I love action films so I was prepared to enjoy Kundo: Age of the Rampant (군도: 민란의 시대) as a summer blockbuster. And while there were a few things I had issues with, overall it’s a good action flick. One of the key things the film had going for it was one of the most evil villain’s I’ve seen in a while. Plus for a Korean period film – it’s set in the 1860’s I believe – it requires little to no knowledge of Korea or Korean history to enjoy it making it a decent film for the international market.
**Warning: Spoiler Alert! Like all film reviews, there will be spoilers so please read with caution if you haven’t seen the film.**
The film quickly sets the stage with a brief introduction to the period in Korean history – late in the Joseon dynasty, in the mid-1800s – where we see that it was a period of social and economic unrest in Korea. Famine, drought, cruelty and death abound. Those in power are only concerned with their own wealth and power, and care little for those they exploit to get and keep it.
But there is a group fighting back against the tyranny. A bandit clan known as the Kundo raid corrupt officials and nobles, and share the food they steal with the poor and downtrodden.
With the stage set, the two main players enter at different ends of the spectrum. Dolmuchi was born a poor butcher (the lowest of the low) and Jo Yoon was born, illegitimately, into a powerful and wealthy family. Jo Yoon wants the power of being his father’s heir and hires Dolmuchi to assassinate his recently deceased brother’s widow. Dolmuchi agrees but is unable to actually commit the crime so Jo Yoon orders his – and his family’s – death. Dolmuchi survives and is bent on revenge and along the way, he is rescued by the Kundo and subsequently joins them.
There he heals, learns more about the world and is “reborn” – complete with a new name “Dolchi”. The Kundo continue to fight tyranny and the story comes full circle when it becomes apparent that they will have to go up against Jo Yoon.
I already told you that I love action films – which I really do. Combine that with a Robin Hood-esque story, a ruthless villain and a slightly oddball hero – and I was kept entertained and engaged throughout the film. Was it perfect? No, there were some issues I will highlight. But ultimately, it was a good film. A little campy at times (which I also liked) but with some great fight scenes and beautiful scenery (I loved the sepia-like colouring at times)
I loved the villain, Jo Yoon, played with an abundance of creepiness by Kang Dong Won (강동원), or rather I hated him. His character was so horribly evil, so utterly without conscience, that it was so very easy to hate him. Yes, he was shaped by the circumstances of his birth and the way a good life was dangled in front of him, only to be snatched away. But to contemplate killing his baby brother… and then all the other atrocities he committed or ordered committed. It was hard to feel pity for him.
But could he ever fight – the fight scenes that he was involved in (other than the destruction of the Kundo village which was just plain brutal) were beautiful to watch. Kudos to the stunt/fight choreographer. And the untying of his topknot… he looked like a creepy specter fighting with long hair – a slightly effeminate but super creepy specter.
Of course, Jo Yoon wasn’t the only character who was interesting. Ha Jung Woo (하정우) played the bumbling butcher – Dolmuchi – turned heroic bandit – Dolchi – very well. At the beginning he appeared to be simple but as the film progresses we watch him grow, cope with tragedy and become a fearful – and very determined – warrior. Although I did have one issue with his character – his age. Was something missing in the translation or was Dolmuchi/Dolchi really supposed to be 18-20 in the film? And along with that, was Chunbo played by Ma Dong Seok (마동석) supposed to be 22?
But once I got past my questions about his age, Dolchi was an interesting, if odd, hero. In fact, for an action film it was quite character-driven, even if they were mostly male characters. There were also some funny moments – like Dolchi’s newly found hobby of cutting off topknots – to lighten the violence. But make no mistake, it is a violent film. You’ll see a monk get tortured, a kid get shot with an arrow and a host of other brutal behaviour.
So what detracted from the film? It was a little long and there were some scenes that could have been edited or deleted. For example, I loved when the surviving Kundo rode away into the sunset at the end of the film – except they kept riding and riding.
All in all, it was an entertaining film to watch with some interesting characters and one of the best bad guys I’ve seen in a while. Add in some beautiful scenery and good fight scenes and you get a film I can honestly recommend. Award-winning? Probably not but if you like action and/or kung fu-like sword fights, it’s an enjoyable flick. However, it is a violent film so it won’t suit everyone.