If it moves, shoot it; if it stops moving, punch it
dir: Heo Myung-haeng
The title of Badland Hunters is so generic, so unmemorable, that I hoped the actual literal translation of the Korean title was going to be something like “Big Guy punches the Apocalypse”, but it didn’t pan out that way. The literal translation is something like “Wilderness”, which is equally unmemorable.
You can’t always get what you want. But beyond a meaningful title, I didn’t want much. About the most I expected was that South Korean action star Ma Dong-seok would punch some people really hard.
I need not have worried. Even though the action sometimes relies on Nam-san (Ma Dong-seok) chopping some creatures or bad guys up with a scary looking machete, or shooting people with a shotgun (the promo poster for the movie has him aiming a shotgun at the audience, which gave me some pause), but rest assured the filmmakers knew exactly why the audience has come along to this flick: to watch him punch people really, really hard.
I also thought that a post-apocalyptic scenario wouldn’t lend itself immediately to punchy-punchy action. It’s usually supercharged V8 Interceptors and guys with guitars that double as flamethrowers. And, yes, most of Nam-san’s opponents are soldiers with rifles and lots of other guns, which is somewhat unusual, in my limited experience of South Korean flicks. But whenever there’s been too much gunplay, Nam-san’s opponents just seem to forget they have guns, and also politely array themselves so that Nam-san can kill them or knock them out one by one.
Very considerate of them. This flick is kind of insane, but it’s an almost reasonable level of insanity.
Three years in the past, there was a massive earthquake. Like, really bad earthquake in Seoul. It destroyed almost every building except one, which is called The Apartment. I had hoped it was a reference to the Billy Wilder classic The Apartment, which starred Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon, but I was just setting myself up for disappointment yet again.
I fully acknowledge that earthquakes can be terrible. They can kill thousands of people. At no stage is there an explanation as to why a bad earthquake ends civilisation in all of South Korea, or the rest of the world such that no-one comes to help during that entire time.
And there really should have been a reference to a catastrophic earthquake devastating North Korea and somehow also improving their quality of life in comparison to what they had before.
Just as society was about to crumble, there are scenes of some official government types trying to stop a crazy doctor called Yang Gi-su (Lee Hee-joon) from injecting his dying daughter with some green liquid that I’m sure won’t play a role in the plot ongoing. It’s staggering to me that even if it’s never made explicit, or even referred to (by anyone other than me), this unnatural act of science gone wrong sort of causes the destruction of the Korean peninsula, kills millions, and stops the rain from raining.
The proud but humble survivors scuttle through the ruins of their civilisation’s detritus like the cockroaches that they are. Animals are weird and rare. Water is even scarcer, so people either trade what little they have for barely filtered water, or use water as currency.
At such a time, the people who get shit done obviously rise to the top. Nam-san is a hunter, and kills things like crocodiles or alligators and sells them for food. He has some young impulsive dumb dude as an offsider / sidekick / person who often needs to be rescued, Ji-wan (Lee Jun-young).
Ji-wan has a crush on Su-na (Roh Jeung-eui), whose every thought, action and word is in the service of her grandma’s safety and comfort. She spends three quarters of the movie saying “where is my grandma, when is my grandma getting here, I hope grandma’s knees aren’t hurting too much”. At the very least Ji-wan and Su-na are the same age. There are few teenagers in these post-apocalyptic badlands.
Because fifteen minutes of the film elapsed, and Nam-san hasn’t punched anyone yet, a van of jerks barrels into this makeshift town, as gang jerks bully the other peasants and try to kidnap a bunch of young people for slavery purposes. It doesn’t work, because Nam-san punches all of them into unconsciousness.
Each of his punches hits with the force of a Mack truck running into a wall, or at least that’s what it sounds like. I dread that any of his actual punches ever land, because it sounds like he would make people’s heads fly clean off if he didn’t hold back a little. The gang members (eventually) scurry back to their leader, and I’m sure that’s the last we’ve seen of them.
