Watching Kundo is like watching a Korean take on Quentin Tarantino
‘Kundo’ is slow to start but has a killer finish, filled with all the fighting and tragedy you’d expect from a classic martial arts epic or western drama.
An homage is a tricky thing, because it’s easy to screw up. And when there’s a language barrier, it can be even trickier. But sometimes you can get past all that merely by being sublimely ridiculous.
I usually don’t review Korean movies (the last — Masquerade – was nearly two years ago), but occasionally I get the chance if they open locally. Oddly enough, Kundo (also called Kundo: Age of the Rampart overseas) also takes place in the Joseon Dynasty, a once powerful and influential Korean state for many centuries. This movie takes place in 1859 at the time when the Dynasty was beginning to fall apart. At the time, there was massive corruption among the nobility, who hoarded their riches and stores of food from the poorer country folk. This is the real historic backdrop to a very violent and stylized take on Robin Hood meets kung fu historical epics meets spaghetti westerns. There are a lot of characters here, but most aren’t that important. The interesting ones quickly stand out and the others tend to blend into the background. And the story? It’s relatively simple. Relatively.
There’s already the idea I mentioned, a group of bandits (called “kundo”) that act like Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. There’s an interesting cast of characters in the band, although we don’t get to know all of them. But that’s just one part of the story. Illegitimate son of a nobleman, Jo Yoon (Kang Dong-won), is the only male heir to his father’s estates, but he knows he only matters until another more legitimate heir is born. He is driven, capable, and broken — he’s a master martial artist but kind of a sociopath, targeting several relatives that stand in his way to inheritance.
When the wife of his deceased brother is revealed to be pregnant and in hiding, Jo Yoon hires Dochi (Ha Jung-woo), a lowly and destitute butcher, to kill the expecting mother. But he can’t do it so in punishment, Jo Yoon sends goons to kill Dochi and his family. Dochi survives a house on fire, although badly burnt, but his wife and child do not. So of course, Dochi joins the kundo, desperately wanting revenge but waiting for the opportunity, which may come sooner than he’s ready for…
Soon he becomes a feared member of the group, wielding twin cleavers in an uniquely awesome, violent manner. And perhaps his chance for revenge is coming soon. As we get into the second half of the movie, everything increases in volume and pace. There are battle after furious battle, slaughters of innocents and over the top action sequences. The language is vulgar and often a bit anachronistic and the villains absurd and complex. I felt like there were a lot of connections to Tarantino’s homages, as this felt like its own collection of homages. Not to say I didn’t like it — it’s satisfying to see a man with cleavers take on a bunch of armed soldiers at once. I was a bit lost at first, and the movie did seem kind of slow, throwing more characters at me than Game of Thrones. But that second act became one giant revenge flick, and it was great. There’s even a real sort of gunfight later on, and that was just great to see pulled off in the historical setting.
I’m not sure about all of the homages to past cinema, but the score seemed very Ennio Morricone-esque and the ending was so spot on to classic westerns that I laughed at the audacity. There were a few really great stand-out performances here; Kang Dong-won is fantastic as the incongruously evil villain with daddy issues, and Ha Jung-Woo plays his part as the revenge-crazed warrior perfectly. Some of the side characters are decent too, but a bit forgettable. I was also surprised by how dark and brutal the movie got at times, but then I’d be surprised by some casual profanity, so that just reminds me of Tarantino again. Although to be honest, it’s not that slick or polished as his best, not that much ever has been. This won’t be the next great movie you’ll see, but it’s a lot of fun with a bit of pathos in there. It makes me really just want to see more Korean action cinema, and I suppose that’s not a bad thing at all.