A kimchi Western with a heavy helping of spaghetti and tasty trimmings of humor, “Kundo: Age of the Rampant” delivers a thoroughly entertaining if overlong gallop through the trusty old story of honorable bandits stealing from nasty rich people and distributing the proceeds to downtrodden peasants. Lavishly produced, stylishly helmed by Yoon Jong-bin (“Nameless Gangster”) and vigorously performed by a top-drawer cast, “Kundo” has run rampant at the South Korean box office, and should continue to do well abroad with its high-impact action sequences and funky Tarantino-esque packaging.
Setting the all-time record for opening-day biz (but eclipsed a week later by seafaring actioner “The Admiral: Roaring Currents,” now the highest-grossing South Korean film ever made), “Kundo” is a rollicking good ride that’s marred just slightly by its tendency to linger a little too long on minor story threads here and there. But in the more critical departments of supplying well-defined heroes worth rooting for, hissable villains and an infectious spirit of fun and adventure, the film scores high marks.
The setting is 1862, in the twilight of the 500-year-old Joseon dynasty. Visually arresting from the get-go, the pic opens with the sight of animals eating corpses on a battlefield while a female narrator’s voice explains how famine and exploitation has driven starving peasants to rise up against powerful aristocratic rulers and corrupt government officials. The only glimmer of hope for the masses is Chusul Clan, a small but highly effective band of outlaws operating from a safe haven in a mountain in Jeolla province.
Auds get to know and love this fighting force at an exciting raid at the birthday celebration of crooked Gov. Choi (Kim Jong-goo). Following a lecture on ethics by battle-scarred leader Dae-ho (Lee Sung-min), the pudgy politician and dozens of guards are outmuscled and out-thought by Chusul members Ddaeng-choo, aka the Vicious Monk (Lee Kyoung-young); brainy aristocrat-turned-freedom fighter Tae-gi (Cho Jin-woong); beefy brawler Chun-bo (Ma Dong-seok); handsome young mute Geum-san (Kim Jae-yeong); and Ma-hyang (Yoon Ji-hye), a fabulous female warrior whose snappy one-liners bring winning shots of humor and girl power to the proceedings.
Following this rousing intro, the focus switches to Dolmuchi (Ha Jung-woo, “Nameless Gangster”), a scruffy young butcher eking out a living in an isolated shack with his unnamed mother (Kim Hae-sook) and sister, Gok-ji (Han Ye-ri). Lured by more money than he’s ever seen, Dolmuchi is hired as an assassin by Jo-yoon (Kang Dong-won), an unusually cruel and slightly effeminate young noble willing to eliminate family members to secure his fortune. After conscience prevents Dolmuchi from carrying out the task, his mother and sister are murdered by Jo-yoon’s goons. Just as he’s about to suffer the same fate, Dolmuchi is rescued by the bandits and accepted into their company.
Although it takes the better part of an hour for Dolmuchi to emerge as the central character, the setup time is very well spent. Of the many entertaining plot threads and backstories mapped out by helmer Yoon and co-scripter Jun Chul-hong, the most rewarding is a detailed portrait of Jo-yoon’s traumatic childhood as the illegitimate son of Gov. Jo (Song Young-chang) and a prostitute mother. Scenes of young Yoon-jo being embraced, then shunned by his father, and openly loathed by cold-hearted stepmother Lady Jo (Park Myung-shin), give the film’s chief villain an intriguing edge of sympathy even as he commits monstrous crimes in present-day scenes.
Despite a few unnecessarily extended sequences and some confusing moments when it’s hard to figure out exactly who’s plotting to kill whom, the second half of the movie rocks along nicely with a much lighter mood and sharper sense of humour than the opening stanzas. Driving the good vibes is Dolmuchi’s transformation from social zero into meat cleaver-wielding, master-fighting hero. Played with gusto by Ha, and given some amusingly anachronistic dialogue such as “Chill, bro, I’m a walking shitstorm” when confronting enemies, Dolmuchi comes across more like a super-cool contempo rock star than the stiff and steely protagonist of a traditional Korean costume epic. Importantly, the screenplay never allows its deeper themes of loyalty and honor to be diluted by misplaced shots of comedy.
The buildup to the inevitable day of reckoning between Jo-yoon and Dolmuchi (renamed “Dochi” after his training stint at bandit HQ) doesn’t disappoint where action is concerned. Following rousing scenes of Dochi and Co. stealing rich people’s rice and giving it to the poor, and a stunning raid on the bandit’s hideout in which Ma-hyang takes on hordes of henchmen while carrying a baby on her back, the events reach a thrilling climax in a bamboo forest.
In his first feature role since returning from military service, Kang (“Secret Reunion”) is aces as the stone-faced psychopath with profoundly unresolved “father issues.” Lee Kyoung-young is terrific as a Korean Buddhist equivalent of Friar Tuck; Cho excels as the thinker of the thieving clan; and Yoon Ji-hye is bound to be an audience favorite as the highly capable, straight-talking femme warrior. Other performances from a gallery of well-known thesps are tops.
Evoking everything from classical American Westerns to “Seven Samurai” and Sergio Leone, d.p. Choi Chan-min captures breathtaking images of dusty plains, lush forests and the opulent interiors of aristocrat’s mansions. Handsome production design and colorful costuming also make strong contributions to the movie’s visual appeal. Cho Young-wook’s score is a catchy mix of spaghetti guitar twangs and more traditional orchestral cues, while the soundtrack features prominent placement of Riz Ortolani’s theme from the 1967 oater “Day of Anger” (aka “Gunlaw”). It’s a superb piece but seems a lazy choice, considering it was recently revived and given similarly high-profile placement in “Django Unchained.” Other technical work is first-class.