. Choi hunts not with a gun or a sword, but with a bow and arrow. The image of the young hero as an archer here is not unlike a protagonist with a hockey stick in a Canadian film; South Korea and archery often go hand-in-hand, and it’s not the first time this has been exploited in service of patriotic reference. Bong Joon-ho uses it brilliantly in The Host (2008), where the Olympic-caliber archery of Doona Bae’s Park Nam-joo as she uses her weapon skills to help cripple a literal threat to national security. But here, the symbolism here is much more like an empty canvas that encourages a self-projection of national ideals onto the mission Choi and Nam-san undertake. It also identifies Choi as “one of us” before the more primitive weapons of the roaming gang of ex-convicts (one of whom is still wearing his handcuffs). The anxieties about the potential for the flourishing of future progeny weighed against the mortality of the current adult generation also reflects an important political issue that transcends cultural specificity; it’s basically a staple of slowing capitalist economies.
Most promisingly, the filmmakers understand the importance of art in the apocalypse. Early on, Suna gives Nam-san a drawing of him hunting in exchange for some of the meat he has secured. He values beautiful art so much that he’s willing to trade food — one of the only material goods that matter in this world — for a glimpse of it. The film returns to her drawings a few more times, and in each instance it Heo makes sure to observe the joy it brings forth. Humans are the storytelling creature; it’s what makes us unique. Amidst the collapse of our (capitalist) civilizations, art will become more valuable, not less. The isolated, almost idyllic — though obviously impoverished — community of the bus district is quickly rendered meaningless without Suna’s sketches. Only with the return of The Artist can their mini-society be rehabilitated.
DIRECTOR: Heo Myeong-haeng; CAST: Ma Dong-seok, Lee Hee-jun, Lee Jun-young, Roh Jeong-eui; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; STREAMING: January 26; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 47 min.