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Badland Hunters

Film: Badland Hunters

Director: Heo Myung-haeng

Cast: Ma Dong-seok (Don Lee), Lee Joon-young, Roh Jeong-eui, Ahn Ji-hye

Streaming on: Netflix

Rating : 2.5/5

A sequel to Concrete Utopia (2023), Badland Hunters marks the directorial debut of stunt director Heo Myung-haeng. If there’s one thing you can’t fault this post-apocalyptic science-fiction film for, it is the action choreography. Heavily realistic hand-to-hand combat, the expert use of weapons and other tools (machetes, etc.), the scenes are there in abundance.

Ma Dong-seok brings his deadpan comic timing to the fore too. But much of what works for the film is overshadowed by a fairly predictable end-of-the-world storyline. A severe shortage of resources for survival (clean drinking water, food); monopoly of these very resources by evil folk masquerading as new world saviours; good people having to suffer on account of a survival-of-the-fittest mentality; heroes doing their best to restore some order in a world thrown into chaos; scientists using human beings as lab rats for the future of the species. There isn’t a single part in any of that that’s even borderline novel, let alone unique.

While some instances boast of good acting, the depth quotient falters with every successive frame. A zombie apocalypse film like Train to Busan made such an impression because it could be widely interpreted. Its psychological impact left a mark. There is lots of great action in it, but the real stories within the larger narrative of apocalyptic survival hook you. Badland Hunters makes a fist of going deeper, putting forth the importance of human connection in a world on the brink of destruction. The average execution and somewhat crammed narrative prevent this from happening, though.

Well-respected hunters Nam San (Ma Dong-seok) and Ji-wan (Lee Joon-young) kill animals and barter their catch with the people in a crumbling neighbourhood known as the Bus District. The former is a bear of a man equally adept with his fists and feet as he is with a crossbow or knife. The latter is the younger partner/protégé. Food is in short supply, potable water even more so. There is much talk of a place called the “apartments” (the only building standing since the earthquake), where the basic needs are rumoured to exist in abundance.

Teenager Su-Na (Roh Jeong-eui) lives with her grandmother, having little recollection of the devastating event that wrecked Seoul. She is the sole minor in their small community. Armed gangs roam the area, unchecked, for valuables. One day, a gang almost abducts Su-Na and a few others, but Nam San and Ji-wan intervene in the nick of time. An official delegation arrives not long after, looking for families with children. Su-Na and her grandmother are told about a place where resources are plentiful. Since the survival of the species hinges on kids, families with minors are given a preference to set up base there. Precocious Su-Na remains sceptical, but her grandmom longs for the girl to have a better life. Local hero Nam San, who once saved Su-Nam’s life, is consulted and gives his approval after some pointed questions pertaining to the scheme. And off they go.

Take away the adrenaline-inducing action, and perhaps the only great thing you’re left with is Ma Dong-seok. Whether it’s his hilariously deadpan manner as he sends bad guys crashing to the floor or awkward moments of eye contact with a bejewelled woman from the neighbourhood who hits on him, the actor’s range is a treat to watch. Su-Na’s character is sketched well, as seen by her ability to question (she is the only child in the facility who doesn’t fall prey to all the lies). Unfortunately, her scenes get lost in the general melee. From a central character, she gets relegated to an afterthought, as a thousand different action sequences come in the way of the storytelling.

The writers ought to have focussed more on Nam San’s mysterious past. His conversation with a special-ops ally about not being a hero felt like a segway to a flashback, but not to be the case, sadly. The trope of the “apartment/facility” – the mad scientist and his ludicrous research, his line of devoted protectors, and the gullible parents sending their wards without question – is as cliché and laughable as it gets.

Badland Hunters has some things going for it. Ma Dong-seok and Roh Jeong-eui remain the acting standouts. The writers could have perhaps built more on the relationships witnessed between characters – Su-Na and her grandmother, the eponymous hunters, and so forth. Instead, it focuses on what it knows best. The stunts are excellent, make no mistake, but the minute action scenes are used to plug gaps in the story, it’s a downward slope. Badland Hunters, despite being engaging here and there, goes in that general direction.

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