When I decide to watch a movie, it is usually based on two thing:
- Whether or not the press picture implies some kind of action.
- The runtime.
While there’s obviously some leeway on the first one, once a movie pushes past the two hour mark I tend to weigh my interest more carefully. I’ll take a random chance on an 80 minute movie or a 100 minute. But a movie that’s 135 minutes? That’s past the limits of the “Why not?” attitude. I’m not sure what it says about my psychology, but that’s the way it is.
The press notes for Kundo show a bald man wielding two giant butcher knives (check!) and gave a 100 minute runtime (check!). That sounded right up my alley.
But while it definitely has the action I was looking for, the runtime on the press notes was off by 35 minutes. That was an unwelcome surprise.
Kundo: Age of the Rampant
Director: Yoon Jong-bin
Release Date: August 29, 2014 (Limited theatrical)
Country: South Korea
It’s not that I dislike long(er) movies; I just need to be in the right mood to see them. Much of watching a film, reading a book, playing a video game, or doing any sort of thing is being in the proper mindset for that thing. Blue is the Warmest Color requires a very different mindset than Detention, and the 135-minute pseudo-epic that is Kundo: Age of the Rampart requires a different mindset than the 100-minute Robin Hood-esque action film I expected.
None of this is Kundo‘s fault, of course, and it actually speaks to how generally enjoyable the film is that I never really got bored despite the unexpected extra half hour. I did, however, get confused a few times by who was who. Certain characters looked enough like characters that I thought I was seeing flashbacks when I wasn’t. For the most part, characters simply are who they are, no backstory needed.
In essence, Kundo is ultra-violent Robin Hood. The merry band of thieves don’t just steal from the rich and give to the poor; they sentence the rich to death for crimes against the poor. Also, no one is merry.
The violence is Kundo‘s bread and butter. When the drama get hamfisted (which it does regularly), you can rest assured that it will soon be over and then people will be beating each other up. And by beating each other up, I mean killing each other. Essentially everyone in the film fights with weapons of some kind – whether it’s a ball and chain, the aforementioned butcher knives, or swords – and that leads to large scale fights that often end rather quickly. One strong sword swipe means instant death, so the unfortunate masses caught in the middle perish in a spray of blood.
Kundo follows Dolmuchi, a butcher who joins the Kundo after his mother and sister are killed in a fire. It’s worth noting that while actor Ha Jung-Woo gives an excellent performance, he is also the least convincing 18-year old I have ever seen. Ha is 36 years old and looks at least his age in this film. But apparently he’s 18. The first time a character said this they were saying that he was only a few years older than some children who they were trying to scam out of food. I assumed that this was just part of the scam. But it came up again, and again. When he shouted (after a time jump) “I’m 20 years old!” I actually laughed out loud, and I’m shocked he didn’t do the same. (They must have done a lot of takes.)
The age thing is sort of a problem throughout, because it’s never really clear how old certain people should be or how they relate to others. The film’s antagonist, Jo Yoon, is played by the 33 year old Gang Dong-Won, and he looks much younger. But I got the impression that they’re supposed to be the same age. But then again, maybe not. Jo Yoon’s sister is older(?) and gives birth, which is narratively important but the ages of everyone involved are just too confusing to make heads or tails of the family tree.
And the film actually understands how confusing it is, because it frequently turns to extensive voiceover, for example a long explanation of Jo Yoon’s past (what backstory there is is a bit excessive). Footage of him being good with swords is talked over by a woman who (as far as I could tell) has nothing to do with the film itself. She simply piped up every so often to explain things about the people or the time period. I don’t know how much of Kundo was attempting to be historically accurate, but the filmmakers sure wanted it to feel authentic. People just keep talking and talking, explaining everything and making it actually feel more like people practicing for a historical reenactment than an actual moment in history.
Still, there are some dramatic beats that strike the right tone, and the performances by Ha Jung-Woo and Gang Dong-Won do a good job of propelling the narrative forward. I was actually surprised at how deep both characters were. Although much of Jo Yoon’s “development” takes the form of that voiceover, he still has room to grow and change. His final scenes are especially poignant, and reveal some fascinating things about the character. At one point, it threatens to become too reductive, but the moment is salvaged by the finale.
But he is cruel, and much of Kundo centers on the cruelty of his class. Peasants are scammed, stolen from, and generally taken advantage of by the well-to-do. This is a film for the 99% if I ever saw one, but it’s got the stereotypical brutality of Korean cinema. It makes the film hard to watch at times, and there are points where it feels like they may be going too far. And while Robin Hood was always going to succeed (spoiler), it’s comes at an extremely depressing cost. No one comes out of the battle unscathed, which makes the eventual victory bittersweet. A feel-good family film this is not.
But it’s absolutely worth seeing- if you’re in the right frame of mind.