When the first description of a film includes something like “from the studios which brought you [insert film title here],” it’s rarely a good sign. Rather than trying to stand on its own merit, this new property is relying heavily on the audience’s love of a different film to bring them to the new one. Not the director, not the cast, not the writers – but the film itself. This is an enormous gamble to take and one which tends to work out, as long as the referenced work is beloved enough. This is the tactic which the Kim Sung-hoon-directed Rampant applies by proclaiming that it comes from the same studio as the much-beloved 2016 film Train to Busan, rather than leaning on its own positive attributes. Unfortunately, in doing so, sets expectations too high and ends up working against itself.
Set during the Qing Dynasty in China, there is great unrest amongst the people ruled by King Lee Jo (Kim Eui-sung), so much so, that Crown Prince Lee Young (Kim Tae-woo) plans a rebellion to unseat his father and restore balance to the land. However, when Young’s intentions are discovered, the King’s retribution unwittingly sets a more nefarious plan into motion. Meanwhile, a rising scourge of the undead begins in the small village of Jemulpo and threatens to overtake the entire country. The only hope for the kingdom is the returning prince, Lee Ganglim (Hyun Bin), who is caught between a mission for his brother and the needs of the people.
With the exception of Kim Eui-sung and zombies, there’s little connecting Rampant to Train to Busan. Where Train is a singularly-focused, nail-biting experience, Rampant is a mixture of wai xu and horror set against a convoluted plot which requires the first full hour of the film to fully establish before it kicks into high gear. Additionally, Rampant’s later emotional moments carry no weight for the audience due to the manner in which (a) multiple characters are introduced from the start without providing any sense of relationship, (b) introducing singular characters outside the established narrative timeline making tracking the person harder to do, or (c) suddenly realizing that the characters are mourning the loss of someone whom the audience has spent zero time with prior to their demise. Granted the first hour of Rampant is necessary to set up the world, but it goes beyond simple world-building. The audience needs that time in order to get a sense for the time period, the rules within the time period, who the players are, and their relationships to each other. This enables the second half to carry some emotional heft. However, due to the various machinations at work, Rampant lacks the beautiful simplicity Train executed with incredible style and ease.
That said, the whole of Rampant is never dull, even at its most confusing. The opening scene involves a ship under attack and on fire as raiders kill the shipmates and steal weapons and gunpowder. It’s here that the first zombie (called a night demon in the film) is spotted and the first victim attacked, effectively moving the infection from the seafaring vessel to the village of Jemulpo. This speed and efficiency is emblematic of Rampant at its best and why the second half of the film makes the first so rewarding: there’s no confusion, second-guessing, or absurd reasoning for why X happens. The story then makes a few time jumps (only one comes with a warning) but it’s a necessary tactic to maintain the flow of the story. The audience can already sense that a zombie’s arrival in a village doesn’t bode well, so there’s no need to show us much more than Rampant does pre-title card. Writers Jo-yun Hwang (2003’s Old Boy), Shin-yeon Won, and Hwang Jo Yoon trust the audience to fill in the blanks in this regard, but they also ensure that the zombies of this world possess rules which create narrative openings for tension relief and plot development. For example, cutting off the head or penetrating the heart will kill the zombie and the creatures only come out at night as sunlight burns them. This creative aspect makes the appearance of the zombies feel more like a tool within the structure of the narrative rather than an obvious obstacle and their sudden attacks more surprising.
To director Kim Sung-hoon’s credit, the bulk of Rampant appears to be executed using as many practical effects as possible. There’re some moments which are clearly either CG or enhanced in some manner, but they are never so noticeable as to detract from the action or the drama. The reliance on practical make-up and stunt work continuously impresses whether the scene requires a quiet moment wherein the character work is done or there’s a battle to wage to up the spectacle. Take the scene in which newly-returned Prince Ganglim arrives in the seemingly decimated village of Jemulpo. Here, he and his servant Hak-soo (Jeong Man-sik) are unexpectedly beset upon by the zombies, only to be saved by several village survivors. In this action sequence, with nary a line of dialogue, the audience clearly understands the depth of Ganglim’s fighting abilities, as well as those who came to protect him. A well-designed fight sequence communicates far more about a person than language, something which gets demonstrated over and again by other characters throughout the film. But in this particular instance, there’s no wire-work, only straight hand-to-hand fighting, which makes this initial action sequence elevate the tension and generate excitement at what’s to come.
In addition to the feature, the Blu-ray Combo Pack and digital editions each contain several preview trailers, various release trailers for Rampant, as well as two bonus features: “Making Of” and “Behind The Scenes.” If you’re less familiar with the characters and story, watching the “Character” trailer will be useful to get a sense of the various individuals within the story before getting ready. The sheer amount of intrigue within Rampant requires a lot of players to set the board, so watching this video before digging in is particularly useful. The “Making Of” is far too brief to dig into the particulars of creating Rampant, however, it provides a strong sense of the extreme lengths action choreographer Kim Tae-kang and cinematographer Lee Sung-je to make the action feel real and the scope incredible. Similarly, the “Behind The Scenes” is just more hype for the film, jumping between clips of the finished film, actors in the middle of a scene, or actors watching playback. Where “Making Of” at least tries to provide a little insight into Rampant, “Behind” is more a glorified ad, offering no real insight or additions to the cinematic experience.
When it’s all said and done, is Rampant anywhere as cinematically satisfying as Train to Busan? Absolutely not. It is a fun flick? Mostly. Once it’s finished establishing the world and introducing the characters in the first half, the second half makes all that development worth it. The action is fantastic, the zombie design clever, and the narrative makes good use of old tropes. So, while it’s not the action-packed zombie murder-fest the trailers promised and it’s not as memorable as Train, Rampant delivers on what it promises: zombie-killing in ancient China.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital beginning February 26th, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.