Korea’s Most Famous Zombie
In the wake of mortal blows
By Wyatt Hong
After human hair wigs of the 60s and semiconductors of the 90s, zombies seem to be Korea's newest export. Since the Netflix sensation Kingdom (2019), Korea has been pouring out zombie films for the world's entertainment: Sweet Home (2020), Alive (2020), Happiness (2021), All of Us Are Dead (2022), to name a few. It wasn't long ago when people were touting the first blockbuster Korean zombie film Train to Busan (2016), until which zombies were considered an exclusively Western trope, like James Bond or Bruce Wayne.
One obvious reason is that it costs a lot to make a zombie film. The computer-generated imagery that built a depopulated Manhattan for the movie I Am Legend (2007) cost $40 million dollars out of its $160 million budget, while the zombie-pocalypse of World War Z (2013) cost a staggering $190 million, even when considering Brad Pitt's $14 million paycheck. In comparison, Kingdom's $30 million seems a bargain. One way Netflix cut cost was to chuck the fancy computer graphics and instead train hundreds of zombie actors, with their trademark ticks and hyperextended joints, such that where once you had to draft an army, there is now a standing one, with its retinue of costume designers, make-up artists and, I imagine, chiropractors.
Now, hiring zombies for your film is as simple as checking a box.
Netflix makes it seem like zombies are endemic to Korea, but I never saw one growing up. Afterlife was always ambiguous: they say Confucius himself never spoke directly of it. My only glimpse of the world beyond was at the yearly rites for my great-grandparents, where one stuck a spoon into a steaming bowl of rice and rotated the chopsticks across various dishes while the dead ate; when one had the leftover food the next morning, it was with the giddy knowledge that the cold meat had touched the lips of a ghost.
Other than this, there were trips with my grandmother to Buddhist temples where, exhausted from the hike, I would devour the simple vegetarian meal under rows of lanterns bearing the names of the recent dead. My mother, who went to a Christian church unbeknownst to her mother-in-law, illustrated to me at bedtime the concepts of heaven and hell, summarised as simply as "Santa only brings presents for good kids." The story of Lazarus and of Jesus himself rising from the dead, I imagined as no different from waking from a long nap with fear that I had been left behind and, running out to the living room, finding my brother watching the evening cartoon show and mother calling us from the kitchen to help set the table before father arrived.
Later on, horror movies and comic books supplied me the many casts of death: the virgin ghost with her bloodstained lips hidden behind the curtain of her waist-long hair; the mischievous Dokkaebi, Korea's goblin equivalent, with his studded bat; and Jiangshi, the Chinese vampire in movies from Hong Kong whose hopping gait we mimicked at school. A single manga panel of a virgin ghost staring down at her victim from the bathroom ceiling had been branded onto my brain such that I could no longer poop with the toilet door closed, yet afterlife remained for me as metaphysical as Santa's home at the North Pole, as it should be to a child who has not witnessed death.
At an age where my birthday is less a celebration than a countdown, I find comfort in zombies. I finish each zombie film with a growing satisfaction that death is not the end. When the hero of my Netflix series gets bitten, his veins darkening into a black web up his neck and across the whites of his eyes, I find comfort that he will go on living, will still know hunger, which, one could argue, is the prime mover of life.
Yet, when you google the words "Korea" and "zombie", the first result you get is the Wikipedia page for a martial artist named Jung Chan Sung who fights for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It turns out — despite all the successes of Korea's film industry, Jung a.k.a. "The Korean Zombie" is Korea's most famous zombie.
I never paid much attention to mixed martial arts, or MMA for short. As a kid, catching glimpses of fights on TV had only ruined my appetite. Why one would want to watch two men pummeling each other into a coma inside a bloodstained cage was beyond me, let alone how such brutality could be categorised as a sport. Nonetheless, MMA has risen to monstrous popularity in recent years. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which was bought for $2 million in 2001, has now an estimated value of $10 billion. The number of its YouTube subscribers are second to only the NBA across sports organisations. Dana White, the current president of UFC, has all the makings of Kingpin, including a sex-tape scandal in Vegas; when he stands between the fighters at weigh-in like a breeder showing off his studs, camera flashes ricocheting off the ring girl's cleavage, there is no subtlety as to what UFC offers.
It offers the same thing as zombie films: risk-free, vicarious violence. UFC's popularity is just another proof that we have an innate thirst for blood. Was I so saintly as to be immune to such thirst? After all, I'm an emergency room doctor. I work in the theater of violence.
One night, back from a shift at an ungodly hour, I sat down at the kitchen with a can of Coors. As had become my habit, I opened up YouTube and scrolled through its recommendations: the usual Korean TV shows, clips of Starcraft, the week's Premier League highlights. Mindlessly scrolling down, I noted, buried between a video of a bluefin tuna dissection and a review of the latest Tesla, a video named "Top Finishes: The Korean Zombie". I found it strange YouTube would recommend a UFC clip to me, but as my wife would say whenever I'd want to take an alternate route from Google Maps, "Google is always right."
And Google was right. The four minute highlight roll was a perfect pairing to my Coors.
So I got hooked. I became a Zombie fan.
Jung Chan Sung, 35, 175cm, 66kg at weigh-in for the featherweight division, looks like a regular Korean guy, so regular that one would easily pass him on the subway. Like many fighters, he was bullied as a kid and started kickboxing in middle school, competing in local pools until he debuted at UFC in 2011. It wasn't long until he earned the nickname "The Korean Zombie" from the way he took blows yet kept coming.
