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.

I Saw the Devil (2010): A Clash of Wills

Starring Byung-hun Lee  ( A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird,   G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and   Min-sik Choi (The Quiet Family, Oldboy, Crying Fist, Lady Vengeance) and directed by  Jee-woon Kim (The Quiet Family, A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird), I Saw the Devil is devilishly hard to watch.

The film opens with a young girl,  Joo-yeon, who is travelling by car through a snow covered countryside. Her car tyre goes flat  and while she is waiting for the breakdown service to arrive, she calls her fiance Kim Soo-hyeon  (Byung-hun Lee), who works for the Korean Secret Service. While she is talking to Kim a man comes up, Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) and offers to change her tyre for her.

Joo-yeon  refuses and the man leaves only to return with a hammer to smash her window in with. He strikes her with the hammer and takes her unconscious body away. Kim is understandably upset that his fiancée is in danger. Kyung-chul in the meantime has raped and murdered Joo-yeon. Afterwards he cuts her body up and scatters the pieces around the countryside.

Joo-yeon’s father is a policeman, a squad leader and he is present when the police find Joo-yeon’s head. Kim Soo-yeon uses a suspect list that Joo-yeon’s father has to find the murderer. He vows to get revenge for his fiancée’s death.

Jee-woon Kim, has made a powerful and disturbing film. I Saw the Devil could be described as a modern morality tale. Kim Soo-hyeon’s cold determination to catch his fiancée’s killer, has him brutally questioning the suspects to narrow down his search for the killer. When he finally discovers that it is Kyung-chul, he begins a series of violent and gory retribution against him.

Kyung-chul though is a different animal from the usual sexual predator. He is actually a predator, full stop. Kim’s brutal torturing of Kyung-chul just makes things worse. Kim finds out, to his horror, that Kyung-chul is a twisted type A personality, a ‘right-man’ who will not stop until he has either won or died.

When Kyung-chul finds out who has been tracking him and injuring him repeatedly, he vows his own revenge on Kim Soo-yeon. A deadly cat and mouse game between the two ensues, with Kim having to sink to the same level of evil as Kyung-chul.

The film was excruciating to watch. The rape scenes were uncomfortable and horrible. The scenes of retribution against Min-sik’s character, although satisfying, were equally horrible to watch. Although we feel the rage that Kim feels and that the actions he takes are justified. We cannot help but be saddened by the toll it takes him and on everyone involved.

The police are frustrated and angry, Kim begins to lose his grip on normalcy and everyone peripherally involved gets caught up in the action.

This is the latest offering from Jee-woon Kim, one of the best directors in South Korea. If you are a Jee-woon fan you will not want to miss this film. If you are not aware of Jee-woon Kim’s work, it is a good introduction to his prowess as a director.

Crying Fist (2005): Down But Not Out

Crying Fist

Written and directed by Seung-wan Ryoo (Arahan, No Blood No Tears) and starring Seung-beom Ryu (Arahan, No Blood No Tears) and  Min-sik Choi (Oldboy, The Quiet FamilySympathy for Lady Vengeance, I Saw The Devil) Crying Fist [Jumeogi unda] was Ryoo’s fourth film that utilised the talent of his brother and was a break in direction for both him and his brother. Ryu was so ‘beefed-up’ for his role in the film that he is almost unrecognisable.

The ‘Reader’s Digest‘ version of the plot is as follows:

Tae-shik Kang (Min-sik Choi) won the  Olympic Silver Medal for Boxing when he was younger. Kang has fallen on hard times. His wife has left him, he is broke, jobless and in serious debt. He has turned himself into a human ‘punching bag’ and bills himself as a stress reliever.

Sang-Hwan Yu (Seung-beom Ryu) is a teenage juvenile delinquent. He has an anger management problem and has no self discipline. His frequent brushes with the police end with his being put in prison. Once inside, his natural proclivity for fighting works for him as he joins the boxing team. He learns that boxing may just change his life.

An amateur boxing title is up for grabs. The winner not only receives a title but he also wins a nice sum of cash. Both men decide to go for the title. Tae-shik Kang goes for the title in a last ditch attempt to clear his debts and turn his life around. Sang-Hwan Yu goes for the title to give himself a new start in life, he is desperate to ‘go straight’ and not return to prison.

The film follows the journeys of both men. We see the depth of Kang’s misery and hopelessness. In his eyes he is a loser, someone who was once proud and respected. Watching him set up his area in town squares and main streets is heartbreaking.

Kang is constantly reminded of how much he has lost and how much he owes. The amateur title seems almost too good to be true. He realises that this could be a second chance and he starts training for it.

Yu is an angry young man. Stubborn and wild he looks to have no real future, apart from prison. When he warily starts boxing in prison, he soon realises that he is good at it. Once he is out of prison, he trains for his chance at the title. If he wins, he will have respectability, money, and a purpose in life.

The film shows us both men’s story by cutting back and forth between the two. The director manages to get us on both men’s side. We feel their despair, anger, helplessness, frustration and finally hope. While rooting for each man to succeed, we are uncomfortable in the knowledge that only one of them can win.

It can be a little frustrating to watch. Ryoo does such a good job in connecting us with the two ultimately opposing characters that we remain torn over which one to root for. The characters are so well written and performed that we constantly shift our allegiance and this shifting of sympathy gets harder as the film progresses.

Both men endure gruelling punishment in the ring. Each one continues to win until,ultimately, they must face each other. The fights in this film are choreographed brilliantly. Each fight actually appears so realistic we wince and start to react to the fight sequences as if they were real.

I would highly recommend this film to anyone. If you have not watched Asian cinema before, this would be an excellent introduction. Min-sik Choi and Seung-beom Ryu are craftsmen of the highest order. I have never seen either actor in a film where they failed to deliver. Seung-beom Ryoo goes from strength to strength as a director and this film is an excellent example of his work.

This film is no Rocky it is too realistic and gritty. It also grabs you and reels you in, by the end of the film you will be practically exhausted from all the “side changing” you will go through. Definitely a must see and one that you’ll need two bags of popcorn for.  Crying Fist is a cult favourite and it deserves to be.