South Korean film “Kundo: Age of the Rampant” is a funny mix of period drama, action comedy, and Spaghetti western. Although it is frequently incoherent and feels dragged especially around its last chapter, there are many fun moments of humor and excitement, and it is supported well by a number of colorful and spirited performances which always bring the sense of fun to the screen.
Its main characters, who are a bunch of thieves residing in Jiri Mountain, are loosely inspired by a group of real-life thieves who were active during the late period of Joseon dynasty. It is 1859, and common people around the country have been suffering through several years of natural disasters followed by bad harvest, and the rich and powerful do not hesitate to exploit and plunder common people. In this desperate period, a group of outlaws form an organization called “Kundo”, and they become sort of Robin Hood figures to many people as robbing sacks of rice and other valuable assets from those greedy 1% guys and then spreading them around 99% people in hunger and poverty.
After showing their latest success in a surprise attack on a corrupt official’s party packed with other noblemen, the movie quickly moves its focus to Dolmoochi(Ha Jeong-woo), a young lowly butcher who has been leading a humble life with his mother and sister outside the city but unfortunately gets involved with Jo Yoon(Kang Dong-won), a fierce and ruthless son of some powerful nobleman. Because of his status as an illegitimate son, Jo Yoon has been pushed aside since his father finally got a legitimate son not long after he adopted Jo Yoon, but now he comes upon a very good chance to get what he wants, and he is determined to do anything for that.
With a considerable amount of money as the reward, Jo Yoon instructs Dolmoochi to kill someone standing on his way to the sole heirship, but Dolmoochi, who is not very bright but does not feel right about killing from the beginning, botches the job, and he gets a severe punishment as a consequence. He loses his dear family, and then he is going to be executed promptly thanks to the backroom dealing between Jo Yoon and a law official who gladly accepts a boxful of bribery promised to him.
Fortunately, Dolmoochi is saved by the members of Kundo at the last minute, and he soon joins this clan as “Dochi”. While Dochi transforms himself into one of its notorious members who is well-known for not only his skill with knives but also his hilarious way of humiliating his targets, Jo Yoon stops at nothing for getting more land, more money, and more power as the de facto head of his house, and he becomes an infamous figure to many poor people who suddenly lose their land and then become his slave or tenant for life. Dochi and other members of Kundo decide they should do something about this infuriating injustice, and the clash between them and Jo Yoon becomes inevitable when they plan to invade into Jo Yoon’s manor.
While not overlooking lots of pain and torment caused by Jo Yoon and other corrupt officials, the movie does not lose its sense of humor at all, and one of the funniest things in the movie is its deadpan narration by Jeong Yoo-mi. She describes and explains many things in the movie while sounding as calm and plain as your average TV history documentary narrator, but her narration is done with a tongue-in-cheek modern viewpoint which certainly tickled me and other audiences around me(“So, at the age of 11, he comes to experience the bitterness of life.”). The movie does not care much about realism as brandishing its wild style, so its climax sequence comes with a certain weapon which looks pretty anachronistic considering the 19th century Korean background, and its score does not hide the influence from Spaghetti western movies as an electric guitar is gleefully played along with the characters riding on a dry, wide plain. As far as I know, there is not such a wide plain like that in Korea although we do have some plains among mountains, but I guess I should not complain about that because the movie does not attempt to be realistic from the start.
The actors assembled for the movie go along with its cheerful attitude while having a fun with their roles as much as they can. Ha Jeong-woo, who collaborated with the director/writer Yoon Jong-bin in Yoon’s previous three films, is dependable as the lead actor, and he is surrounded by various delightful supporting performances to be enjoyed. Lee Seong-min is the leader of Kundo, Lee Kyeong-yeong is a rogue Buddhist monk who may remind you of Friar Turk, and Ma Dong-seok and Jo Jin-woong are two very different Kundo members competing with each other for winning the affection from Ma-hyang(Yoon Ji-hye), a female member who can take care of herself well among the guys around her.
As the villain of the movie, Kang Dong-won does not stumble even when his character happens to look quite silly during one fight scene, but he seems to have the least fun in the movie compared to the other actors in the film. As showing him as a formidable but pitiful monster who was shaped by his cruel, unhappy childhood years, the movie eventually makes him into a brooding villain who may be far more suitable for a different kind of film, and the screenplay is also rather murky about Jo Yoon’s conflicted feelings toward to a little minor character who should be killed for his final goal. The movie also has many notable South Korean actors including Jeong Man-sik, Kim Seong-gyoon, Song Yeong-chang, Kim Hae-sook, Joo Jin-mo, Lee Da-wit, and Kim Kkobbi, and they function well as the small parts of the ensemble at the fringe of the story.
Although it does not fully develop the potentials inside its story and characters, “Kundo: Age of the Rampant” is enjoyable when it bounces with its sly humor and the jolly energy generated from its saucy performances during its first half, and that impression is not wholly ruined by its less interesting second half which is a little too long. I still think it could be better if its interesting mix of genres were more focused and balanced, but I had a fair amount of entertainment with this uneven but enjoyable movie, and I was amused by its whimsies. Not many South Korean period movies ride into the sunset on the horizon, you know.