Home > Reviews > KUNDO: AGE OF THE RAMPANT – Jo Yeong-Wook


September 6, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

kundoageoftherampantOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

I don’t review many Korean scores here at Movie Music UK. Their scores are difficult to come by here in the United States, the movies barely get released, and those which do are generally so obscure that they slip completely under the radar before anyone really notices. This would have been the case with Kundo: Age of the Rampant, which opened in extremely limited markets in August 2014, had the music not been brought to my attention by a friend, and I’m absolutely delighted that he did: the score is wonderful, a hidden gem which could find itself on many people’s Top 10 lists for 2014, if they have the tenacity to track a copy down. The film is a period action movie directed by Yun Jong-Bin and, according to Wikipedia, is about a power struggle between the unjust wealthy noblemen who run society and a group of righteous outlaws who steal from corrupt officials to give to the downtrodden and starving; essentially, it’s the story of Robin Hood, transposed to 19th century feudal Korea.

The score for Kundo is by Korean composer Jo Yeong-Wook, who is likely best known to Western audiences for his scores for the original Oldboy, the 2005 crime thriller Lady Vengeance, and the 2009 vampire movie Thirst. I don’t know much about him; like the movies themselves, Korean composers rarely receive any international publicity, and their works tend to be known only to aficionados of Korean cinema, but having heard the score for Kundo, I do know this: he is a massively talented composer, with a flair for unusual textures, surprising creative decisions, and excellent themes.

Interestingly, Jo treats his score like a spaghetti western, anachronistically re-imagining his ancient Korean warriors as gritty gunslingers, standing up for the downtrodden in the face of rampant corruption. The score makes prominent use of specialty instruments like the harmonica, pan flute, Jew’s harp, and electric guitar, plus an Edda dell’Orso-style female soprano vocalist, alongside a standard symphony orchestra recorded in London. This is Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov filtered through Asian sensibilities, and as such it’s appropriate that the main title theme, “Islands”, is actually a re-working of the track “I Giorni dell’Ira” from the 1967 film Day of Anger by the great Italian composer Riz Ortolani. The theme is a jazzy, upbeat piece of nostalgia featuring prominent electric guitars, a sexy horn section, and a boatload of swaggering cool, and appears in several other cues, notably “Ending” and the wonderful conclusive cue “Cotton Aberration”. This is the sort of thing Quentin Tarantino does with his movies – think about his use of Morricone’s music in Django Unchained, Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds, for example – except that, in Kundo’s case, the music is original instead of licensed.

As the score progresses, each new sequence introduces a new texture, or instrumental idea that suggests the spaghetti western idiom. Harmonicas, the jew’s harp, and rattlesnake percussion effects give a sense of sun-kissed desolation to cues like “Joyun”, “The First Meeting” and “The Assassin”, and subsequently give “Joyun’s Childhood” a wistful, reflective appeal, tinged with the loneliness that only the ringing timbre of a solo harmonica can evoke. Later, both “Tochigi” and “The Return to Tochigi” bring the electric guitar, pan flutes and female vocals to the forefront in a pair of beautiful pieces that begin with a touch of melancholy, but a great deal of intimacy and tenderness, before opening up into strident, galloping marches. The lovely “The Islands”” blends the vocal performance with doleful tolling bells to give them an air of gravitas, while the stunning “Islands Theme” cue is the culmination of the theme, rising as it does to a rousing fully-orchestral climax.

The action music, of which there is quite a bit, generally follows the same instrumental ideas as the other cues, but often surrounds them with larger orchestral forces and more driving rhythms, usually from the string and percussion sections. “Fire”, for example, has the tension and tumult of a classic Bernard Herrmann score, combining wailing brasses and rumbling timpanis with a searching, vibrato-rich string line. “Ask the People” and “The Last Duel” both take the female vocal from Tochigi to new heights, the latter with some martial snare drum accompaniment. “The Showdown” and the expansive, exhilarating “Attack on the Village” are a little more contemporary, subtly adding some Brian Tyler-esque electronic percussion to the throbbing orchestral forces. “A New World” is defiantly optimistic, and may appeal to Hans Zimmer fans who appreciate his bold, major-key anthems. “The Plan”, although short, may be my favorite action cue, with a purposeful acoustic guitar motif that gradually picks up an insistent string accompaniment.

