The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008): An Insane Homage to the Classic Western

Jee-woon Kim is rapidly becoming one of my favourite filmmakers. In A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), he demonstrated that he could infuse a quiet ghost story with eerie emotion, leading to a horror film that was as emotionally satisfying as it was visually effective. He proved with I Saw the Devil (2010) that he could put forth a violent and epic tale of revenge that does not shy away from what inflicting vengeance does to us as people. And with The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008), he deftly displays his skill with action and comedy, as he takes on one of the most iconic Western films ever made.

Synopsis: Yoon Tae-goo (aka the Weird) steals a map during a train heist, unknowingly bringing down upon him all who want it for themselves (knowing that it leads to treasure). Tae-goo joins forces (kind of) with Park Do-won (the Good) to reach the treasure while Park Chang-yi (the Bad) leads the pursuit to track them down.

I was unsure how to label this cinematic endeavor: it’s too different to be a remake of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), too similar to be an homage… perhaps a re-imagining? The core goal of the three main characters is the same, some scenes are clearly taken from the original (although always slightly altered), and the relationship between Do-won and Tae-goo is very similar to the congenial yet adversarial dynamic between Tucco and Blondie. But Kim has changed some elements entirely: Tae-goo and Chang-yi share a past which is not fully elucidated until the end; the treasure is found via map, as opposed to the gravestone (which always did a wonderful job of accounting for why Blondie and Tucco would put up with each other, an explanation not so believable in Kim’s version); and the film is set amidst the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Korea circa WWII. Acquiring the map is central to both the rebel and Japanese forces as each sees the treasure as guaranteeing their victory. Although let’s be clear, I wouldn’t cite this film for historical accuracy.

Historically accurate or not, I don’t really care. The Good, The Bad, The Weird is certainly style over substance, with visual flair and stupendous action sequences. And what style! Kim is a director who really thinks about the camera, and how he can use it in innovative ways: long tracking shots, sweeping aerials… the complete opposite of the neo-realism style popular today (another style I enjoy), Kim wants you to know that he is in control of this story. Several times he pans out from a scene to reveal a clever twist on the action you thought was unfolding. And he understands the fundamental requirement of all action movies – you must be able to tell what is going on. Lately, there is a trend toward shaky-cam action sequences. Beyond inducing nausea in those sensitive to the motion (thankfully, not a problem I have), this style of filming tends to be excessively edited to the point that the action itself is muddled. Ok, I know that Guy A ran at Guy B and then something violent happened and now Guy B is on the floor. Kim is as creative with his action scenes as he is with the rest of the film, but the action unfolding is always clear. And crazy over-the-top.

Also impressive is the steady humorous thread running through the movie. Neither of the previous Kim films I’ve seen showed even a shred of humour. Not that either flick lacks because of it – it’s just that the subject matter in both cases is serious as a serial killer slaughtering your wife (for example). Yet The Good, the Bad, the Weird is infused with hilarious moments, and a solid tongue-in-cheek even in the more dramatic scenes. An especial kudos to Kang-ho Song who plays the Weird in a fine comedic performance. Which is especially impressive when I consider that I last saw him in I Saw the Devil, in which he plays a chilling serial killer.

There is only one significant weakness when compared with the original (there are other ways in which The Good, the Bad, the Weird is inferior in plot or character, but just slightly and it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the film). Unfortunately Park Do-won is no Blondie. And I understand that Woo-sung Jung (the actor behind the Good) is competing with Clint Eastwood, and those are some big shoes. But the character is just… bland, especially when compared with Chang-yi and Tae-goo. The real kick about Blondie is that “good” as a descriptor for him is in very sarcastic quotation marks. He’s only good when compared with the other weasels in the movie – and he’s certainly not above stabbing an accomplice in the back and leaving him to die in the desert. Do-won is good in the more traditional sense, and it’s too boring for this flick. His contributions to the action sequences, however, are excellent.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird was easily one of my favourite action movies of the past decade. Add to that list a favourite horror and thriller, and colour me eager for Kim’s next release.

Favourite scene: Oooh, so many… I have to go with the opening train heist. A fantastic introduction to our anti-heroes.

Key Quote: Man-gil: The bounty on your head is 300 won.
                       Yoon Tae-goo: What? I’m only worth a piano?
                       Man-gil: A used one at that.

Fun Fact:
Kim refers to his film as a “Kimchee Western” for the Korean people. He says he thinks the plot and movie are spicy and vibrant, like the Korean culture.

~ by K. Harker on August 26, 2011.

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