Ji-woon Kim’s “The Good The Bad And The Weird“, the most expensive film ever filmed in South Korea, is a relentless, brilliantly entertaining pastiche of great Westerns.
Kim’s visual language is inventive and enticing. From the opening credit sequence (raptors chasing the cast names) through epic opening and closing action sequences, stylist Kim uses every trick in the playbook to delight, excite and thrill. Quoting Leone, Spielberg in his prime, George Miller and the Shaw Brothers, Kim owns the screen. Skipping the grand themes of Westerns (freedom versus the encroachment of society) Kim relies on the trio of lead performances to flesh out the firepower. His fluid transitions and daring set pieces leave the audience little time to think.
It’s also homage to the 60’s genre of “Manchurian Westerns”(films inspired by the Korean resistance fighters, Chinese outlaws and Russian carpetbaggers who populated the badlands along the Chinese-Korean border during Japan’s occupation of Korea in the 1930’s.
Kim uses western China and the Gobi to recreate Manchuria of old.
Opening on a vivid Western sky, a hawk speeds towards the camera then dive bombs a train, to reveal the treasure map at the core of the story.
A shoot-out, full of dazzling wirework stunts, runs rampant in a western town, on top of and through every building we see. Some may be put off by the ceaseless action, but Kim’s fertile, visceral imagery is unforgettable. I was on the edge of my seat, eager as a kid.
On the eve of World War ll, “the Bad”-dandyish gunslinger (Lee Byung-hun -“Joint Security Area”) and his bloodthirsty gang are hired by pro Japanese Korean businessman (Song Yeong-chang) to steal a treasure map from a foreign diplomat in a daring train robbery. Working for Japanese freedom fighters, “the Good”-aristocratic bounty hunter Park Do-won (Jung Woo-sung), attempts to nab the hit man on the train. During the chaos, “the Weird”-accident prone thief Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho) and his goofy sidekick Man-gil (Ryu Seung-su) manage to snag the map, unleashing a chase by Mongol guerillas, the vicious Ghost Market Gang and the Japanese army. The Army sends jeeps and cavalry, the bandits show up on camels and motorcycles. Everyone wants the Chinese treasure buried in the Manchurian desert. The “Good” and “the Bad” pair up to retrieve map and the treasure before “The weird” or the imperialist Japanese gets there first.
To avoid CG, Kim developed special cameras and rigs to shoot the tour de force chase sequence, which is as thrilling as “Ben Hur” was in it’s day. The actors performed risky stunts, including leaping from vehicle to vehicle.
Kim returns Western action films to their Eastern roots (Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” was an unaccredited ‘remake” of Kurosawa’s”Yojimbo”.)
Song (‘The Host”) steals the show with a rowdy, comic performance that would have made Belushi proud. Romantic lead Lee Byung-hyun (“A Bitter Sweet Life”) plays the psycho villain with the career changing relish of Pierce Brosnan when he started playing bad guys. Graceful Jung Woo-sung (“Daisy”, “A Moment to Remember”) is their perfect foil.
Vast handsomely detailed period sets, wack humor and delirious action sequences make for a mind-boggling fusion. The frenetic caper flic ends in an astonishing 15-minute chase scene, which leaves recent Hollywood blockbusters in the dust. Kim channels the confident energy of Hollywood in the 70s’ with a post-modern brio that is uniquely his vision. DP’s Lee Mo-gae & Oh Seung-Chul, production designer Jo Hwa-seong, and composer Dalparan increase the satirical fun.