Other cues, like “Mother”, reveal Jo’s knack for more intimate and beautiful scoring, being especially notable for it’s lovely combination writing for acoustic guitar and strings. “Father”, on the other hand, takes similar orchestrations but turns them into something slightly darker and more ominous. “The Ghost Land” has all the brash confidence of a blaxploitation pic, with wah-wah guitars and finger-snapping horn lines that sound more like the urban cool music from a Shaft movie than a film set in feudal Korea. “Once Upon a Time in the Jirisan” and “Appearing in the City” are all-out Morricone homages, which borrow the gruff male voice chants and whistled effects from The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Navajo Joe, while the vaguely comedic “Badlands” has a hint of Two Mules for Sister Sara about it, albeit without the donkey noises.

Although all this is clearly pastiche, it’s done with so much panache and loving care that it really doesn’t matter that the ideas were originally conceived in the 1960s by Italians. Jo Yeong-Wook clearly has a love for the genre, a respect for his predecessors, and this comes through visibly in the music. It’s so refreshing to hear music which unselfconsciously evokes one of the great film music stylistic languages, but in a way which is free of irony; Jo uses this style of music for no other reason than its good music, and to fulfill his director’s conceptual vision of warriors-as-cowboys, rather than as a knowing and sarcastic nod to the audience.

The score was released in a 2-CD set on the Fargo label, with two different covers (the “Joyun” edition and the “Dochi” edition), but with the same musical content on each. The score is long – nearly an hour and three-quarters – but flies by at a swift clip, never outstaying its welcome or becoming tiresome. The score might be difficult to find from regular retailers, but it is available for purchase via the YesAsia website, and I highly recommend that the more adventurous of you track it down. Anyone who wants to experience a contemporary re-imagining of the classic Morricone spaghetti western sound will surely love it. For me, it’s one of the most unexpected, enjoyable scores of 2014.

Buy the Kundo: Age of the Rampant soundtrack from YesAsia.

Track Listing:

  • Island Titles (2:02)
  • Joyun (3:00)
  • Joyun’s Childhood (3:03)
  • Fire (2:49)
  • Mother (2:38)
  • Tochigi (4:04)
  • The Ghost Land (2:45)
  • Soldiers of Joyun (1:12)
  • Ask the People (7:24)
  • The Showdown (6:08)
  • The Second Coming (4:24)
  • Father (2:49)
  • The Last Duel (6:52)
  • Tochigi Theme (2:54)
  • Ending (1:57)
  • The Islands (2:31)
  • Mahyang (2:40)
  • Jiri Chuseol (1:46)
  • First Meeting (1:36)
  • The Assassin (3:19)
  • That Was Strange (0:44)
  • Coming Home (1:01)
  • Care (1:56)
  • Sato Receiving Bribes (1:20)
  • A New World (1:59)
  • Once Upon a Time in Jirisan (1:47)
  • Islands Theme (3:17)
  • Appearing in Tochigi (2:04)
  • Return to Tochigi (4:26)
  • Simulation (1:28)
  • The Plan (1:44)
  • The Mission (1:20)
  • Attack on the Village (6:48)
  • The Hanging (1:35)
  • Badlands (1:13)
  • The End of Tochigi (1:37)
  • Cotton Aberration (4:31)

Note: these track titles were created by running the original Korean track listings through Google Translate; as such, they may not be *entirely* accurate translations

Running Time: 104 minutes 54 seconds

Fargo Music 1036485754 (2014)

Music composed and conducted by Jo Yeung-Wook. “I Giorni dell’Ira” composed by Riz Ortolani. Album produced by Jo Yeung-Wook.

  1. September 8, 2014 at 7:17 am

    Hmmm, fascinating review Jon.
    This certainly peaks my interest!

  2. January 10, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    The film is actually far from obscure, it was a massive success in South Korea.

  3. FVP
    February 16, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    nice review bro. just saw the movie and couldn’t help to laugh at the western music. Great Movie

  1. December 18, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: