The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008): A Kimchi Western

The Good, the Bad, the Weird
The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written and directed by Jee-woon Kim (I Saw The Devil, A Tale of Two Sisters) and starring Kang-ho Song (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, The Quiet Family), Byung-hun Lee (I Saw the DevilG.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and Woo-sung Jung (Demon Empire, Daisy) The Good, The Bad, The Weird is Jee-woon Kim’s loving homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone.

Winning four awards and receiving nine nominations, TGTBTW is the second highest grossing film from South Korea only being beaten by Speedy Scandlal.

Set in 1930’s Manchuria, the film begins with The Bad(Byung-hu Lee) being paid to get hold of a Japanese treasure map being transported by train. Unfortunately for The Bad, someone else has just beat him to it. The Weird (Kang-ho Song) is already on the train and disguised as a snack vendor makes his way into the guarded rail car that has the map.

The train is stopped by The Bad and his cronies who have blocked the track. The Weird uses this opportunity to escape from the train, with the map, on his side car motorcycle. The Good, a bounty hunter (Woo-sung Jung) attempts to shoot both The Bad and The Weird.

The Good finally decides to chase after The Weird. They all wind up in a village where the Ghost Market operates from. The Ghost Market is a black market meeting place and since everyone seems to know about the treasure map, a gang of Manchurian bandits also want it.

Cue a brilliantly choreographed shoot out between all of the warring factions.

This film does mimic the Sergio Leone classic The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly to a degree, but only in rough terms of characters and the overall plot. Byung-hun Lee is the Lee Van Cleef of the picture, Kang-ho Song is the Eli Wallach, and Woo-sung Jung is the Clint Eastwood.

Jee-woon Kim adds just the right amount of pathos and humour to the film. It is paced perfectly and does not waste a single frame of film. The only complaint that I might possibly have about the film is the casting of Byung-hu lee as The Bad. He was so charismatic and charmingly bad that I actually liked him.

..at the opening night gala for the 2005 Hawai...

Kang-ho Song as The Weird, almost steals the film. He is both comic relief and deadly enemy. He is also the slowest of the three mentally, but what he lacks in brain power he makes up in sheer enthusiasm. He is a bumbling bad man and only chances upon the Japanese treasure map by accident.

Woo-sung Jung is very, very good…as The Good. He lacks the stoic ability of Clint Eastwood’s Character but he makes up for it in his taciturn attitude about bringing the bad guys in for the bounty.

The group of bandits also provided a lot of comic relief, but they also were very deadly if somewhat dense foes.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird is Jee-woon Kim at his finest. He has so far done a couple of horror films, a gangster film, a psychological thriller and an epic western. I cannot wait to see his next venture. What ever it is, I sincerely hope that is has room for Byung-hun Lee,  Kang-ho Song, Woo-sung Jung and maybe Min-sik Choi.

I really feel that South Korean Cinema is leading the rest of the world in producing brilliant films. I also think that they are one of the few countries that still see the director as Auteur. That French invention that likens the director to a sort of demi-god status.

Asian Cinema seems to have more than its fair share of writer/directors and for the most part what ever accolades that they’ve received for their works is well deserved. I think that Jee-woon Kim has earned the title Auteur and may he continue to make films to prove it.

Westerns

When I lived with my parents, in the long ago days before video and DVD players, it was a family tradition to watch any westerns that came on the television. This usually occurred on the weekend, most specifically on a major TV network (NBC I think) on Saturday Night At The Movies.

It was on Saturday nights that I sat with my folks, and later my bother as well, watching The Duke,Gary Cooper, and Robert Mitchum.  In fact, all the old actors who had moved into the genre when they got too old to play romantic leads any more.  We popped lots of popcorn and then rushed in to watch The Sons of Katie Elder, Rio Bravo  or some other John Wayne “Americana” western. Or indeed whatever western happened to be on.  If we didn’t watch westerns on the television, we saw them at the Drive-In.

It was at the Drive-In that I first saw Sergio Leone‘s “Spaghetti Westerns.” Specifically the “Man With No Name trilogy. I was enraptured and captivated by this anti-hero. I was so enthralled by this character that I lost the tendency to emulate The Duke and began to squint a lot and speak softly through gritted teeth. This was at the ripe old age of ten. Oh I never fell out of love with the John Wayne westerns  or old Duke’s characters.  I could still do the swagger and do the “Well, Pilgrim” drawl like a trooper.

I remember staying over  at a cousin’s house and horse riding for hours, wearing the standard western uniform of cowboy boots and hat, riding for about three days straight from sun-up to sun-down. We were both so saddle sore it was hard to sit in a chair let alone walk. But every minute spent in the saddle was a minute spent recreating our favourite scenes from westerns of the day. I believe we were both about twelve.

I remember at the ripe old age of seventeen, playing “Spaghetti Western” with my younger (and only) brother. We would strap on toy guns in the fashion of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef to do battle as “Blondie” – The Good –  and “Angel Eyes” – The Bad –  oddly neither of us had the urge to portray Tuco (the Ugly); even though Tuco was the more “overblown” and fun character to emulate. I mean really, who doesn’t admire actor Eli Wallach’s  portrayal of “Bandito’s?”

It wasn’t just “film” westerns I was infatuated  with either. I also devoured every book I could read by the authors Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. Zane Grey was my fathers perennial favourite. I liked old Zane, but, didn’t care for his colloquial dialogue that he insisted on using. All his characters said words like pahdnuh and  mistuh just to name a couple. They were all spelt just like that, it could drive you to distraction after a while. L’Amour’s characters talked in the archaic language of the cowboy without the colloquialism’s.

Unfortunately Hollywood stopped making decent westerns just after the bumper crop year of 1969.  1969 saw great westerns like The Wild Bunch, True Grit, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to name but three out of the many that were released that year. Then “The Dream Machine” started making psychological westerns instead of  traditional or spaghetti westerns. These were a complete waste of celluloid. One such film did not have one gun in it. What kind of western is that?

I knew though, that if I waited long enough that Hollywood would start making  decent westerns again. I was right. My old Man-With-No-Name hero came out with the odd gem now and then.The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter  and Pale Rider (really just a re-working of Drifter, but still good) and then…Unforgiven.

Unforgiven showed that not only did old Clint still have the chops as a “western” actor, but that he was still one hell of a director as well. I still feel that Unforgiven was the “last hoorah” of the genre. I know I still like the cross genre westerns and some of the “modern” westerns (No Country For Old Men being the best thus far) and I even enjoyed the True Grit re-make that came outin 2010. But I do miss the old fashioned westerns as well as the “anti-hero” ones that came out in the late 60’s.

Now  I watch my old favourites via the DVD player and remember how much I loved them the first time I saw them. Watching them makes me feel simultaneously young and old. They also make me feel like strapping on my guns and looking for my brother to see if he remembers our gun battles and also feels young enough to have a go again. I think I might even want to play Tuco.