Notable Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Gang Dong-won, Lee Kyung-young, Lee Sung-min, Cho Jin-woong, Ma Dong-seok, Yoon Ji-hye, Kim Hae-sook Han Yeri, Kim Kkob-bi
After having dropped an extraordinary gangster film, my eyes and heart had become set on whatever Yoon Jong-bin would go on to do next, and then in 2014, only two years later, he revealed to the world a genre mash-up in the form of Kundo, a massively entertaining action film, filled with plenty of laughs and thrills. It's an emotionally adept film that never shies away from the brutality that many faced in their lives during the era in which the film takes place. It almost feels like a Tarantino-esque picture (not someone I usually like comparing others to), but it feels like it here. It takes a lot of genres, old martial arts and wu xia pics from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the Spaghetti Westerns that Italy was putting out in its heyday, and brings it all forward with a modern lens and sense of filmmaking. There is a lot of harkening back to those works, even in the editing and, at times, the techniques (plenty of great snap zooms used here), but the film also has an identity and flavor of its own, and that helps to make it a truly invigorating and vivacious piece of work.
Dol Mo-chi (Ha Jung-woo) is a humble and simple-minded butcher who keeps to himself, living a quiet and seemingly peaceful life. There are struggles, of course, as he lives in an impoverished community, where only the upper class thrives and seems to get by okay. On one fateful night, Dol is offered a gig to get his family out of their poor way of living. Desperate, he agrees to take on the task of killing a woman who is essential to the royal Choi family, who oversees the entire town. Little does he know that she is pregnant with a baby that could be of threat to Joo Yoon (Gang Dong-won), the son and heir to the Choi family. I don't wish to spoil his backstory, but let's say that the potential of a newborn son in the Choi lineage could be a potential threat to his claim for the throne as the sole heir. He is a cold and ruthless young man, deadly with a blade, and when Dol can't bring himself to kill her, things become disastrous. Our hero finds himself in the company of a group of righteous outlaws who take from the elite members of society to feed and care for those without such privileges. It's a pretty classic tale, and many stories flood to mind, but this epic's vast and sprawling nature concrete it as one of the biggest surprises of modern Korean cinema.
Dol Mo-chi's arc in this film is heartbreaking but very rewarding to watch in the end. He loses so much and gains the world as he raises his blades to fight for good and learns how to fight alongside his fellow bandits. The cast of characters we meet along the way are all very memorable and lend an array of values and personalities that make everyone very likable and easily attached to. I loved Ma Dong-seok's character here. He is super cheeky and confident when fighting, but when he is around his love interest, a great character herself, he melts and stumbles on his words and fumbles in her presence. Cho Jin-woong plays a man who has the appearance of a nobleman and has that stoicism and way about him that helps the group to remain level-headed. Lastly, I'll mention Lee Kyung-young, who plays a monk who is a Zatoichi-esque character, and he is just a humble badass who I couldn't take my eyes off. This is a classic group of characters, and they all help to bring a considerable level of charm to the film and all work to each other's advantage.
The action in Kundo is so good. As with the film's tones, the action also has different moods and feelings. We get comedic bits where Ma Dong-seok is super slapping baddies into the trees of a snowy path they are overthrowing. Then, the opposite, where emotion is overwhelming, the reasons behind the battle are extremely personal, and the results are breathtaking. The choreography is innovative and constantly reinventing itself as events unfold. We get up-close one-on-one battles, and things play out on a larger scale. Various weapons and fighting styles are highlighted; nothing feels stale or repetitive. Also, it must be mentioned that Kang Dong-won is one fierce swordsman. He is mean and lethal but also carries this sense of grace while he moves about the various stages he battles. Unlike some I know, I am a fan of Kang, but I couldn't take my eyes off him. I think his character is well realized, and he makes for a fantastic and memorable villain.
The only thing that doesn't age well in this film is a few VFX shots. There is a scene involving a baby that took me out for a moment, and a few shots here and there where the digital blood spray looked poor in comparison to the natural squibs and practical blood that is used throughout. That stuff looks great, so those digital splatters and sprays stuck out like a sore thumb. I know that won't bother everyone, but it takes it down slightly for me. Other than that, I think Kundo is yet again another masterfully told and crafted film in Yoon Jong-bin's filmography. This and Nameless Gangster have permanently solidified his place as one of my favorite directors working in South Korea today. He knows what he is doing, and with each passing film, he seems to take things to the next level. This is a film that so many people will be able to love and appreciate, and it gets my highest recommendation possible.