Review: The Good The Bad The Weird
Kimchee Western from Korean Serves up Spicy Treat
Before you yell at me for bad grammar or punctuation, let me just say that Kim Jee-Woon's new kimchee western has its title displayed exactly like this in the opening credits: "The Good The Bad The Weird" (opening May 14 at Landmark's Ken Cinema). The film riffs on Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" but apparently doesn't have time for commas or conjunctions.You can listen to my review.
Okay, if you don’t recognize the music for “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” then you must have been living under some cultural rock. Sergio Leone defined the spaghetti western with a series of films in the 1960s and early 1970s starring Clint Eastwood as the iconic Man with No Name. At the time, the films were looked down upon but now they are almost revered with filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino paying tribute to them in such films as “Kill Bill, Vol. 1.”
Now filmmaker Kim Jee-Woon has come up with a Korean variation on the spaghetti western, something he calls a “kimchee western.” He takes the name from the traditional fermented cabbage condiment of his homeland. That’s because he says his film, “The Good The Bad The Weird,” reflects a spicy, vibrant culture. But there’s plenty of spice from both east and west as cultures in this audacious genre bending film.
“The Good The Bad The Weird” is like looking down a hall of mirrors and being dazzled by all the reflections. So what you get is Kim reflecting on spaghetti westerns, which were themselves riffing on old Hollywood movies, and then he’s exporting his film out for American audiences who will probably think he’s ripping off Tarantino. Ironically, the film’s been held up for two years. Fan sites say it was because of a dispute over the title’s similarity to Sergio Leone’s 1966 film.
But then that’s the whole point. Kim replaces The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with The Good, the Bad and the Weird. It’s still essentially a tale of greed, revenge, betrayal, and violence but this time played out in 1940s Manchuria. The three men cross paths early and set off in pursuit of a map while an invading Japanese Army and Chinese bandits add complications.
Now there’s no substance in Kim’s film. It’s all about style. Oh sure you could make a case that it comments on notions of trust, national pride, and invading armies but you wouldn’t be very convincing. Style IS the substance here. Take it or leave it. This is essentially a film for film lovers, for people who can take delight in the way the film plays off of other films, and reflects cultural differences.
Most notable is the use of time and space. Leone’s westerns were all about slow, measured movement in the hot sun, and wide-open vistas. By contrast, much of “The Good The Bad The Weird” revels in speed and in cramped quarters that confine the action and force the combatants to be more creative.
So there’s an extended fight in the tight corridors of a train where there are limited avenues of escape, and stand offs are at very close range. Even when Kim finds wide open spaces he’s moving horses, people, and cars through them with insane energy. Everyone is either in hot pursuit of someone/something or is fleeing from said pursuers. It’s not until the final shootout where things slows down and more faithfully mimic the pace and visuals of Leone's spaghetti westerns.
But like Leone, Kim is all about exaggeration and embracing genre conventions without falling victim to them. This pays obvious tribute to Leone yet still manages to display an over-the-top personality distinctly Korean in flavor. Kim delivers outrageous action as he mixes gunplay, swordplay, and martial arts. There’s a spectacular sequence incorporating the Asian flair for wirework as people fly on pulleys over bamboo scaffolding.
Casting is key, and “The Good The Bad The Weird” gets two out of three right. Lee Byung-Hun really should have been dubbed the Cool rather than the Bad. He's a far sexier and and hipper "Bad" than Lee Van Cleef was in Leone's film. (Van Cleef was a delicious nasty though.) Dressed all in black, Lee moves with cat like grace as he dispatches everyone from tiresome employers to an annoying screaming woman. He also nails a bug on teh wall with his kinife and then fires off a couple shots so that the bullets pound the knife in even further. Now that's cool!
Equally entertaining is Song Kang-ho as the Weird. He basically takes on the over the top Eli Wallach character that gets no respect. At one point he even dons a diving bell helmet in order to run through a gauntlet of bandits.
But Jung Woo-Sung is more like the bland than the good. He has none of the moral ambiguity of Eastwood’s Man With No Name and as an actor he lacks the flair of his two co-stars so he ends up eating their dust. But his character does sum up the film well. He philosophizes that life is about chasing or being chased. To which Song replies, “go to sleep and stop making me think.”
“The Good The Bad The Weird” is not a film to think about, it’s a film that revels in pursuit and serves up something that is pure kinetic joy.
Companion viewing: "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," "Kill Bill, Vol.2," "A Bittersweet Life"