Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Kundo—Age of the Rampant: the Butcher vs. the Bastard

If the peasants won’t take to their pitchforks, the Chusul Clan will do it for them. They are sort of like Robin Hood and his men, but they aren’t very merry. The Chusul outlaws definitely believe in stealing from the rich. That would be Jo Yoon, a Naju lord’s sociopathic illegitimate son. It is the have-not’s versus the man who has everything except a proper name in Yoon Jong-bin’s smash hit Kundo: Age of the Rampant (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It was sort of the Chusuls’ fault that the death of Lord Jo Won-suk’s son opened up a void to be filled by his new presumptive heir, Jo Yoon. Still, at the time, it was a highly satisfying mission for Dae-ho, the Chusul captain. Indirectly, it also brings Dolmuchi into the picture. The lowly clever-wielding butcher is hired by Jo Yoon to murder his half-brother’s pregnant widow. However, Dolmuchi has an outbreak of conscience at the last moment.

Slightly disappointed, Jo Yoon has the poor butcher’s family murdered, but Dolmuchi is saved at the last moment by his future Chusul comrades. Despite the wise spiritual counsel of Ddaeng-choo, “the Vicious Monk,” Dolmuchi is consumed with a desire for revenge. However, Jo Yoon’s almost superhuman martial arts were nearly the death of him the last time they faced off. Frankly, the Naju usurper might be too powerful for Dolmuchi’s adopted clan, but when he really starts to squeeze the peasantry, Dae-ho resolves to act.

The obvious class warfare themes drive Kundo like the runaway bus in Speed, but it never loses sight of the action. In fact, there are numerous spaghetti western hat-tips, including a big noisy one to the original Django, which is awesome. There is also the Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai/Seven Warriors dynamic of the rag-tag Chusul action team coming together, including the hulking Chun-bo, Lee Tae-ki, a former aristocratic turned outlaw, and Ma-hyang, the strictly-business archer they both carry a torch for.

It seems like the creepiest villains in Korean cinema are often distinctly androgynous—and Jo Yoon is no exception. Freshly discharged from his mandatory military service, Gang Dong-won’s performance has the grace and menace of a psychotic ballet dancer. He is flamboyantly cruel, but screenwriter Jeon Cheol-hong takes pains to establish the linkage to his miserable childhood.

Indeed, Gang chews the scenery quite effectively as the clammy Jo Yoon. Conversely, Ha Jung-woo practically blows smoke out his ears as the massively intense Dolmuchi. Lee Sung-min and Yoon Ji-hye are both steely cool as Dae-ho and Ma-hyang, respectively, while former MMA trainer Ma Dong-seok (a.k.a. Don Lee) is reliably energizing as the Friar Tuck-ish Chun-bo. However, veteran character actor Lee Kyoung-young (practically unrecognizable without his glasses) nearly steals the show as the hardcore but deeply compassionate priest. Unfortunately, viewers who blink might miss Korean indie star Kim Kkobbi fleetingly appearing as Jo Yoon’s fugitive half-sister-in-law.

Kundo literally tells us serfs: “United you are people, divided you are thieves.” Fortunately, it then proceeds to kill a bunch of extras. Frankly, the rhetoric might sound more DPRK than ROK, but Jo Yoon’s tyranny just as easily validates Lord Acton as it does Leon Trotsky. More importantly, the action sequences are pretty spectacular. Dolmuchi even fights like a butcher, which is quite cinematic. Recommended for those who enjoy epic, morally black-and-white, two hour-plus epic historical conflagrations, Kundo: Age of the Rampant opens this Friday (8/29) in New York at the AMC Empire.