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The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008)
10th Feb 09
Set in the 1930's, three outlaws chase across Manchuria as they fight for possession of a treasure map. With the Japanese army and a group of Asian bandits also on their tail the three men look set for an explosive stand off.
With a title like The Good, The Bad, The Weird you could be forgiven for thinking that director Kim Jee-woon has just gone out and remade The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and given it a bit of a Korean spin. The influences are clearly there and Kim freely admits to being captivated by the genre, but this latest film is all his own creation. I should add a caveat that I am no expert when it comes to westerns, I've never been a huge fan, so rather than spend time attempting to compare the film to other examples within the genre, I'm simply going to review it on its own merits.
Kim's oriental western plays out across the vast plains of Manchuria where lawlessness reigns. It's the 1930s and with the Japanese occupation of their country, many Korean people have fled their homeland in search of new opportunities. The film follows three such foreigners as they pursue their dreams in this strange land, their destinies linked by a mysterious treasure map from the Manchurian dynasty. Chang-yi (Lee) has been asked by his boss to deliver the map to Kanemura, the Chief of the Japanese bank who's currently on a train journey across the region. Once he's completed the deal and pocketed the payoff Chang-yi must then steal it back!
However as the bandit leader brings the train to a dramatic halt in order to reclaim the map, little does he realise that the unpredictable Tae-goo (Song) is already in the process of robbing Kanemura and his associates, and a shoot-out ensues. They're soon joined by Do-won (Jung), a bounty hunter who boards the train in search of Chang-yi. The pair battle along the length of the stricken locomotive as Tae-goo makes his escape. It's a thrilling opening which sets the tone for much of what's to follow. In fact the whole of the first hour is conducted at breakneck pace as Tae-goo holes up at the Ghost Market with his friend Man-gil (Ryu) and a local gang move in for the kill. Double-crossings abound as the three main protagonists try to outwit one another, dodge the rival bandits and gain possession of the fabled map, which of course acts as the film's 'MacGuffin'.
The pace slows in the second hour though, some scenes feeling a little too drawn out even, but as we get closer to the treasure's location our characters are once more joined by a Tri-Nation gang and members of the Japanese army which culminates in a crazy desert chase involving horses, tanks and Tae-goo's trusty sidecar - with no stand ins or computer enhancement employed.. There's also the introduction of a curious subplot revolving around the secret identity of a legendary outlaw know only as the 'Finger Chopper' - could he really be Chang-yi, Tae-goo or even Do-won? All will be revealed as the final showdown approaches!
Kim's film is reportedly the biggest-scaled production to date in Korean film with a budget of over $17 million, and it reaped the rewards on its national release smashing box office records there that were previously held by The Host. It's easy to see why cinema lovers flocked to their local theatres in large numbers, because putting the story and characters to one side just for a moment, this is a beautiful looking film that cries out to be seen on the biggest screen possible. The production design and costume design are simply outstanding, larger than life and brimming with colours that give a real vibrancy to the picture.
Then there's Kim's direction; we already know that he's gifted behind the camera after earlier success and critical acclaim with A Bittersweet Life and A Tale Of Two Sisters (soon to be seen on these shores remade by Hollywood as The Uninvited) and here his talent literally takes flight. The use of the camera in The Good, The Bad, The Weird is one of the big selling points for me. Right from the opening credits as we swoop over and then into the train, Kim uses lots of crane shots and keeps the camera moving throughout the action. The extended fight scene in market is another fine example of this kinetic approach with the camera following Do-won as he leaps across the rooftops, it's simply exhilarating to watch.
Having Song (a veteran of such Korean blockbusters as Memories Of Murder and The Host) on board is a masterstroke as the actor is one of the most gifted the country has to offer, able to pull off an array of emotions and facial tics which allow him to totally nail the role of the 'Weird' Tae-goo. Lee (who also collaborated with Kim on A Bittersweet Life and will next be seen in this Summer's G.I. Joe movie) is also an asset to the film, stick-thin, gangly and oozing menace as the 'Bad' Chang-yi at every turn. It's Jung as the 'Good' Do-won who's the weakest of the three, a little bland compared to his co-stars, but then I suppose you have to take into account that his character is perhaps the least dynamic of them all. If there's a criticism to be levelled then it would be the lack of any substantial female characters in this male-dominated world, only Tae-goo's Granny getting any prolonged screentime.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird is a hugely entertaining picture to watch then, upbeat and full of life. Aside from the aforementioned action sequences it also plays out like a screwball comedy at times, with plenty of comedic moments that are presented in a subtle manner rather than rammed home with pithy wisecracks or the like. With its gusto performances from its three leading actors and a director working at the top of his game, this is one Korean epic that is both good and weird, and certainly not bad!