Combine the tropes and the setting of the great spaghetti westerns, notably Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (aka The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) with the action/adventure of the Indiana Jones series and the treasure-hunting comedy chase of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and you’ve got an approximation of The Good, the Bad, the Weird, the latest action/comedy extravaganza from Korean writer/director Kim Ji-woon. Following the brilliantly conceived thrill ride that was A Bittersweet Life is no simple task, but Kim Ji-woon, apparently with greater resources, ups the ante for this western parody, genre mishmash. The set pieces are grand, the stakes incredible and, as a result, the spectacle is awesome.
Anyone expecting a return to the Melvillean noir, revenge thriller that was A Bittersweet Life will be sorely disappointed. With that film Kim smartly turned the gangster genre on its head, forming a strong philosophical undercurrent built up from the tropes of revenge thrillers and the poignant alienation of films like La Dolce Vita wrapped up in a neat noir package, recalling French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic heist films. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a very different kind of film, though it does see the return of martial arts choreographer Jong Doo-hong and original music from Dalparan and Jang Yeong-gyu, three men to which A Bittersweet Life is certainly indebted. This film is philosophical, but of the meandering sort. It is first and foremost an action/comedy and it makes no bones about it.
The spectacle opens with a breathtaking (partially CGI, but among its few appearances) camera maneuver through a high speed train robbery. A gang of thugs, led by Park Chang-yi aka “The Bad” (Lee Byung-hun) and a lone pistol wielder (Yoon Tae-goo aka “The Weird” played by Song Kang-ho), are pursuing a map which not surprisingly leads to some sort of treasure. Park Do-won aka “The Good” makes his entrance as well, firing off rifle rounds at The Bad and his goons with pin-point accuracy. The Weird wins the day and leaps from the train with map in hand to rendezvous with his motorcycle steering compatriot for a desert escape. This opening paean to the iconic steam train (an immortal, and potent, cinematic icon) neatly introduces our titular trio, establishes plot (a negligible one I’ll admit), alludes to wider circles of interested parties and manages to give us our first taste of the thrill ride forthcoming.
From start to finish, this is high octane action and lofty comedy, the two often broached simultaneously. The treasure map is a classic macguffin1, but, as in Hitchcock’s films, it doesn’t much matter because there are more interesting things going on. The map can be credited with kicking things off by providing the justification. But after this the film picks up a momentum of its own which carries it for two plus hours. The plot is negligible here because The Good, the Bad, the Weird is driven by the performances of the three, its often breathtaking environs and the frenetic action pacing with which Kim is now so skilled.
The Mongolian deserts (the Gobi desert in this case) have become the east Asian equivalent of the Monument Valley of the American West and, given a cursory glance, it’s not surprising that more and more films of late are shot here. We have steam locomotives, corrugated mountain ridges tearing at a deep blue sky and miles of desert just begging to be photographed. In fact I think the locales are a major boon to this film, which might otherwise feel pretentious (and certainly less authentic) filmed anywhere else. Kim and company (cinematographers Lee Mo-gae and Oh Seung-Chul) don’t simply allow their magnificent locations to do all the work; they utilize the widescreen process to its fullest, giving us perhaps the most magnanimous vistas—recalling Leone’s C’era una volta il West (aka Once Upon a Time in the West)—for a Korean film to date.
Kim’s politics are far less visible here, but perhaps it’s simply lost in all of the fun. And most won’t care because it is that much fun. But for those who do, the film makes much ado of militancy, whether from the Japanese military or the lone, feral spirits juxtaposing them in the race for riches. The Mongolian gang on horseback that we see from time to time, besides providing comic relief, stand in the middle of it all. They too have an interest in the map, but compared to the other parties they seem stoic observers. What Kim is implying here is open to interpretation, but the choice of setting alone points to empathy for the Manchurian natives who have seen their homelands conquered and ravaged by the Japanese military and likewise become a battleground for foreign pioneers with dreams of riches.
None of this works well, though, and it really comes across as an afterthought. Fortunately for Kim everything else does work, including his choice of master comedy actor Song Kang-ho to lead the charge. Kang-ho could be accused of playing the same character time and again, but to me it’s simply what he brings to his various roles. His quirkiness shines through every character, and like no other he is capable of delivering the most mundane lines with equal parts sincerity and irony, thus getting away with it where most actors cannot. If Kang-ho is upstaged by anyone it has to be the enigmatic Lee Byung-hun, making an incredibly credible leap to villainy after his restrained yet powerful turn as the protagonist of A Bittersweet Life. Though I’m not thrilled with his appearance (studded ears, mohawk-like pompadour), it does manage to add to his magnetic ferocity in this role. He is a fierce presence in every scene, a man of importance and considerable power who will not take insults lightly and you can see this in his eyes as much as his swift martial arts maneuvering and deft pistol wielding.
Where American editors might use a series of quick jump-cuts either to conceal gratuitous violence for budgetary or censorial purposes or intentionally for its jarring effects, Kim Ji-woon works from the opposite assumption. Rather than create the sense of rapidity with editing he instead embeds the camera within the scene. Mis-en-scene action as opposed to its illusion through montage. This includes some very skillfully conceived tracking shots; the camera pans and tracks along to Yoon Tae-goo firing a volley of shots at an angle toward the viewer while fleeing a flurry of bullets from the left side of the frame to the right with bullet spatter everywhere in the form of woven baskets, splintered wood, feathers and flour flung violently just a step behind. We also have a number of incisively intercut handheld shots in the midst of all this stellar freneticism.
To top everything off, The Good, the Bad, the Weird features a whistling spaghetti western score, often moving through and around thunderous brass and percussion which provide the continuous pulse from one gunfight to the next. It’s a not-so-subtle nod—amidst the many other allusions to now classic westerns—to the rich film tradition that made a film like this possible. It will not please all comers, especially those looking for a rational narrative, but fans of spaghetti westerns and inventive action thrills at the very least should feel right at home with Kim’s contemporary Asian western. Did I mention that it’s funny?
1 Wikipedia definition.