The Western is one of those irresistibly iconic genres, and it's finding a whole new life in the ready-to-recycle global village. Locally, HBO pumped grit and vigor into the Western with "Deadwood"; globally, Takashi Miike turned out his own private Sergio Leone with Sukiyaki Western Django; and obscurely, Piotr Uklanski did the Western up in a Polish way with Summer Love. Even Ramin Bahrani wants to try his hand at the wild Wild West. The biggest entry last year, at least on the film festival circuit, was Kim Jee-woo's huge budget project The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Unfortunately, its high production values far exceed any of its other slightly disappointing virtues.
The set-up takes little imagination: three heroes, one treasure map, and a league of factions that would exist in the lawless early-20th century Manchuria. It is important to note that the three heroes are not on the same team, and all want the map and the treasure for themselves. Do-won (Jung Woo-sung) is a bounty hunter sent for the map, but may well take the large reward for killing wanted man Chang-yi. Chang-yi (Lee Byung-heon) is a ruthless hit man also sent after the map. Tae-gu (Song Kang-ho) is a petty thief who happens to be in the wrong place to rob a train, but in the right place to nab a map. Within a barren dry landscape of epic horizons, the narrative goes out the window in favor of boarder towns, guns and high-speed chases involving horses, motorcycles and jeeps. The glossed over violence attempts to entertain with a very high, but also very stylish, body count.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird is not just an example of how you make a slick vacuous Korean Western, but it is also a showcase for the three high profile actors. All have meaty roles, but it is Song's character that steals the show with his buffoonery and extremely charismatic performance. Song may very well be one of the most talented and versatile actors working today, as displayed in this film, Secret Sunshine, The Host, Memories of Murder, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and so on. He is 'The Weird' in the film and lives up to the moniker despite the fact that he is much more cunning than he lets on. During a particularly nasty shootout involving a good two dozen people, Tae-gu nabs a deep-sea diving helmet ala Jacques Cousteau and parades his gun shooting prowess, head fully protected. The scene is easily the funniest, but in a movie that is supposed to be full of comedic moments, it was also the only one to elicit an audible laugh.
Jung and Lee certainly do their part, but they are little more than cardboard cutouts. Jung as Do-won is the righteous bounty hunter who longs for an independent Korea. He certainly has the classic Western look with the duster and the shotgun, but you never got to see any Musa-like manly emoting. Lee as Chang-yi is just over-the-top with his fitted three-piece suit with tails and his mod-punk hair. He takes suave and sleazy to a whole 'nother level. The scene when Lee hops out of bed in his knickers to throws a knife into a centipede (and nails the knife in from across the room with his gun) was like some sort of contractual excuse to show him with his shirt off.
Kim's impressive slate of films in his short ten-year career has earned him a fare amount of critical and commercial success. His first film, The Quiet Family, was a cutting and dark comedy that inspired Takashi Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuri's. His twisty-turny, highly ornate horror film A Tale of Two Sisters was unfortunately watered down in a US remake, The Uninvited. A Bittersweet Life from 2005 was his gangster magnum opus. The violent noir had an admirable balance of entertainment, depth and style. The Good, The Bad, The Weird pushes those first two attributes to the side to make room for bigger style. Ironically, his biggest budget film, and the one that people outside of Korea are most likely to see, is his most disillusioned.
Official Korean website here.
Trailer for The Good, The Bad, The Weird here (without English subtitles, but you don't need them.)
The Good, The Bad, The Weird is available on Korean or Malaysian R3 DVD or UK Blu-Ray with English subtitles.
IFC apparently has the US distribution rights, but who knows if this will get a theatrical release.