If Sergio Leone made spaghetti westerns, and Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” was—as advertised in 1985—was a ramen western, that must made Yoon Jong-bin’s epic-length “Kundo” a guksu western. It even has an Ennio Morricone-flavored score by Cho Yeong-wuk to prove it, as well as a closing shot that has the heroes riding off into the sunset. But there are also dollops of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Seven Samurai,” and even a dash of “Spartacus,” in the recipe. So how tasty is the final dish? It’s not a classic you’ll rave about for days, and at 138 minutes it does go on too long. But for fans of Asian period action, it will certainly serve.
The story is set in 1859, in the kingdom of Joseon. The corruption of the government, and the greed of the nobility allied with it, have led to the formation of a formidable band of bandits called the Chusul Clan, which has an encampment in the mountains from which its warriors ride out to wreak havoc against officials and aristocrats who are oppressing the common people. This group of not-so-merry men, led by Dae-ho (Lee Sung-min) and including a graying fellow called Vicious Monk (no Friar Tuck he), is shown in the first act of the picture ending the career of a avaricious governor and distributing his stores of food to the masses.
Among the nobility the most atrocious example of cruelty is Jo Yoon (Kang Dong-won), a masterful martial arts expert whose unhappy life is detailed in a simplistically psychological flashback. The bastard son of a wealthy aristocrat by a courtesan, he’s adopted by his father when his wife provides him only with daughters, and becomes heir to a vast fortune. But when his stepmother gives birth to a boy, he’s abruptly shunted off to the side and treated harshly; but he resorts to the most horrendous crimes to climb back on top. In time his younger half-brother is dead and his pregnant sister-in-law forced to take refuge in a temple.
That initiates the plot thread that’s most clearly derived from Leone. Jo Yoon hires Dolmuchi (Ha Jung-woo), an impoverished butcher, to kill the woman. He initially agrees, but finds himself unable to do the deed (the intervention of the Vicious Monk has something to do with that). And to show his displeasure Jo Yoon has Dolmuchi’s house burned down, killing his mother and sister in the process. Dolmuchi is supposed to die too, but he survives and is recruited into the brotherhood of the Chusul Clan, renamed Dolchi.
It isn’t difficult to see where this is headed. The Clan will eventually target Jo Yoon, and after a series of feints and reversals Dolchi and the evil lord will face off against one another in a forest of bamboo trees, no less (shades of Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers”). Truth be told, “Kundo” doesn’t match the visual majesty of that film’s action sequences, and even less the awe-inspiring impact of the scenes of combat in Zhang’s magnificent “Hero.” But they’re solid enough in a more generic fashion, and together Elhen Park’s production design, Cho Sang-kyung’s costumes and Choi Chan-min’s cinematography give the film visual luster. Yoon and editors Kim Sang-bum and Kim Jae-bum do pace things in a rather dilatory fashion at times, and grumpy Ha Jung-woo frankly doesn’t make a very charismatic protagonist (he also doesn’t look to be the 18 to 22-year old he’s supposed to be playing). Kang, on the other hand, is a strikingly genteel villain, with a battery of impressive martial-arts moves. The rest of the cast is fine, though none really stand out.
“Kundo: Age of the Rampant,” to use the full title, doesn’t possess the crossover appeal of a “Hero” or a “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” But it was a huge success in its home country, and American fans of Korean action films will find it worth seeking out.