Badland Hunters is a story set in a lawless land where people are trying to survive against those who still insist on doing as they please. Despite the setting, this movie is not meant to be taken seriously. When you think about it, the initial premise of the movie itself is so abrupt. What kind of earthquake was it that did not allow any help to come to Korea in so many years? But the movie is not seeking believability. Strictly speaking, if the setting of the movie, meaning the kids and the doctor’s experiments, had been happening in the modern day unaffected by any natural calamity, the story would have been just as possible. This means that the crux of the film is not dependent on world-building. It is an extra visual accessory at best.
Badland Hunters doesn’t over-explain its characters’ pasts, and surprisingly, this works in the film’s favor. It is a clever way of preventing the cliches from piling up. Nam San is a famous hunter, and he must have been in the special forces before the earthquake or some other business (legal or illegal) that required him to be good with his strength and fists. His troubled past made him change gears, or maybe the earthquake did, and now he is one of the good guys. These questions add to the mystery of his character and make his fight sequences so much more enjoyable. You will notice that this is necessary because it takes up the bulk of the story.
Next are Su Na and her grandmother. I am so thankful that Su Na’s pessimism wasn’t justified by a tragic backstory. She was allowed to be wary of people and their intentions without it being connected to some uneventful happening in her past, and that is such a breath of fresh air. It means that Su Na was allowed to have a personality instead of just fitting her in the mold of a ‘good girl’ whose naivete was her likeability. Instead, she was smart and tough and knew how to discern between good and bad, simply because she was that way. Su Na is shown to be an artist, so maybe it is that which gives her the ability to observe the details that are missed by others.
It is surprising how much of Badland Hunters is a comedy. Be it Ji Wan’s antics, Nam San’s brute strength that brings people to their knees, or even the man named Tiger who cries at the first punch he receives, the movie finds many moments to be funny. They maintain that tone throughout the action sequences as well, which is one of the many reasons the movie is so interesting. Ma Dong Seok (Nam San) knew the body language he needed to adapt to be as funny as possible.
However, there isn’t much to be said about the set of Badland Hunters. It looks like the recycled set of Sweet Home or one of the many dystopian movies and series that Korea produces regularly. It may be fair to say that Badland Hunters is the recycled version of some other movie that came before it, and it is hard to answer whether anything sets this apart from the crowd. But one can say for sure that the movie manages to be fun, which is most important for its likeability.
By not giving the audience all the answers, Badland Hunters presents itself as just a window into the lives of the characters. A happy ending, which is the point of the struggle of the characters, doesn’t mean that things are going to go back to how they were. Instead, it just looks like a bunch of good people finding each other and sticking together, like a family should. The apartments and the mad scientist are not the first or the last problems that the protagonists will face. It is all simply a glimpse of the new system, where interpersonal bonds are the only protection one has against the big bad world, and where even the elixir of immortality doesn’t come with a guarantee of safety or happiness.
If you look at it from a slightly different perspective, the crumbled society presented in the film mirrors the current state of the world, where the elite control the world with their monopoly over a few essential resources and indulge in their cruelties because they do not need to fight for survival, unlike the rest. This is the plot of Squid Game and the origin story of why every mad scientist on the celluloid finds the economic support that he does. Badland Hunters also dwells on the concept of karma and how disparagingly it affects people. At the end of the film, the scientist’s loss cannot compare to the destruction he wrecked on the people around him, but it is the only justice available to those affected, which wouldn’t have been different even if it were the real world instead of something so post-apocalyptic.
There have been comparisons between Badland Hunters and Concrete Utopia because of the similarity of the premise. While the director has maintained that it is an original work, I would say that it doesn’t matter because, at the end of the day, the themes are the same, not just between these two movies but in any movie that calls itself ‘dystopian’ or ‘survivalist.’ On the other hand, Ma Dong-seok is the clear star of the show. Better known as Don Lee, his action has a manner and strength to it that looks as real as it looks stylized. That is what sets him apart from the other players in this genre. The man’s charm, first observed by the world in Train to Busan and subsequently in different projects, has never gotten old. But that has to be expected because he is new only to people outside Korea. In the country, he is one of the best, with over sixty films in his kitty.
Badland Hunters has the potential to be a franchise. Considering how fun and unserious the film is, that wouldn’t be a bad idea. It is one of those cases where predictability works in the film’s favor, and the actor is playing to his strengths. That would be something to look forward to.