Kundo: Age Of The Rampant (Kundo: min-ran-eui si-dae)
Korea (2014) Dir. Yun Jong-bin
It may be an act of laziness to describe this Korean martial arts period drama blockbuster as “Robin Hood meets Seven Samurai in 19th century Korea” but it is an accurate description of Yun Jong-Bin’s follow up to his hugely successful Nameless Gangster.
The end of the Joseon dynasty is nigh and much of the country is stricken by poverty while the aristocrats reign supreme with wealthy nobleman Jo Won-sook (Song Young-chang) presiding over the Jeolla province. Due to Jo’s advanced age Jo Yoon (Gang Dong-Won), Jo’s illegitimate son by a prostitute, plots his way to the top but is not accepted by his new family or recognised by the state.
Lady Jo (Park Myung-shin) eventually gives birth to a son pushing Jo Yoon out of the picture completely. As he gets older Jo Yoon seeks revenge and plots to have everyone removed that can prevent him claiming his wealth and position of power. He hires a simple butcher Dolmuchi (Ha Jung-Woo) to kill his pregnant sister-in-law but Dolmuchi cannot go through with it. He is punished but saved from execution by a group of bandits known as the Chusul Clan, renowned for stealing from corrupt officials and sharing their gains with the poor.
Greedy plutocratic governments are the bane of modern societies across the globe at the moment, adding a rather resonant and provident sting to the plot of this action packed outing. Whether this will incite people to rise up against their governments or not is a different matter but Yun Jong-bin at least gives us some handy hints on how to achieve this with a meat cleaver!
This relatively straightforward story however is told in a decidedly haphazard fashion which is likely to confuse as it often focuses too much on the incidentals rather than the main points. For instance, Jo Yoon’s appearance doesn’t occur until almost forty minutes into the film which, for the main antagonist, is particularly bad form for what is already a sprawling yarn that is destined to run for 137 minutes! For the best part of the first hour plus, it is not made that clear who is who, let alone which of the cast is soon to become a corpse and why, due to their introduction being hasty and clumsy.
Things finally settle down after Dolmuchi is spared from execution by the Chusul Clan and having changed his named to “Dochi”, undergoes extensive training and amazingly acquires a huge IQ boost during the process, leads the group on their quest to confront and take Jo Yoon’s head for the sake of the land. This stunning transformation takes place over the course of a year and while it pays dividends, the more cynical among you are required to have a pinch of salt handy when you consider how dense he was beforehand.
So, who are the Chusul Clan? Introduced in a seemingly unrelated but eventful opening act they are made up of leader Ddaeng-choo, aka the Vicious Monk (Lee Kyoung-young); former aristocrat-turned-rebel Tae-gi (Cho Jin-woong); tough guy Chun-bo (Ma Dong-seok); mute Geum-san (Kim Jae-yeong) and feisty female archer Ma-hyang (Yoon Ji-hye). Each one is a skilled fighter but use their brains as much as their brawn, setting up elaborate plans to outsmart their wealthy targets before relieving them of their ill-gotten riches which they share among the needy.
To give this film a slight Spaghetti Western feel – or is that a Kimchi Western? – the 70’s style graphic which introduces each Clan member is employed while certain scenes are punctuated by a deep, three note reverberated guitar motif. Elsewhere tribute is paid to the Chinese chop sookey kung fu film with the use of sharp zoom in shots. While these touches will raise a smile of recognition and there are a few light moments comedy is rather low on the agenda overall.
Even with a moral mission at hand there is little character development to be found outside of Dolmuchi’s remarkable change and the exponential evil growth of Jo-Yoon. If anything this chap is the most complex, a victim of circumstance than anything. Being born to a courtesan, welcomed into his father’s home then ousted when a true blood brother is born, why shouldn’t he feel aggrieved and angry? His adversaries on the other hand are petty thieves who hold people to ransom and relieve them of their wealth yet he’s the bad guy? Granted it’s not as black and white as that but it lays the foundation for a number of interesting debates.
If the story doesn’t captivate then the action will. Incorporating the visual majesty of Chinese wire fu epics and close range weapon fights more familiar to Korean films, Yun keeps fight fans suitably satiated with these brisk but hard hitting displays of physical combat. The centre piece is the final show down set in a bamboo forest with one combatant holding a baby in his arms as he staves off the advances of his opponent! It’s not a blood thirsty affair but throats are cut at regulars intervals although the gushing geysers that would normally accompany such an act in a samurai film is absent here.
With a heaving cast list made up of someone of Korea’s finest it is difficult to single any one person out for praise or comments, each one immersing themselves heavily into their roles as is the Asian way. The other problem is that most of those outside of the splendour of the royal courts are an unkempt, unwashed bunch dressed in rags it’s a tad hard to keep track as to who is who anyway!
It is easy to see why Kundo: Age Of The Rampant was such a domestic hit, breaking first day taking records, as Yun Jong-Bin has given Korea its own version of Seven Samurai. While full of action and a confidently directed visual epic, a tighter and more focused story would ensure a wider international appeal.
A fun if overlong historical yarn.