Lee Jun-young, Ma Dong-seok holding a gun, and An Ji-hye in "Badland Hunters."

‘Badland Hunters’ Fails to Live Up to ‘Concrete Utopia’

The sequel to South Korea’s recent Oscar entry is an inexplicable misfire, despite its charismatic lead

From left, Lee Jun-young as Choi Ji-wan, Ma Dong-seok as Nam San, and An Ji-hye as Lee Eun-ho in "Badland Hunters."

Cha Min-jung/Netflix

Netflix’s Badland Hunters is, in a completely technical sense, a sequel/spin-off to Concrete Utopia, the apocalyptic survival drama South Korea sent to the Oscars this year. Both films share a basic backdrop—a calamitous earthquake ravages Seoul, leaving only a single building intact—but their approaches could not be more different. They form an incidental anthology of sorts, with the potential for even more stories on the horizon. However, where Concrete Utopia explored the darkest tendencies of humanity, in a tale of class and the reorganization of society with self-preservation in mind, Badland Hunters is an action sci-fi film, and it lacks most of its predecessors dramatic chops.

To wildly reimagine a premise this way is by no means inherently flawed. A genre lens can often help open up new dimensions to a story or setting (see also: X-Men spinoff Logan, which gave the superhero movie a Revisionist Western twist). However, while Concrete Utopia succeeded in its sense of social introspection, Badland Hunters often flounders despite similar attempts, and occasionally lets its story fall by the wayside to make room for dull, repetitive action beats from beginning to end.

This time around, the earthquake that ravages Seoul is shown from the point of view of Dr. Yan Ki-su (Lee Hee-joon), a wide-eyed mad scientist performing experiments on various reptiles, and on his comatose daughter. The nature of these tests is left vague at first, but the quake coincides with armed special forces arriving to stop Dr. Yan in his tracks. Right from the movie’s opening scene, concerns of scientific ethics enter its purview, though they don’t necessarily unfold or evolve in meaningful ways despite being ever-present.

Before revealing the specifics of its sci-fi plot, Badland Hunters switches gears and introduces us to the scrawny, bow-and-arrow wielding Choi Ji-wan (Lee Jun-young), as he scavenges for food. Seoul is now a desert wasteland, a harsh place crowded with hot metal scattered in every direction, and wild animals traversing the landscape. When Ji-wan gets himself into a spot of trouble with a ferocious alligator, the film’s de-facto hero, Nam San (Ma Dong-seok) comes to his rescue in dazzling fashion, donning a flannel shirt and trucker hat, with a machete in hand. Nam San—like the barrel-chested Ma, a fixture of South Korean action—has a reputation for punching people and things into submission, making it a case of perfect type-casting for the genre. The moment Ma appears on screen, you usually know you’re in for a wild ride.

Ma Dong-seok as Nam San in "Badland Hunters" holds a sparking gun to the head of a person dressed in camouflage, with other persons laying down in the background.

Ma Dong-seok as Nam San in "Badland Hunters."

Cha Min-jung/Netflix

As far as the film’s initial action goes, this holds absolutely true. Ji-wan and Nam San belong to a small colony of survivors, but when outside gangsters in search of a reward come looking for a wanted criminal, their disturbance is met with boisterous fisticuffs, which debuting director and former stunt coordinator Heo Myung-haeng films with aplomb. The camera swerves and dips alongside each punch, matching the momentum of every action beat and making its impact feel larger-than-life. As Ji-wan and Nam San are dragged into an insidious plot—Ji-wan’s resourceful crush Suna (Roh Jeong-eui) and her grandmother are lured away with the promise of clean water, though something feels amiss—these hand-to-hand action sequences keep the story afloat.

Unfortunately, the more the movie sticks with Suna—who’s taken to Hwang Gung Apartments from Concrete Utopia, which is now inexplicably a scientific research base—the less time it’s able to dedicate to Ji-wan and Nam San’s action subplot, which is spurred on by the arrival of a mysterious, tough-as-nails woman with a connection to the base, Lee Eun-ho (An Ji-hye). Together, the trio concocts a bloody, and possibly suicidal, rescue mission to save Suna, though most of their planning seems to occur in the shadows, far off-screen.

An Ji-hye as Lee Eun-ho in "Badland Hunters," kneels over a man laying down.

An Ji-hye as Lee Eun-ho in "Badland Hunters."

Cha Min-jung/Netflix

In the meantime, the fate of the Hwang Gung apartment complex is explored in detail. The story supposedly picks up three years after the earthquake—and thus, three years after Concrete Utopia—though the film has no meaningful connection to its predecessor beyond this location. That it uses the backdrop of the apartment building to tell a story of survivalist impulses is certainly justification enough (it’s more of an echo than a proper sequel), but it lacks the nuance and dramatic power Lee Byung-Hun brought to his anti-hero character, and to Utopia’s tale of class angsts and the creation of in-groups.

As the sequel’s de-facto villain, Dr. Lee pales in comparison, thanks to an opaque and malformed outlook that mostly manifests as megalomania, disconnected from any real-world human concerns. Lee wears the doctor’s “type” on his sleeve—a cackling villain whose madness lives in his eyes, but no deeper—but despite throwing himself into the role, the movie does him no favors with its relative lack of ethical dilemmas and its flattened moral dimensions. His work aims to keep humanity alive through the premise’s harsh conditions, but the full scope and style of his experiments are too easily categorized by the camera and the film’s conventions—they’re too cartoonishly evil for the film to be remotely interesting, as a reflection of real, relatable human drama.

Actor Lee Hee-jun as Yan Ki-su in "Badland Hunters," in a white doctor's jacket, splattered with blood.

Lee Hee-jun as Yan Ki-su in "Badland Hunters."

Cha Min-jung/Netflix

The film’s many hints of conflict are set up subtly throughout its screenplay, though they seldomly (if ever) pay off. Nam San is established as a thematic mirror to Dr. Yan, a loner who steers clear of other people rather than luring them to him, but who has also experienced a similar sense of loss. However, while Nam San punches his way through hordes of armed guards and skilled fighters, he doesn’t meaningfully come into contact with Dr. Yan for the majority of the film, whether physically, or in the form of warring ideologies. The film’s ostensible hero and villain belong to separate movies—perhaps Badland Hunters should have been two different spin-offs, rather than one—and worst of all, Ma’s charisma and imposing presence simply disappear from for lengthy stretches so the languid sci-fi plot can unfold.

When Ma finally returns to the screen, his action beats feature no variation. The camera work—while loose and intimate—has the same relationship to every punch, kick, and gunshot, shimmying side-to-side with the characters’ movements from a low-angle and in lengthy, unbroken takes. It’s fascinating the first time, mildly exciting the second, but by the tenth or twelfth it becomes boring and predictable, mirroring the story and characters’ complete lack of growth and development.

Neither incisive enough to be social satire, nor thrilling enough to work as an action-packed spinoff, Badland Hunters is a baffling follow-up. It drops the ugly, complicated human threads of its predecessor in service of a romp that’s never fun, but is instead interrupted by numerous stilted conversations that merely gesture towards depth and complexity, rather than letting it be embodied by the one thing the movie gets almost right: its frenetic action. The result, instead, is a movie that simply goes through the motions, rather than confronting its chosen premise—one that belongs to a much better film.

Ma Dong-seok as Nam San in "Badland Hunters," punches another man out.

Ma Dong-seok (right) as Nam San punches someone out in "Badland Hunters."

Cha Min-jung/Netflix

Published on January 26, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter