Cops versus convicts on a cargo ship leads to inventive genre insanity in Kim Hong-Seon’s ocean-bound action horror
After a massive raid in the Philippines cracks a Korean-Filipino crime syndicate, a legion of hardened criminals must head back to Busan to face justice. However, attempts at transfers are being met with bombs and other disastrous threats. The solution is to transport these criminals aboard a vast cargo ship, where they’ll be placed under lock and key and guarded by 20 elite police officers. But the fix is in–midway through the journey, a massive, bloody jailbreak takes place. Now it’s convicts versus cops in a ship-wide fight for survival. However, our two warring factions may find themselves joining forces soon enough against an unknown, more sinister enemy lurking below decks…
From the description above, I was sold on Project Wolf Hunting even before the lights went down in our screening. However, the best experiences at Fantastic Fest are the ones that sneak up on the entire audience, delivering an experience that no one could have dreamed of when going in. With sequence upon sequence of bloody-as-hell action mayhem, Project Wolf Hunting cements itself as a future action cult classic, succeeding based on its wildly unpredictable surprises as much as on its absurdly gratuitous and satisfying close-quarters violence.
With its simple premise, Writer-Director Kim Hong-Seon unfolds his film in a fittingly utilitarian, no-frills fashion, evoking the spare limitations of early John Carpenter classics like Assault on Precinct 13. Our heroes and villains are introduced with small fanfare, with little to differentiate them except for their functions and hinted backstories in long criminal or law enforcement histories with one another. There’s a hard-boiled cop (Sung Dong-Il) who’s finally captured his much younger, more insidious target (Seo In-Guk). There’s a crime madame (Jang Young-Nam) whose barbed tongue is just as deadly as any crewmember wielding a knife or crowbar. She has her own romance with a muscle-bound heavy (Ko Chang-Seok) in another compartment, and both find themselves reunited once the shit hits the fan. There’s a harried doctor and lackadaisical nurse who find themselves thrust onto the voyage at the last minute, who may know far more about what’s going on than they initially reveal. And, of course, there’s a pair of rookies on either side: a female cop (Jung So-Min) ready to prove herself in the most trying of situations, and a baby-faced hooligan (Jang Dong-Yoon) who seems to already be able to hold his own against far more hardened criminals. Writer-Director Kim is economical almost to a fault with his opening act, which on its own provides enough fodder for the film audiences are initially expecting to see. While more time can easily be spent with these characters, it’s the action that unfolds that allows us to learn more about who they are, the secrets they hold, and most importantly, how they must band together and use their combined skills if they have any hope of surviving their perilous voyage.
It’s difficult to write about the further turns that Project Wolf Hunting takes without spoiling the crazy detours it takes as it progresses. However, if Korean genre cinema is known for its dramatic left turns, Project Wolf Hunting can easily be compared to the Indianapolis 500. Any “normal” film may capsize at the attempt of handling as many as three dramatic shifts in not just what kind of story is being told, but the overall genre in which that story’s taking place. However, Director Kim handles these whiplash-inducing tonal pivots with the same workmanlike direction and utter seriousness as how he opened the film, ensuring that his audience is never detached from the experience, but wholeheartedly encourages them to go along for the ride. I’m still so damn impressed with how the film manages to completely 180-degree-flip the audience’s expectations with the sudden gleeful inclusion of a villain’s POV shot.
The true highlight here is Kim’s approach to action; while plenty of films can tackle the claustrophobia and scrappiness of close-quarters fighting, Kim distinguishes his combat through gallons of fake blood and an eagerness to see what pretzels he can contort his characters’ bodies into when placed in life-or-death situations. Kim makes it clear that despite his matter-of-fact approach, Project Wolf Hunting is taking place far outside the limitations of reality; what’s more, it’s up to us to re-acclimate our expectations just as much as it is for our characters to do the same. Before too long, the decks of the Frontier Titan are awash in blood and viscera, which Kim extracts from his characters with a fiendish delight and disturbing inventiveness. Along the way, audiences find new uses for mouth-stored knives, mallets, axes, fire extinguishers, elevator cables, and enough bullets to arm a major world power. While the effect may prove exhausting for some, it remained a riotous ride for the lucky patrons of Alamo South Lamar Theater 6.
Kim also manages to heighten suspense with an equally non-judicious treatment of his characters. Cops and criminals bleed the same, suggests Project Wolf Hunting; if you think you’ve got a pin on just who the real protagonist of this film is, Kim is more than happy to upend your expectations from one scene to the next. The characters’ deaths in this film are shocking not just in how they unfold, but when. Because the film focuses far more on a group protagonist than any individual character, however, this doesn’t feel like a cheat or narrative slight. Rather, it adds to the total unpredictability of Project Wolf Hunting’s wild experience.
With a fast-paced and unpredictable story that appeases fans of Con Air, Captain Phillips, and Capcom survival horror games alike, Project Wolf Hunting is a total blast meant to be seen with the biggest group and on the biggest screen possible.
Project Wolf Hunting had its US Premiere at Fantastic Fest and will be released in theaters on October 7th courtesy of Well Go USA.