A spaghetti western disguised as a martial-arts historical epic, Yung Jong-bin’s Kundo: Age of the Rampant takes place in the mid-19th century against the backdrop of the chaotic decline of the Kingdom of Great Joseon, Korea’s last royal dynasty. The familiar plot follows a band of virtuous outlaws in their struggle against a corrupt governor and his bastard son, Jo Yoon (Gang Gong-won), who’ve enslaved the peasants after illegally confiscating their lands. Depicting a nation infected with plague, famine, and social unrest, the film opens with a gleeful catalogue of decapitated heads festering on poles and continues with a seemingly endless litany of rotting flesh, human and otherwise.
Accordingly, the outlaws adopt Dochi (Ha Jung-woo), a righteous butcher (the kingdom’s most despised profession) whose family was murdered on the bastard’s orders after he refused to carry out his dirty work. This provides the filmmakers with a suitable excuse for some mildly entertaining musical montages, showing Dochi putting his butcher knives to less kosher use, as the formulaic story drags to a predictable final showdown. The martial-arts sequences are smoothly executed, with understated special effects that mostly serve the plot and rarely seem gratuitous. Yet, hampered by a plodding storyline and weak character development, the film could have benefitted from more outlandish fight sequences and pyrotechnics. As it stands, it largely fails to engage on any of these levels after the whirlwind opening act.
The film’s attempt at political commentary amounts to a half-baked treatise on good governance in the face of tyranny and socioeconomic exploitation. Basically, if the body politic is corrupt, just find a butcher to hack off the infected limbs. Such mindless populist drivel owes more to the formula of classic Hollywood matinees than political theory. Clearly modeled on Robin Hood and his Merry Men, the outlaws even have their own Friar Tuck in the form of the Vicious Monk (Lee Kyeong-yeong), a bad-ass Buddhist with zero tolerance for aristocratic assholes and their army of bureaucratic bullies. Proving that populism is often just a disguised nationalism, the film’s demagoguery portrays the common people as the true embodiment of the Korean nation. The governor is shown as having a taste for Chinese (i.e. foreign) goods, while all that the honest peasants desire is the product of their labor.
Dochi, whose distracting nervous ticks go unexplained, symbolically castrates his noble enemies by cutting off their topknots, a social marker of their aristocratic inheritance. This ritual emasculation reveals the fundamental link between social status and masculinity, as Dochi’s neutering of the nobility emphasizes the purely symbolic nature of political power and social standing in a class-based society. Later, for no apparent reason, we’re told in an aside that the land confiscation carried out by the cartoonishly evil Jo Yoon marked the beginning of capitalism in Korea. While occasionally hinting at a deeper understanding of the economic and political forces at work in Korean society, the film’s directionless populist anger ultimately comes off as superficial, a perfect example of what Slavoj Žižek refers to as the cheap Hollywood Marxism of today’s popular cinema.