In contrast to the impolite, dirty slaver’s gang, Su-na and her grandma, on the way back to their hovel, are lucky enough to bump into a group of people who are uniformly well dressed and well-kempt compared to the denizens of the badlands. They look suspiciously like Korean Mormons, which, I say is suspicious immediately to me, but not to Su-na. The way of course that they seduce Su-na is by promising to look after her grandma, and of course the way they trick grandma is by promising to look after Su-na.
I don’t mention the Mormon thing lightly. I often get a weird sense of certain South Korean movies saying something about Christianity as seen through Korean eyes that I think escapes audiences from outside (including my own). Park Chan-wook often makes those themes more explicit in some of his movies (like Thirst and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) where Christian themes plays a major role in the narrative, but I guess he’s not the only one.
I’m just saying, a flick in which a mad doctor promises eternal life to those who follow him, and all they have to do is drink a particular drink and eat particular food, as well as sacrifice their children to him, well, it’s practically the Catholic playbook.
The Apartment, as it is set up, is a familiar kind of post-apocalyptic enclave. There’s a charismatic leader at the top, there are his loyal soldiers and handmaidens who do whatever he says in order to keep receiving their special injections, that effectively make them immortal. They have free flowing water and fresh food, unlike all of the other people in the badlands, and the only way that people can get in is either being kidnapped by slavers, or tricked into voluntarily walking into the place with the promise of clean sheets and drinkable water.
Of course the special selected kids have precious chemicals extracted from them, and their parents are forced to work till they drop. To what end, I’m not sure.
It’s a complex place, run as a militaristic cult. It’s keeping a lot of people alive, even if their kids disappear every now and then. It’s a small price to pay, surely?
That’s not going to cut it with Su-na. She’s all non-stop “where’s my grandma, where’s my grandma?”
And when she finds out, well, that doctor chap is going to regret ever doing whatever insane thing it is that he did which somehow offended the very earth itself.
But you don’t care about any of that. You care about whether Nam-san punches more people. I can assure you that he does. In a later bit he literally walks along a line of gang members who have been captured and tied up, and punches them individually in order to knock them out and put them to sleep, at first as a threat, and later because once he starts punching people, he has difficulty stopping. It might have been a joke, as in intended to be funny, it’s just that even if they deserve it, I wonder about how many brains he damaged and turned to pudding….
Later on, once they’ve met up with a former sergeant loyal to the doctor, being Lee Eun-ho (Ahn Ji-hye), who does with kicks and acrobatics what Nam-san only does with punches, Nam-san decides he’s going to punch his way into The Apartment, and punch everyone until he gets Su-na back.
There are limits, though, to what you can achieve with punches, even if they are so strong that they could warp reality itself. In order to save the day and hopefully end the stupid crazy doctor’s reign of terror, he will also have to shoot people in the head.
He will also have to battle his harshest foe, which turns out to be stairs.
As in the other recent movies I’ve seen with Ma Dong-seok, they take a lot of time to point out that he is the baddest of the bad when it comes to punching, but he also likes to poke fun at himself so that he doesn’t seem like an arrogant arsehole. Hence a scene where he decides a rifle is of more use to him in terms of helping him climb the stairs, than as a weapon. It is always funny to me watching someone my age and weight as an action star. It’s hilarious.
Look, I’m not going to argue that this is a good movie, but I can make the argument that it is a pretty good action movie. When fights are well-choreographed and well-shot, it makes up for a host of deficiencies in the script or in the CGI. I feel like the flick kind of flags towards the end, but by then we’ve seen enough decent action scenes of Nam-san or Eun-ho punching, kicking, shooting or stabbing people’s heads off and doing the right thing in this turvy-topsy world.
And then, once the good guys and gals win, the heavens open, it rains again for the first time in three years, so we know that either Jesus, Buddha or Alllah is happy with the outcome.
What more could you ask for, you slavering heathens? Eternal life? Well, you should know by now that never works out for anyone involved.
7 times some of those punches travelled through time and hit people in the future and the past out of 10
“Get a grip, these things aren’t human.” – you just keep telling yourself that - Badland Hunters