Monday 25 November 2019

London Korean Film Festival 2019: The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale (South Korea 2019: Dir Lee Min-jae)

It’s been a good year for the zom com. The movie we didn't think we needed - the excellent Zombieland follow up Double Tap - was a huge success, and now here's Korean director Lee Min-jae's debut feature, a fun and seriously sarcastic take on both the zombie movie and the perils of commodification.

The Park family are scam artists. Owners of a run down garage, in the movie's first scene we get the measure of them: a passing motorist is duped out of a load of money, forced into having his car repaired at ridiculously high prices, only to find that the family were the cause of the original vehicle failure by laying caltrops across the road. The family comprise station owner Joon-Gul (Jeong Jae-yeong), his wife, the pregnant Nam-Joon (Uhm Ji-won), failed in business brother Min-Gul (Kim Nam-gil), reluctant daughter Hye-gul (Lee Soo-kyung) and Hawaii obsessed widowed dad Man-Deok (Park In-Hwan).

At the nearby pharma company in the town of Poognsan, human experiments have been carried out to test a trial drug, and have clearly gone wrong. One of the 'experiments,' a young guy turned zombie (Jung Ga-ram) escapes the facility and wanders into the life of the Park family. Of course they remain unaware that he is a zombie - and daughter Hye-gul even takes a bit of a shine to him despite his rather ravaged appearance - until he takes a bite out of Man-Deok, which is unusual behaviour as our zombie is seemingly vegetarian, preferring cabbages to brains.

The bite triggers something rather unexpected: Man-Deok wakes up a younger, more virile version of himself. The zombie’s bite seems to have rejuvenation powers: the bitten man wastes no time in clearing out the contents of the family safe and pissing off to his beloved Hawaii.

Seizing on the potential for a bit of money making, Ming-gul rents out the walking corpse - now domesticated, named 'Jong-bie' and housed in Man-Deok's vacated mobile home - to bite locals (for a price of course), persuading the vegetarian zombie to chow down on the arms of strangers only by applying ketchup to the limb first. Before long the money's flowing in, the garage has been re- purposed, and the town's menfolk are all sprightly again. But it becomes obvious that youth is simply the first phase of infection for the bitten, and it's only a matter of time before the Park family have some new situations to deal with, and not just the fact that Nam-Joon's waters have broken.

The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale is that rare thing, a horror comedy that is actually laugh out loud funny. Sure, in true Korean style some of the comedy is quite broad, but a lot of the fun is found in the interactions of the Park family, whether coping with the undead or each other. They’re a reprehensible bunch (they reminded me of a more comic version of the family in Koreeda's 2018 film Shoplifters), but as with all such cinematic families, the more time you spend with them the more you get to like them.

Lee Min-Jae is clearly aware of the movie's genre - a clip of the 2016 Korean flick Train to Busan is used for instructional purposes, although this movie is much lighter on gore.There's also nods to Cocoon (1985) in the rejuvenative power of the zombie's bite, and Warm Bodies (2013) in the budding rom zom story between the 'Jong bie' and Hye-gul. The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale may be a knockabout movie, but it has some serious things to say about the family, the role of kinship and the perils of the pursuit of money. Apparently the director (who also co-wrote the script) didn't start out with the intention to make a comedy. Well however it happened, I've very pleased that he did.

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