Ben Nicholson London Korean Film Festival

Korean Film Festival: ‘Kundo’ review

The ninth edition of the London Korean Film Festival launched on Thursday to a packed house at the Odeon West End with a gala screening of Yun Jing-bin’s spirited period romp, Kundo: The Age of Rampant (2014). Best known for his viscous crime thrillers, the director’s foray into historical action epic calls to mind the energy of Quentin Tarantino, streaking this Korean Robin Hood-esque fable with the essence, style, and many of the genre conventions of a spaghetti western. The results are varied, yet Yun’s forth feature has stormed the Korean box office and thanks to some enjoyable lead performances and a healthy dose of of high-octane combat it makes for diverting fun.

An opening salvo makes a firm statement about the mash-up credentials of what is to follow, combining a funeral procession across a dusty desert landscape, with an Eastern birthday celebration. Depicting the delineation between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ Yun’s villains wear black hats and the heroes wear white – but these are no Stetsons, and when the drunken brawling ensues the conflict is overshadowed by deft martial artistry. The feared band of outlaws who will play the heroes are led by the noble Dae-ho (Lee Sung-min) the head of the righteous Chusul Clan. As they ride from battle, a classic western title-sequence (complete with an obligatory twanging soundtrack) ensues. A tale of corrupt overlords and bandits plays out against Choi Can-min’s beautifully rendered vistas, ranging from arid and rundown to intricate and luscious.

Set in the decline of the Joseon dynasty (in the mid-19th century) the juxtaposition of tradition and advancement works well. One particular climactic fight sequence appears to be a brilliant amalgamation of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Sergio Corbucci’s original Django (1966). However, for this we need a protagonist to root for and he (eventually) emerges as the wronged butcher, Dolmuchi (Ha Jung-woo). His beef is with an incredibly skilled swordsman with daddy issues, Jo-yoon (Korean heartthrob Kang Dong-won). Dolmuchi’s journey to becoming the central character does highlight one of the film’s major problems, namely its pacing. Running just over two hours there are certainly patches that drag, even if they’re readily punctuated with zingers from female ass-kicker Ma-hyang (Yoon Ji-hye) and stylish set pieces. The humour is consistent but very broad so the levity is not always successful, yet works particularly well with Kang’s icy villain, who also manages to be unexpectedly sympathetic – providing Kundo: The Age of Rampant with a poignant finale to round of a flawed but rollicking piece of genre-bending entertainment.

The London Korean Film Festival takes place from 6-15 November 2014. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson