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[HanCinema's Film Review] "KUNDO: Age of the Rampant": Worthy and Weary

2014/10/11 | Permalink

In the spotlight this week: Yoon Jong-bin's "KUNDO: Age of the Rampant"

Yoon Jong-bin covers an awful lot of ground in his period pastiche "KUNDO: Age of the Rampant", and when the film broke the opening-day record at the box office we thought (before "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" stormed the scene) that perhaps this jazzy Joseon epic would be one for the record books. While it is highly entertaining, and the pure scope Yoon tried to frame-up was impressive, Yoon's commitment to compression, style and staging did appear to affect the film's bottom line.

It's 19th Century Joseon, a time when corruption between the top 1% and those wielding political power is wild and wicked. The people, dirty and oppressed as they are, look to a small community of estranged thieves, a band of outlaws (not dissimilar form Robin Hood's own 'Merry Men') set-up to serve the public cool justice and raw rice. These annoying outsiders snatch and sentence the rotten apples, redistribute food to the soft souls squirming under the magistrate's heel, and recruit rough diamonds from the community they believe will help further their cause.

Enter, Dol Mu-chi (Ha Jung-woo) a scummy butcher who gets asked to murder the noble's pregnant stepsister by a dastardly aristocrat. The price was right and Mu-chi sneaks into her room at the monastery, raises his cleaver above his head, and then runs away when he she wakes up and sees him. For this failure his house and family are set alight, burned to ground (along with half his own scalp) and left to wind to rummage through. Our broken hero grabs two tools of his trade, and then hacks his way (using his akimbo cleavers) to the madman at the top: the wickedly skilled bastard Jo Yoon (Gang Dong-won).

There are some impressively choreographed clashes between these two (a thrilling motif that runs throughout "KUNDO: Age of the Rampant"), but our enraged butcher is convincingly chastised by this up-and-coming leader, and after a brief behind-the-scenes truncating of due course, Mu-chi is sentenced to a swift and quiet death. But just before the blade falls, talent scouts from the secret sect of daring desperados appears and welcome him into their elite justice league. He arrives at Kundo's peaceful valley hideout, trains hard, and joins the vigilante's vanguard for missions against corruption and injustices.

The film felt progressively more like a melting pot of potential and tropes. Yoon, working from Jeon Cheol-hong's screenplay ("The Target" and "The Admiral: Roaring Currents"), includes not only a variety with events (unconvincingly chapterized in five acts), but also in tone and emotions. There are some stupefyingly silly and funny moments, cute and awkward side romances, and innocent overacting. But there's also, swinging to the other side now, the murder of a family and plenty of innocents (not just kicking the bucket in the background either), executions and hangings, and it's an historical epic George R.R. Martin would bat an eyelid at. It's not so much the emotional range the film tried to include, it's that over the course of its 135min this constant bait-and-switch started to numb my moral compass and the film took on a nihilistic taint.

This 'kimchi western' plays like an interesting origin story as it follows the rise of one man as he righteously rages for the greater good. There are some really stunning scenes here, the kind of aesthetically appealing moments you'd expect to find in such a high-quality production, and the action and locations seem fresh, if not a bit fantastical. Yoon's monomyth also contain an interesting gathering of talents, an impressive range of performances perhaps topped by Gang Dong-won's entertaining efforts as the scorned bastard son of a corrupt nobleman. Jo Yoon isn't evil incarnate though, the film spends a good part of its various expositions detailing the history (pretty much from inception) and traumas this little bastard and his suffering; it's an empathetic angle that perhaps curtailed the conviction of the quest at hand.

It's hard not recommend "KUNDO : Age of the Rampant" for, if nothing else, the pure thrill of another juicy Joseon adventure. It's an epic quest through valleys deep and mountains high (for better or worse) and come stylised and cinematically crisp for our pleasure. It's a film that jumped aboard the period piece express and managed to move 4.7M filmgoers in the process: a fair reflection of a melting pot of a picture that draws heavily from a variety of genres and styles, and while "KUNDO : Age of the Rampant" get's it more right than not, the scale and scope did pixelate the film's overall quality.

- C.J. Wheeler (chriscjw@gmail.comKoreaOnTheCouch)


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