A month later, I was watching Zombie on live TV. In Mexico City at the time, I had debated whether to go to a bar to watch the match, but was glad to have stayed in the shelter of my hotel room when his opponent Brian Ortega (USA) entered the ring with the Mexican flag draped over his shoulders. Though Zombie lost by unanimous decision after taking a spinning elbow to his face, the fight was as riveting as a football match between Korea and Japan, which too takes the form of martial arts.
After the Ortega loss, many said Jung was past his prime. Yet Zombie handily won his next match and, by a stroke of luck, landed himself a title fight against the featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, a.k.a. "Alexander the Great". A former rugby player from Australia, Volkanovski is someone you would never pass on the subway. The man had outlasted two near-syncopal chokes from Ortega to keep his championship belt and had been due to fight Max Holloway a.k.a. "The Best Boxer in the UFC" until the latter got injured, and Jung had been called out to fill the card.
This was Zombie's last dance.
The day of the match, April 10th, Korea Standard Time, I sat in front of my MacBook with my three-week old daughter in my lap. My wife and I had just taken leave from our work in Los Angeles to have our first child in Seoul, a move that was less symbolic than practical to ease the gargantuan task of rearing a newborn. Earlier that morning, we had left our daughter with my parents to go for a walk at a nearby park. It had been years since I had spent spring in Korea. The cherry blossoms were at their full bloom, each breeze bringing down curtains of nail-shaped petals. I had caught one in the bowl of my hands and made a wish: may Zombie win.
We weren't the only ones out that Sunday. The promenade was a highway of strollers, wheelbarrows for two, Surrey bikes with the dad furiously pedaling while the mom took pictures of the kids in the back. The grass was dappled with couples taking selfies on foldable mats, ajummas taking portraits of the blossoms for their KakaoTalk profile photo. Fangirls dressed in matching lavender flocked by a concert stadium for a new boyband called Treasure. Among the dizzying blush that stretched on like rows of cotton candy, I made out the ivory of magnolia, the young green of willow amongst the darker clouds of pine. In the distance rose a hundred cranes over what was the largest redevelopment project in Seoul.
Spring had arrived. Nothing could prevent its return, not the war in Ukraine, nor Covid. I recalled a poem from my Norton Anthology from college:
That morning, beauty seemed enough. I had just become a father. Despite the deaths I witnessed and pronounced during the pandemic, some of them close to my age, life in itself seemed more than nothing, and though I remained as blind as to where the stairs led, I had enough strength in my legs to keep climbing.
We had returned from our walk just in time for the main card. My daughter's head nestled in the nook of my elbow, I closed the pop-up ads of my bootleg stream faster than they could load.
"THE KOREAN ZOMBIE!" The ring announcer screamed in his theatrical voice.
"ALEXANDER 'THE GREAT' VOLKANOVSKI!"
The Korean and Australian flags hung on opposite sides of the octagon, the two men stood facing each other across the green claw logo of Monster Energy Drink, until the bell marked the start of the fight. I gently rocked my daughter, hoping she wouldn't wake from my pounding heart.
"How is your guy doing?" my wife asked.
"Not so hot."
Was my stream buffering or was Zombie just incredibly slow? On the other hand, Volkanovski's half of the screen seemed like it was playing at twice the speed. Living up to his name, Zombie tanked through multiple hits, but the match was half decided when he took a big hook to the face in Round Three and went down.
"I'm not sure if they should let Zombie fight the next round," one commentator remarked. "He's too tough for his own good."
"Do you want to keep fighting?" The referee asked Zombie before the start of Round Four.
"Yes," Zombie nodded, his mouth bleeding and his eyes swollen shut.
Volkanovski began Round Four with a clinical one-two to the face. Zombie staggered backwards, his flaccid arms leaving his head completely unguarded.
FINISH HIM! I imagined the red text from Mortal Kombat pop up in the middle of the screen.
I turned my face away.
Each day of spring is different, like my daughter's face. They say today is the youngest we'll ever be. They say, in a hundred years, the entirety of the human race will have been renewed. "The hottest summer in a century", we say, without understanding our own evanescence. "Changed the game of basketball forever," we say, not knowing that our greatest triumphs and tragedies are names writ on water, breath on the stainless arrow of time. It is perhaps silly that we try to fashion something out of life, that we try at all.
The referee had stopped the fight, saving Zombie several thousand neurons and years from Parkinson's disease. "Each time I lose like this, I want to stop fighting. Time will tell, but I feel like I'm no longer a contender for the championship belt," Jung confessed emotionally at the post-fight interview, hinting at a retirement.
I don't think I'll watch the UFC again. It is too violent for a household with a child. Yet, I know that Jung too is a father of three — I teared up like a kid when I saw on a Korean talk show the letters his daughters wrote him while he was hospitalised from the fight. I pray Jung finds a way to put rice on the table without risking his life, and if he continues to fight, I hope his daughters will come to understand that he did so solely on their behalf.
While my daughter sleeps, I sit at my window, trying to work on a novel that I've been fiddling with the past two years. Not having had a single full night's sleep in weeks, I feel like a zombie myself. Past thirty and still writing my first novel, I wonder if I missed the boat. Growing up, I would browse the timeline of each Everyman's Library hardcover to see what the greats were doing at my age.
Dostoevsky, 1844: "Graduates, but resigns commission in order to pursue literary career."
The hourglass in the sauna — is it just me, or does the stream of sand seem to speed up the less of it remains?
Unlike spring, we will not return yearly. It feels strange to think that, some April, I will no longer be here. The marronnier buds outside my window open like my daughter's hand, red, uncertain, groping towards the light. Dear love, this was your first spring. I lay next to you until the day turned to night, my flesh to rot, twitching in the dark, still hungry for the taste of life — if only in the cave of your memory.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 3 Jul 2022