Thursday, November 26, 2015         


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Feudal fury

"Kundo," set in 19th-century Korea, follows a man's descent into evil

By McClatchy News Services


"Kundo: Age of the Rampant" may be unknown to the broader American public, but for fans of South Korean cinema, it's already legendary. The film debuted in its home country this year with an opening-day box-office record, smashing the number of the previous record-holder, "Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon" three years ago. Blockbuster, thy name is "Kundo."

It's easy to see "Kundo's" appeal, even to non-Koreans. The martial-arts epic, set in feudal 19th-century Korea, deals with basic issues of good and evil, bearing similarities to not only classic, period-piece Chinese and Japanese martial-arts films but also to the mythic pull of Cain and Abel, Robin Hood, and nearly every Western ever made. Director Yoon Jong-bin's use of an Ennio Morricone-like score only emphasizes the point. Kundo is not the best film of its type, but it's an entertaining amalgam.

"Kundo" takes place at a time when the country was poor and local governors and their rich friends ran roughshod over and terrorized much of the populace. Jo Yoon (Gang Dong-won) is of the ruling class but he has a problem. Though born to a high-ranking father, his mother is a courtesan, meaning he will always be seen as less than.

Still, he is the apple of his father's eye until the arrival of his half brother, whose mother is his father's wife. Immediately, Jo Yoon loses rank and plots to maintain his power and privilege by any means necessary, including murder.

This sets him on a slide to unrepentant evil, including later in life when he not only slays his brother but also hires a poverty-stricken butcher named Dochi (Ha Jung-woo) to kill his pregnant sister-in-law. Dochi really needs the money — he lives in squalor with his mother and sister — but has a change of heart at the last minute.

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Opens Friday at Pearlridge West (in Korean with English subtitles)

As revenge, Jo Yoon sets Dochi's house afire, killing everyone — except Dochi. He's then recruited by the Chusul Clan, a group of outlaws and bandits who visit retribution on area overlords, and plots his revenge.

There are no surprises in "Kundo" — yes, there will be a showdown between Dochi and Jo Yoon — but it's a predictable story well-told, with Yoon Jong-bin keeping things moving fast enough even if the running time is more than two hours. The combat scenes are well-staged and there are some absolutely gorgeous moments, even if it lacks the overall jaw-dropping beauty of "Hero," "House of Flying Daggers" or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." (One oddity: The script sometimes translates the Korean into contemporary American youth slang for the subtitles; I don't know much about 19th-century Korea, but I doubt they referred to each other with the equivalent of the word "douche.")

What's more intriguing is how South Korean cinema — once known in the West for horror-thrillers— has made a transition to historical spectacle. The film that recently broke "Kundo's" opening-day record in South Korea is "The Admiral: Roaring Currents," a film about a 1597 naval battle between Japan and Korea.

"Kundo" may not be a great film, but, as part of a country flexing its cinematic muscle, it's an important one.

Review by Cary Darling, Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram

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