Monday 29 January 2024

Badland Hunters | review by Stephen Theaker

Although not a direct sequel, this South Korean film is set in the world of Concrete Utopia, which doesn't seem to have had a UK release. Based on a comic called Pleasant Bullying by Kim Soong-nyung, the previous film apparently showed the aftermath of an earthquake striking Seoul so hard that all the skyscrapers collapsed. People tried their best to survive in a devastated urban environment, to build some kind of order among the chaos, but things went awry: a Sight and Sound review described it as "a Ballardian story set in a post-apocalyptic apartment complex".

I doubt many reviewers will use "Ballardian" to describe Netflix's Badland Hunters, which is a self-consciously pulpy and over-the-top affair. A prologue shows us that, when the earthquake hit, mad scientist Yang Gi-Su was trying to resurrect his daughter. Three years later, by which time a drought has added to everyone's problems, he is still mad-sciencing away, and with the help of soldiers has taken over an apartment block that still stands. With his new experiments, Yang Gi-Su aims to create humans who can survive the extended periods of dehydration and malnutrition that are practically inevitable in this dry new world.

Our hero is Nam-Sam (played by Ma Dong-seok, aka Don Lee), an ex-boxer with a rock-hard punch and lots of blood on his hands. He and his young friend Ji-wan hunt alligators and sell the meat at a market. During the earthquake, he saved a girl, Su-Na, and now, when she catches the eye of slave traders, he gives them a good beating. Soon after, rather coincidentally, a bunch of sharp-suited folks offer Su-Na and her grandma a place in their community, where they have plenty of water and are trying to keep children safe for the sake of the future. What they don't mention is that they are working for Yang Gi-Su, the mad scientist...

This wasn't quite the rip-roaring action film I expected from the trailer. The fight scenes are decent, and Nam-Sam gets plenty of men and monsters to wallop with his hard punch. I liked the athletic fighting style of Sergeant Lee, a female ally, and would have enjoyed more of that. But despite a frisky camera, or perhaps because of it not showing us things properly, the action doesn't really sing, and it doesn't escalate. It feels like we are building to a monstrous transformation of some kind for the mad scientist, and when that doesn't happen the film deflates a little. It felt like the budget ran short at the end.

More positively, Badland Hunters works absolutely fine as a standalone film. I don't think any actors return from Concrete Utopia, and the prologue shows the actual earthquake happening, which is more set-up than we got in the Mad Max films. A handful of humorous moments work well. The performances are good, and the villains are properly villainous. I suppose it's a decent enough three-star film, and I'm just disappointed because I convinced myself that the trailer promised much more. Stephen Theaker ***

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