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The Weirdest Post-Apocalyptic Sequel Kicks Off a Gratuitous Cinematic Universe

South Korea’s entry to the Academy Awards finds a sequel in what is essentially a zombie thriller.

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Concrete Utopia was one of the best South Korean films of 2023. A soulful pressure cooker of a thriller, it splices the class satire of Animal Farm with the apocalyptic stylings of San Andreas. Selected as South Korea’s entry for the 96th Academy Awards, Concrete Utopia followed the residents of an apartment building fighting to survive the aftermath of a world-flattening earthquake, forcing each of them to deal with dwindling resources, hostile outsiders, and their own vicious prejudice. It was a riveting film that walked a flawless line between pulp and prestige. Its unexpected sequel, the apocalyptic Netflix thriller Badland Hunters, doesn’t quite match up.

Set just three years after the earthquake that destroyed the world, Badland Hunters follows the new society that’s sprung up in its wake. It’s essentially the wild west: gangs roam the wasteland, wild animals hunt and are hunted, and a handful of pacifist communities have closed ranks. In the midst of all the chaos is Nam-san (Eternals Ma Dong-seok), a skilled huntsman that becomes a unofficial protector of his community.

Also known as Don Lee, Ma is one of South Korea’s best-known brawlers. He’s known for playing reluctant heroes that pack impossibly-powerful punches, and his role in Badland Hunters does not stray far from this particular skill set. It’s just one of the things that sets the Netflix thriller apart from its predecessor, but it won’t be the last — or the weirdest — departure from Concrete Utopia.

Nam-san is living a somewhat peaceful existence when we first meet him. Sure, his day job consists of a lot of casual violence — he literally beheads an alligator in his very first scene — but he’s a gentle soul beneath all the slicing and dicing. He’s something of a father figure to the orphaned teens of the region called the Bus District, namely his young ward Ji-wan (Lee Joon-young) and girl-next-door Su-na (No Jeong-ee), and he works hard to make sure that everyone has enough food and water to get through the week... as long as they’ve got something worth trading.

The world might have descended into total chaos elsewhere, but the Bus District at least, is making do. There are rumors of collapse closer to what used to be Seoul: cannibals, traffickers, and a mysterious community that lives in an untouchable high rise. But Nam-san is content to ignore it all — that is, until citizens of that aforementioned commune visit. They claim to be searching for families with school-aged children; those who fit the brief are invited to come live with them in a protected shelter. Su-na and her elderly grandma are selected to join this new community, and they don’t hesitate to accept. A drought has made life hard in their district, and the promise of resources like water and healthcare is too tempting to turn down.

No Jeong-ee and Lee Hee-joon face off in Badland Hunters.


Of course, their new life is not at all what it’s cracked up to be. Those who tuned in to Concrete Utopia will recognize the setting of this cult-like community, but the residents that occupy Seoul’s Hwang Gung apartments are completely different from those introduced in the 2023 film. Day-to-day operations are now being overseen by one Yang Gi-su (Lee Hee-joon), a doctor with a penchant for freaky experiments. He’s searching for a cure to human mortality, developing a serum that will allow society to survive on less resources. It’s a great idea in theory, but in practice, Yang has yet to fully crack it. Half of his experiments have the dead-eyed temperament of a zombie; the other half become a cross between a lizard-person and the lead character of Splice.

It’s here that Badland Hunters effectively leaves its predecessor behind. As Nam-san and Ji-wan set off to rescue their friends from Dr. Yang, they stumble into a wild conspiracy, chock full of bone-crunching brawls and a surprising amount of body horror. The film has a lot more in common with another recent Netflix output, Gyeongseong Creature, than with its forbear. It makes you wonder why it has to connect to Concrete Utopia at all... but all that wondering goes away whenever Nam-san is duking it out with his adversaries.

Ma is probably the closest thing South Korea has to a real-life superhero, and he puts his superhuman skills to good use here. The fact that Nam-san can knock out a murderers row of criminals with one punch doesn’t seem that out-of-place in Badland Hunters — not with director Heo Myung-haeng pushing the limits of science fiction elsewhere. His supporting cast is just as competent, especially Ahn Ji-hye, who provides reinforcements as a former soldier Eun-ho.

The fight sequences are blistering, fun, and competently shot; it’s just a little weird that the sequel to such a cerebral, grounded thriller is basically a zombie movie.

Badland Hunters is currently streaming on Netflix.

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