KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대) – ★★★☆☆

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대)

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대)

Upon release, summer blockbuster KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대) broke the record for opening day admissions and helped to breath new life into what was a flagging year for Korean cinema…until it was soundly beaten a week later by maritime epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents.

It’s particularly ironic that both tentpole films achieved such a feat, given that they contain such strikingly oppositional philosophies and content. While The Admiral focused on generating hyper-nationalism to achieve success, KUNDO opted for an anti-establishment sensibility, as a group of Robin Hood-esque outlaws band together to fight against the tyrannical Prince.

Curiously, while the ideological leanings of each film differ, both suffer from a similar set of issues. KUNDO, while boasting impressive production values, competent directing and an array of popular stars, ultimately feels rushed and unfinished due to the poorly structured and conceived narrative.

A band of outlaws band together to fight against the vicious prince Jo

A band of outlaws band together to fight against the vicious prince Jo

Centuries ago, Korea was a land in turmoil. With starvation and death commonplace, corruption in society was rampant, particularly amongst the ruling classes. In the face of so much injustice a group of working class heroes band together to rob from the rich and give to the poor, attempting to appease the suffering of the people.  Yet in a nearby city, a greater villainy is brewing. Born to a nobleman and courtesan, Prince Jo (Kang Dong-won (강동원) seeks to usurp his father and reign over the land. Only one challenge to his rule remains – his sister-in-law and her son, the rightful heir. Butcher Dochi (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) is hired to kill the pair, yet when he cannot, he is viciously betrayed and punished. Furious, Dochi finds a place with the band of thieves and begin their revenge as they plan to halt the Prince’s machinations.

From the moment KUNDO opens, it’s clear that the production values are some of the highest in recent memory and are particularly outstanding. Director Yoon Jong-bin (윤종빈) and his team have noticeably worked hard to put striking visual detail in every shot, from the incredible costumes of the cast through to the great variety of landscapes and arenas in which the action takes place. The attention to detail generates a sense of sincerity and wonder, and is in itself an phenomenal achievement. In regards to each member of the cast, their histories and occupations are wonderfully captured in their costumes whether it be a Buddhist monk, a butcher, or a wealthy prince and significantly contributes to the power of the film, an acute attention to detail that earned designer Jo Sang-gyeong the award for Best Costume Design at the 51st Daejong Film Awards.

The prodction values in KUNDO are outstanding

The prodction values in KUNDO are outstanding

Yet where KUNDO falters is in the narrative structure, which is consistently haphazard. The story jumps between time lines and characters to confusing effect, and to compensate a random and quite sporadic voice-over attempts to help allay by filling in back stories and histories yet serves to provide only a further sense of disorganization. The poor structure is impossible to miss and insinuates even to the casual cinema-goer that several more drafts of the screenplay were needed before cameras started rolling.

Screenwriter Jeon Cheol-bin is further hampered by an overly – and insanely – large cast which is a huge challenge for any scribe to make each character relevant. While Jeon has clearly worked hard to do so, the sheer amount of protagonists weighs down the film due to the attempt at giving everyone screen time, resulting in a story that lacks conviction or indeed compulsion, and one that is particularly hard to invest in.

Such issues also afflict the actors. As KUNDO focuses primarily on Prince Jo-yoon and butcher Dochi, Kang Dong-won and Ha Jeong-woo have the greater chances to shine. Ha Jeong-woo in particular seems to be having a great time as the butcher-turned-criminal with his cocky and self-assured performance certainly the most enjoyable aspect of the film. Kang Dong-won – in his first film role since completing mandatory military service – also appears to relish portraying the villainous prince. Yet for them and the rest of the enormous supporting cast, the lack of screen time results in highly capable actors providing competent performances, making KUNDO an entertaining but not especially compelling viewing experience.

