Kundo: Age of the Rampant is set in the late Choson period of Korea. It’s an interesting time, historically, as Korea descended into corruption and decay, and as court politics befouled any well-meaning king’s attempt at reform. This is all made clear in what I consider an unnecessary voice-over narration.
The thing is, I liked this movie, but I think it could have been much more awesome. There was too much telling instead of showing, especially when the showing did all that was required. The appalling conditions in which the common folk lived are illustrated again and again. The corruption and venality of the bureaucracy and nobility are the crux of the movie. We don’t need to know the details, and knowing them does nothing to improve the movie.
Indeed, along with some fantastic action sequences, this movie could be an allegorical warning against widening income inequality. This was Korea’s “gilded age,” in which the rich continued to get richer by exploiting the poor. The problem was – and maybe is? – that once you leave a person with nothing, that person has nothing left to lose.
And so it is for the bandit commune in which the main character finds himself. These are Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich to re-distribute among the poor. And tellingly, they are not sharing coins or jewelry, they are sharing rice. The people are starving, and the bandits redistribute the food coerced out of the locals by their noble, who uses it as leverage over them as they starve.
Perhaps this makes the movie sound too heavy It’s not. At its heart, it is an action movie with good action scenes. It is also a Korean movie, and as with so many, it is soaked in Han – something I tend to describe as deep, cultural melancholy, but which is so much more complex. What this means is that you do not get a happy ending. The ending is happy-esque, but I don’t think this would have survived a Hollywood test screening.
The biggest problem I had with the movie as that it needed more action. The action that it had, it did well, but there just wasn’t enough of it. I was thinking at one point we were going to go into 13 Assassins territory and have 30 or 40 minutes of just straight up killing. That didn’t happen. I’m not saying that ruined the movie, but I think the movie really could have used more action.
I also believe the great actors were mostly wasted. Yes, this is a good actioner with a social conscience, and what that led to was a lot of rumination and repetition – rumination on what makes a good man and repetition of how bad the baddies were. We didn’t need this reinforced. That time could have been used on some retribution.
But I think this is one of the things I need to accept about Korean movies. Along with the melodrama, a lot of times there’s got to be suffering. Lots of suffering. For me, the suffering served to provide information. The antagonist? He’s a bad dude. Boom! Done for me. But for Koreans – and I think this might get back to Han – could the suffering have a different purpose? Could it be introspection of a historical sort? This is part of their history. Suffering is part of their identity, the foundation of Han. It serves as something more than a message. Maybe it’s catharsis?
That’s getting too deep for me. In the end, I just wanted more action. Or even more character development. I needed something more to push it from a good movie to a great movie. As it stands, I enjoyed it. While not stunningly original, it was strong. While not having enough action, the action it had entertained.
I recommend Kundo: Age of the Rampant to movie lovers who don’t mind subtitles, and I give it 4 akimbo meat cleavers out of 5.
You can find out more about Han here.