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What makes a great story great? Often, it’s a great villain. The implacable Javert in “Les Misérables.” Darth Vader in “Star Wars.” Now add to that roster Jo Yoon (Kang Dong-won).

In the Korean epic “Kundo: Age of the Rampant,” he’s bad to the bone. How bad? Bad enough to, at the tender age of 11, try to smother a baby. Bad enough, as an adult, to rob poor farmers of their land and then enslave them. Bad enough to send women and children to the gallows. And to do all of that, and more besides, with a chilling smirk and a glare of pure malevolence.

What makes such a monster so monstrous? The explanation is at the core of this sweeping, visually elegant picture from director Jong-bin Yun. Set in 1862, “Kundo” is a kind of cross between “Robin Hood” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”

Jo Yoon is the illegitimate son of a powerful governor who, because of his illegitimacy, can never be in line to inherit his father’s title and power. So he recruits the hero (Ha Jung-woo), an impoverished butcher, to kill the pregnant woman whose baby would be the legitimate heir to the father’s powerful position.

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The butcher has a conscience, can’t go through with the killing, is subject to a terrible retribution for failing his mission, survives and joins a band of outlaws who intend to overthrow the tyranny of Jo Yoon. Vengeance breeds vengeance and the blood flows.

What makes this villain great is that his is an examined villainy. Jo Yoon is not mindless in his cruelty but fully aware of what he is and agonized by what he’s become. He’s animated by unquenchable rage and coldly calculating in his deeds. Kang gives an unforgettable performance in the role.

Soren Andersen:

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