The villainous prince battles against the uprising

The villainous prince battles against the uprising

Verdict:

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant is a record-breaking tentpole film of 2014 by director Yoon Jong-bin. Boasting hugely impressive production and costume design as well as a host of capable actors including Ha Jeong-woo and Kang Dong-won, KUNDO is ultimately let down by a haphazard narrative structure, an insane amount of supporting characters, and a story that is hard to invest in. As a result KUNDO is an enjoyable, though unchallenging, viewing experience.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
Ik-hyeon settles into his 'gangster' role with ease

Nameless Gangster (범죄와의 전쟁: 나쁜놈들 전성시대) – ★★★☆☆

Nameless Gangster (범죄와의 전쟁: 나쁜놈들 전성시대)

Nameless Gangster (범죄와의 전쟁: 나쁜놈들 전성시대)

Gangster ‘epics’ are not films that merely present bad men doing bad things; on the contrary, the ‘epicness’ of the films are due to the ways in which producers tell the story within the wider context of the socio-cultural period, conveying a national uniqueness alongside the themes of brotherhood, betrayal, and the escalation of violence. While there are numerous contemporary directors such as Guy Ritchie, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Mann that fit this paradigm, the most notable figure in this regard is the legendary Martin Scorsese who besets his conflicted protagonists with problems from all sides, masterfully building tension to a poignant crescendo.

With Nameless Gangster (범죄와의 전쟁: 나쁜놈들 전성시대) writer/director Yoon Jong-bin (윤종빈) seemingly attempts to emulate Scorsese, featuring a similar rags-to-riches and fall-from-grace narrative structure. Yet there the comparisons end as while the story is distinctly Korean and multi-layered, and the directing competent, the lack of flair, tension and an over-abundance of secondary characters halt Nameless Gangster from achieving excellence. However, alongside the sumptuous costume and set design the film sports a fascinating perspective on the evolution of crime in Korea, and the struggle to combat corruption in contemporary society.

In the month of October, 1990, President Roh Tae-woo launches a crackdown on corruption and crime in South Korea, giving the police and prosecutors special powers to arrest those involved in the criminal underworld. For the port city of Busan this presents an acute problem, and as gangsters are forced to lie low the incarceration of infamous Choi Ik-hyeon (Choi Min-sik (최민식) is an enormous victory for prosecutor Jo Beom-seok (Kwak Byeong-gyoo (곽병규). Yet the criminal simply refuses to admit any wrongdoing despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In order to fully uncover the truth, the journey must begin back in 1982 when Ik-hyeon was a mere corrupt customs official, exploring the relationships that were forged – particularly with notorious criminal Choi Hyeong-bae (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) – during the golden age of the gangster lifestyle in Korea.

Ik-hyeon settles into his 'gangster' role with ease

Ik-hyeon settles into his ‘gangster’ role with ease

Nameless Gangster is surprisingly less a film about gangsters and more a film about the evolution of corruption in Korean society, personified through smarmy central protagonist Ik-hyeon. Originating as a corrupt customs official, Ik-hyeon – and the entire customs department – are directly in the firing line of the government crackdown on crime, the penalty for which is placed squarely on Ik-hyeon’s shoulders. Yet despite being a dishonest and unscrupulous reprobate, Ik-hyeon is quite a charismatic and lovable rogue due to the performance of acting legend Choi Min-sik. Bizarrely Choi Min-sik exaggerates and overacts the character throughout the film but incredibly manages to convey this as part of Ik-hyeon’s personality, an appealingly silly man who constantly oversteps his boundaries to the chagrin of all involved. The subtly seductive performance blurs the lines between the gangster and comedy genres as Ik-hyeon simultaneously charms and smites those around him, juxtaposing laugh-out-loud moments with brutality, reminiscent of scenes within Scorsese’s Goodfellas from which the film borrows heavily. However these moments never quite achieve the shocking impact they should. Writer/director Yoon Jong-bin (윤종빈) writes the scenes incredibly well and has highly competent vision, yet somehow fails to capture the tension that such scenes demand, with the slow build of suspense and apprehension curiously absent. Violence, too, is also problematic within Nameless Gangster through the lack of escalation. While it would be absurd to expect Americanized gun crime within such a distinctly Korean gangster film the repetitive nature of the clashes, commonly involving baseball bats and glass bottles, quickly becomes bland and lessens the severity such confrontations should convey.

