Jung-woo Ha and Dong-won Kang shine in this period-action film about a clash of two men cast aside by Joeseon society. Director Jong-bin Yoon pulls Kundo together from a mix of styles, heavy on the Spaghetti western, but true to contempory Korean martial arts action. Overall, the film stays light and fun, but the slow exposition over the 137 minute run time keeps this good film from greatness.
I wonder if there are ever officials other than corrupt ones in Korean films. It seems that whenever we are presented with a historical drama, the officials are in need of reform and shaking down the population like petty mafiosi. Jong-bin Yun’s historic action film, Kundo: The Age of the Rampant, is set in one such time of particular onerous burdens on the people.
Kundo opens in 1861 – a time of famine and rebellion, we are told. A governor is celebrating his birthday. Little does he know that his party has been infiltrated by a robin hood style gang (are there any other types?) who have organized against his corrupt rule. At the feast we are introduced to Dolmuchi (Jung-woo Ha), a butcher as well as Gok-ji (Ye-ri Han) the governor’s bastard son. Gok-ji hires Dolmuchi to assassinate a run-away woman who he is told has taken up with monks to provide them sexual pleasure. It is the first of many meetings between Dolmuchi and Gok-ji, and it isn’t until later that we find out what he is up to.
On the one hand Kundo follows the long story of an butcher as he joins the struggle against the nobility, rising from poor outcast to hero. The first half of the film involves his run-ins with the gang and the nobility as he unwittingly passes certain tests that make him eligible for initiation into the gang (apparently it’s good to have clear eyes, a loyal heart and a long schlong). Equally important to the film is the story of Gok-ji as he deals with the rejection of his father after the birth of a heir and well as the limits placed on his mobility as the offspring of a concubine. While Gok-ji is clearly the villain in the movie, I thought the concern with his past made Kundo a little more than your average sword and top-knot action film.
Kundo is an action film through and through. Like many historic dramas, there is an inheritance at stake and courtly family intrigue. But Cheol-Hong Jeon’s script crams as much of that background into a voice-over narration so that we are never more than a few minutes from a brawl. But even with all of the action, at 137 minutes, the movie seems to drag. Dolmuchi’s transformation and initiation probably doesn’t need to take up so many acts.
Technically, Kundo is an interesting experience. Yun incorporates quite a few audio and visual stylistic cues from spaghetti westerns in addition to Korean period action. It is a good mixture. The result is not nearly the kimchi western that 2008’s The Good, the Bad and the Weird. Kundo is not nearly as much fun. But Kundo still provides enough violent entertainment to make it a worthwhile view for those who don’t like their action bogged down with long twisting court intrigues and morality conflicts.