Kings of the Wild Frontier: Roaring Currents and Kundo review
Three huge South Korean historical actions films have been breaking box office records in their home territory this summer, and we lucky dogs here in the U.S. also have a chance to see them on the big screen.
The first one that rolled through town, opening in San Francisco on Aug. 15, was The Admiral: Roaring Currents. Though no longer playing in SF proper (it’s still showing in Santa Clara and Dublin) the film had a good two-week run at Metreon and Century Daly City. I saw a matinee at Metreon before it closed and was pretty swept up by the sheer muscular grandeur of dozens of sixteenth-century wooden ships in close battle around a raging whirlpool. The movie is a tightly made film full of rousing action, noble sacrifices, and heroic nationalism, as the Joseon navy, reduced to twelve ships after a series of disastrous battles, goes at it against a Japanese invading force of more than two hundred ships. Since it’s all about Korean national pride against the evil imperial Japanese military, the Koreans are scrappy underdogs with mud-streaked faces and rough-hewn sea vessels, while the Japanese are sneering, spit-and-polished marauders in gilt-trimmed ships.
Based on the true exploits of the titular character, legendary Joseon naval commander Yi Sun-Shi, the loosely follows the Battle of Myeongnyang, which took place in 1597 at a strategically important strait off the coast of modern-day Korea. The film spends about half its two-hour running time setting up the various characters and their narratives, then jumps into a series of battles and skirmishes that take up the second hour of the film. These sequences are loads of fun, with wooden-ship ramming, whirlpools, hand-to-hand combat, flying arrows, cannonballs, and flaming boats full of explosives, but the focus remains on the stalwart Admiral Yi, played with gravity and authority by the redoubtable Choi Min-Sik (Oldboy). Also good are Jin Goo as Joseon scout Im Jun-yeong and Cho Jin-woong as Japanese baddie Wakisaka Yasuharu. Director Kim Han-min, whose last film War of The Arrows (2011) was also an hyperkinetic historical, keeps everything moving along at a brisk pace, with escalating skirmishes building to a rip-roaring climax. Roaring Currents is now the highest grossing movie of all time in South Korea, breaking the record previously held by Avatar.
The second South Korean costumed adventure, Kundo: Age of the Rampant (what?) opened this Friday in the U.S. and it also follows a bunch of scrappy underdogs fighting the power. This time the story is set in the 19th century Korea and follows a Robin-hoodlike group named Kundo who stand up for the oppressed peasantry against corrupt nobles and their politician lapdogs.
The film is much more loosely plotted and constructed than Roaring Currents, and director Yoon Jong-bin has a jokey, self-conscious directing style that recalls Takashi Miike without the sadism and misogyny. Yoon riffs on classic Westerns, with a twangy, guitar-based Morricone-esque theme song and good and bad buys fighting on horseback, but adds in some nice swordplay choreography and decent hand-to-hand, sword-on-cleaver action, as well as a good helping of Hong Kong-style martial arts. His cartoonlike direction includes extreme zooms in and out, jump cuts and speed-ramping, and a villain who is only missing a waxed mustached to twirl. The script included lots of anachronistic cursing that translates in the subtitles as a bunch of f-bombs, which only adds to the Brechtian fun.
Though somewhat rambling in its narrative, the film is ultimately an entertaining eastern Western, anchored by Ha Jung Woo as Dolmuchi, a doofy butcher who mixes it up with Jo Yoon, the unacknowledged bastard son of the corrupt local nobleman running Dolmuchi’s district. At 36 years old, Ha is way too old to convincingly play an eighteen-year-old, especially compared to his dewy-eyed adversary, played by Kang Dong-won who with his feline androgyny is entirely plausible as a nineteen-year-old. Nevertheless Ha is fun and fierce as the bumbling butcher turned hero who is recruited by the Kundo vigilantes as they stick up for the rights of the peasants against the corrupt and exploitative nobles. The film gestures toward empowering the common people but ultimately it’s just a lot of silly fun that’s entirely worth seeing on the big screen.
The third of this year’s South Korean historical blockbuster trilogy, The Pirates, arrives in U.S. theaters on Sept. 12 and a review will be forthcoming once I see it. When it rains, it pours, though I’m certainly not complaining.
The Admiral: Roaring Currents
Regal Hacienda Crossing Stadium 20 & IMAX
5000 Dublin Blvd.
AMC Cupertino Square 16
10123 N. Wolfe Rd.
Cupertino CA 95014
Kundo: Age of the Rampant
AMC Cupertino Square 16
10123 N Wolfe Rd
Cupertino, CA 95014
Century 20 Daly City
1901 Junipero Serra Blvd
Daly City, CA 94015
Four Star Theatre
2200 Clement St
San Francisco, CA 94121
Entry filed under: ha jung-woo.