Violence enters the narrative through the introduction of Choi Hyeong-bae, a lifelong gangster with whom Ik-hyeon shares common ancestry. It is through their relationship that Nameless Gangster truly shines, as the bumbling Ik-hyeon forges ties with an incredible variety of powerful strangers due to mutual heritage – and seniority – in order to create a criminal empire, constructing a fascinating insight into the multifaceted nature of corruption in Korea. Director Yoon Jong-bin’s narrative strength lies in the comically awe-inspiring Ik-hyeon as he weasels his way into the good graces of politicians, law-makers and international crime syndicates, resulting in a meteoric rise from crooked customs official to one of the most dangerous gangsters in Busan. While Ik-hyeon provides the connections it is Hyeong-bae, wonderfully performed by Ha Jeong-woo, who commands the muscle. Hyeong-bae is stoic, authoritative and deadly, conveying restrained violence and potential danger with every movement and gesture, the true gangster of the partnership. The stark contrast between the two, as well as Ik-hyeon’s unerring manner for overstepping boundaries, provides the catalyst for the introduction of a third party in the form of rival gangster Kim Pan-ho (Jo Jin-woong (조진웅). In another nod to past gangster epics in the form of Scorsese-esque triumvirates, Pan-ho ultimately fails to be a convincing protagonist due to serious underdevelopment, undermining him as a credible threat both within the narrative and to consummate gangster Hyeong-bae.

Hyeong-bae is the consummate gangster - stoic, powerful, and deadly

Hyeong-bae is the consummate gangster – stoic, powerful, and deadly

With a strong narrative and competent direction, Nameless Gangster also benefits from having sumptuous costume and set design. The world of 1980s Busan is eloquently portrayed and wonderfully realized, absorbing the audience within the chic decor and lifestyle from humble homesteads to bars to casinos.

In terms of performance both Choi Min-sik and Ha Jeong-woo play off each other well, with the latter giving the stand-out portrayal as hard-boiled gangster Hyeong-bae. The stoicism of the character coupled with the restrained threat of violence is an absolute joy and contributes greatly in conveying tension, which is sadly underutilized within the narrative and direction. Choi Min-sik, on the other hand, is highly charismatic as Ik-hyeon despite being a tad overzealous throughout. The actor conveys the foolish nature of the man incredibly well, yet the scenes in which Ik-hyeon demands power and authority unbecoming to him that are the most revealing, conveying a man desperate for control in a universe which resolutely refuses him.

The rest of the cast are used in supportive roles and are either generally underdeveloped, such as gangster Pan-ho and prosecutor Jo Beom-seok, or simply redundant, such as club Manager Yeo (Kim Hye-eun (김혜은) or brother-in-law Seo-bang Kim  (Ma Dong-seok (마동석). This is unfortunate, as had the roles been greater (or jettisoned) the web of threat and deception would undoubtedly be much stronger as in Ryoo Seung-wan‘s The Unjust; as it stands, they are rather limp additions in an otherwise well-written screenplay about societal corruption.

Through creating links and contacts, Ik-hyeon helps expand the criminal empire

Through creating links and contacts, Ik-hyeon helps expand the criminal empire

Verdict:

Nameless Gangster is a compelling and fascinating film about the nature, and evolution, of crime and corruption in Korea. With an absorbing narrative, wonderful set and costume design, and entertaining performances, the film is generally let down by the lack of tension and suspense, as well as underdeveloped characters. That said, Nameless Gangster is an enjoyable yarn of power and social relationships in a country still struggling to shake off the ramifications of the war on crime.

★★★☆☆

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