Director: Lee Soo-sung
Cast: Ji Il-joo, Park Ji-yeon, Choi Sung-min, Jo Kyung-hoon, Jung Yi-joo, Tak Teu-In, Song Yeon
Running Time: 80 min.
By Paul Bramhall
There’s a scene in Gangnam Zombie where the manager of a Youtuber agency pranks a staff member in an attempt to create content, and describes the video he’ll make from the footage as “What happens when a zombie attacks a backup for the national taekwondo team?” The concept of taekwondo versus zombies is admittedly a cool one, and indeed has already been done once before thanks to the 2014 short film High School of Zombie, which featured K-Tiger’s member Tae-mi unleashing against a wave of high school students turned blood thirsty killers. If anything the description of the prank could equally be applied to Gangnam Zombie as a whole, and it’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken so long for a country like Korea to combine its flying kicks against the hordes of undead into a feature length movie.
In part that’s largely down to the success of 2016’s Train to Busan, which proved to be a winning formula by using the undead as a combination of visceral thrills and not so subtle social commentary. It’s a trend that’s continued through productions like its sequel Peninsula and #Alive, and when there have been variations its tended to either be to transpose the mayhem to a period setting (Rampant) or go the comedy route (The Odd Family: Zombie for Sale). Perhaps the thought of doing a modern day take on Kung Fu Zombie or Kung Fu from Beyond the Grave was considered too low brow, and if the final product of Gangnam Zombie is anything to go by, then unfortunately it’s a line of thinking that would be difficult to argue with.
The low budget shot on digital world of filmmaking in Korea is almost exclusively for either fight flicks or erotic romps, and generally the titles don’t travel far beyond Korean shores (in fact it’s debatable if that many people see them even on Korean shores). Those that do secure overseas distribution obviously need some kind of hook that can act as a selling point, and for Gangnam Zombie its appeal is blatant – thanks to a certain 2012 song by Psy most of the world is now familiar with the name of the wealthy Seoul suburb Gangnam, and is there a time in cinemas history when zombies have ever not been popular?
Director Lee Soo-sung is a mainstay of the low budget fight flick, benefitting from working in one of the few genres in Korea where it’s easily possible to direct 3 – 4 movies a year. While in most genres helming a trilogy of movies would take several years, Soo-sung cranked out the likes of the Bully trilogy across 2017 – 2019 and The Dominator trilogy across 2019 – 2020. He even made a DTV sequel to 2014’s For the Emperor with 2020’s ingeniously titled For the New Emperor, ensuring that anyone looking for an untaxing dose of fists and kicks never has to wait too long for a new release. Such productions also traditionally come with another element which is especially rare in the Korean film industry, and that’s that their runtimes rarely exceed 90 minutes, a fact which is especially staggering when considering most movies that come out of Korea run 2 hours as minimum.
Gangnam Zombie is no exception, clocking in at a lean 80 minutes (skip the lengthy end credits and a repeated flashback scene and it’ll be even shorter). The plot opens on Christmas eve, with Ji Il-joo (Blades of Blood, The Divine Weapon) playing the national taekwondo team backup member whose day job is creating YouTube content, even though at no point do we see him do anything even mildly related to his supposed job. Il-joo has a crush on his co-worker played by Park Ji-yeon (Jungle Fish 2, Death Bell 2: Bloody Camp), who spends most of her time putting up with the lecherous advances of the agency manager, played by Choi Sung-min (Ordinary Person, Bunshinsaba). Whatever plans anyone had for their Christmas eve though are ruined when a zombie outbreak starts spreading through the office building where the agency is based, and the sole motive becomes to get out alive.
As a zombie movie setup it’s about as familiar as you can get, and director Soo-sung has precisely nothing up his sleeve to add anything to it. Being a post-pandemic zombie flick it’s the COVID-19 virus that’s held responsible for the outbreak this time around, with a mutated version being blamed for the crazed behaviour of those who get bitten. The Korean outbreak is brought on when a pair of thieves look to take off with a haul of luxury watches from a shipping container they’ve broken into, only for one of them to get scratched by a stowaway feral cat carrying the virus. In fairness, the setup does allow for Gangnam Zombie’s most memorable image as the thief who gets bitten, played by Jo Kyung-hoon (who headlined director Soo-sung’s Rule of the Game: Human Hunting), emerges from the Han River like a Korean version of the Hudson River zombie from Lucio Fulci’s 1979 classic Zombie.
With the initial setup out of the way though, the narrative settles into an extended sequence of comedic shenanigans, as the agency staff do their best to avoid the building owner, played by Jung Yi-joo (Plastic Tree, A Winter Story), to whom they’re several months behind on paying the rent. The limited setting and broad acting that dominate these scenes (I lost track of the number of times Yi-joo unsubtly berates “the poor”) makes for decidedly uninspired viewing, as they serve to neither advance the plot nor come across as particularly amusing, instead acting as all too obvious time filler. At its most random we get a cutaway scene of one of Yi-joo’s 2 security guards busting out a collection of breakdancing moves, most likely because the actor mentioned they could on a break from filming, so it was decided to incorporate them into the plot to add on an extra couple of minutes.
The action is by far Gangnam Zombie’s biggest problem though, limited to occasional brief glimpses of what’s supposedly Il-joo throwing a kick here and there. I say supposedly as any time he does it’s shot so close its frequently incomprehensible if it is actually him or a double. In one scene a zombie receives an axe kick to the head, which sounds awesome on paper, but transferred onscreen is anything but. Shot in such a way that literally all you see is a foot suddenly come down from the side of the frame, the whole concept of capturing the body in motion that’s so important to action cinematography is nowhere to be found. My assumption is that Il-joo is being doubled, however nobody in the crew had any knowledge of how to effectively frame shots to disguise it, hence the majority of kicks that get thrown are shot from awkward angles either too close or too far away, and fail miserably at conveying any kind of impact.
The zombies themselves are perhaps the most uninspired of all, seemingly consisting of extras who were told to turn up in their own wardrobe, and then had their face touched up with a miniscule amount of fake blood. With a presence that invokes zero sense of danger, and direction that likely consisted of “twitch your head and lean slightly to the side while running”, it often feels more like a zombie cosplay convention than an actual movie whenever they appear. Only Jo Kyung-hoon as the original zombie gets any kind of personality, apparently being the most powerful of the horde, and getting to sport a pair of vampire like fangs (that may or may not be related to his feline inflicted scratch). While his appearance compared to practically any other zombie production would be considered lacklustre, in the context of Gangnam Zombie he at least looks semi-imposing.
Like its low budget cotemporaries Zombie Fighter and Zombie School, even taking into consideration the productions limited resources and tight schedule, Gangnam Zombie is simply too sloppy to gain any real enjoyment from. Populated by annoying characters, bargain basement zombies, and a countless number of wasted opportunities for some high kicking action beats, the only redeeming feature is its mercifully short run time. “What happens when a zombie attacks a backup for the national taekwondo team?” Nothing that could be considered worth watching is the simple answer.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 3/10