The Good, The Bad, The Weird Review
I’ve had occasion in the past to comment on the strength of modern Korean cinema not being in its auteur and arthouse cinema – rich and highly original though it might be – but in its diversity and approach to mainstream cinema. Quite simply, through films like My Sassy Girl, Memories of Murder, The Host, Old Boy, The King and the Clown, in every genre from romantic comedy, to thriller, gangster film, horror, war movie, pulp science fiction or even period drama, Korean cinema makes advances where Hollywood retreads. If there is one bastion of Hollywood cinema that remains essentially American however, it’s surely the Western. It’s not inappropriate then that Korean director Kim Jee-woon - practically a one-man genre-redefining machine on his own through films as diverse as the sporting comedy The Foul King, the psychological horror film A Tale of Two Sisters and the action-gangster movie A Bittersweet Life - has come up with the idea of an Oriental Western, taking the inspiration from the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone who revitalised the genre in much the same way as Korean cinema is attempting to now.
In essence and in spirit The Good, The Bad, The Weird follows the template of its obvious “inspiration”, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the three extreme characters with no love lost between them, finding that they all have at least one thing in common when it is revealed that there is a vast fortune to be found buried somewhere in the wilds of Manchuria. The location of the treasure is indicated on a map that has fallen into the hands of a crazy, reckless, bandit called Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho), initially unaware of what he has picked up in a train robbery until he finds himself relentlessly and ruthlessly pursued by every criminal organisation in the region, not to mention Japanese Army and Chinese Nationalist factions.
Like Yoon Tae-goo, there are many of his fellow countrymen from Korea trying to make a new life for themselves in 1930s China, escaping not only the Japanese rule of their homeland, but also from events in their pasts. In most cases, it’s through lawlessness that some such as Park Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun), the most dangerous assassin in the land, attempt to create a better life for themselves, but where there’s wrong-doing, there’s also work for the bounty hunter, and Park Do-won (Jung Woo-sung) is one of the most fearless gunslingers in the region. While it would seem that there is the common purpose of the map and the treasure that draws them together towards the inevitable stand-off, in reality, each of them have very different motives that drive them.
The combination of all three characters makes a terrific dynamic for action, comedy and adventure, but then that’s to be expected since it’s precisely that which makes Leone’s original a timeless classic. What is surprising is that it takes a Korean filmmaker to recognise these essential qualities and find a way to make them work in a modern cinema context. The Good, The Bad, The Weird refutes the myth that “they don’t make them like that anymore” and suggests rather that it’s an unimaginative Hollywood system - unable to make a genre film that isn’t a star vehicle, a product placement commercial, a remake or a revisionist, post-modern “homage” filled with knowing references - that can’t make them like that anymore.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird could of course similarly be classed as a star-vehicle, since it uses three of Korean cinema’s biggest stars, but those actors are gathered here for precisely the qualities that made them famous, fitting perfectly into the predefined characteristics of “the good” (Jung Woo-sung), “the bad” (Lee Byung-hun) and “the weird” (Song Kang-ho for whom “the crazy” would perhaps be a better translation). Within those kind of actors/characters and a superficially complex plot that can in fact be reduced down to a race for hidden treasure - director Kim Jee-woon knows that he has everything he needs to make a highly entertaining movie. And the film’s aims are as simple as that.
Achieving that however requires rather more skill than simply knowing the genre conventions and either playing up to them or subverting them, but Kim Jee-woon has already demonstrated his ability to understand what makes genre cinema work and that skill is evident in every scene of the film. A shoot-out here is more than shaky camera movements and liberal deployment of CGI, it’s a perfectly choreographed, storyboarded and executed sequence of events that shift the viewer’s emotions through comedy, tension and horror, to bewilderment and awe – a building and releasing of tension that is judiciously measured and meticulously paced. The director also recognises the power of Western imagery, the man in the greatcoat with a gun, the following the sight of a rifle, the set pieces of hold-ups, stand-offs, chases and explosions, the use of the open space and the desert sky, and rather than use CGI to recreate them, he goes out into the Mongolian deserts and finds them or creates them through sheer hard-work and craft. CGI is certainly employed, but if so it’s done invisibly – only really evident in the swoop of the eagle at the start of the film and the swirl of a desert wind at the end. Elsewhere the stunts and action feel real and old-school - the way the used to make them. And that makes all the difference.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird gives you everything you expect from a film that comes with such a title – not bringing anything particularly new to the table, but being as thoroughly fresh and entertaining as when Sergio Leone revitalised the Western genre, and even holding out the promise of a sequel. Anyone for ‘ A Fistful of Won’?