Friday, March 13, 2015

The Good, The Bad, The Weird

'People must know they'll all die some day, but they live as if they won't. Damn funny.'

With a title riffing off The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, I pretty much had to watch this.

Directed by Jee-Woon Kim, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is a South Korean film, set in Manchuria, probably in the early 1930s, judging by Japan's military presence. There's a map, that leads to something valuable, that everyone wants. An official of the Japanese Imperial Bank bought it from some underworld kingpin type, but the kingpin then sent gangster Park Chang-Yi (played by Byung-hun Lee) to steal the map back, so they have it and the money. Except a petty bandit named Yoon Tae-Goo (Kang-ho Song) steals it first, which is especially maddening to Chang-Yi, since he has some issues with Tae-Goo. Then there's also a duster-wearing bounty hunter named Park Do-Won (Woo-sung Jung) who gets involved, mostly for the reward on Chang-Yi. He initially catches Tae-Goo as bait (and for his minor reward, Tae-Goo laments that he's only worth a piano, a used one at that), but eventually agrees to get in on the treasure hunt.

But there's also the Ghost Market Gang lurking about, trying to get their hands on the map. And then the Japanese military gets involved, because they want the treasure, and things start to spiral out of hand. There's a chase scene that involves all those players riding across a perfectly flat, seemingly endless plain. For awhile, everyone is focused on chasing just one guy, ignoring the presence of all these rival groups, and right about the time I started to wonder about that, they all started shooting each other. It involved horses, motorcycles, jeeps, trucks, rifles, swords, maces, machine guns, artillery pieces. It felt much more like something I'd expect from Road Warrior than a Leone film.

Which is sort of the interesting thing about the movie. It does a lot of deliberate callbacks to Leone's films, but it's very much of a different style. There is a 3-way gunfight at the end, but it's the opposite of the Eastwood/Eli Wallach/Lee van Cleef showdown in almost every way. The do the "shooting the other guy's hat bit" from For a Few Dollars More, but again, the reason behind it is opposite. It isn't a film much interested in the sort of long stretches with no dialogue Leone favors, but it Jee-Woon Kim does populate it with all manner of odd secondary characters, from Tae-Goo's granny, to an opium den owner posing as a revolutionary. Chang-Yi has a big lieutenant who carries a huge wooden war hammer, and Do-Won has Song-Yi who is, I'm not sure what she is to him. Sister? Wife? Just an old friend? There's a backstory there, but we never get it. It all works within the context of the film, it's just interesting to note.

The film's pacing isn't quite right, though. It's about 130 minutes, so 20-30 minutes shorter than The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, but it feels longer. There are parts that just feel unnecessary, where the focus drifts from the three main characters. Also, I think the fact there are so many more extended action scenes plays into it. The film isn't much for the drawing out the tension of the moment before the shot is fired, as it is having lots of people firing lots of bullets. Except it's one of those situations where characters are really excellent shots, except when that would enable a fight to end quickly, at which point their aim turns to shit.

One other thing, and it made a lot more sense once I knew it was a South Korean film, is all three characters are Korean, but they all live in Manchuria. It gets referenced a couple of times that at this time, Korea is also under Japanese control, and so there's at least an implication some Koreans left their homes to try someplace else, or to work toward expelling the Japanese. With these three, I think it's as much about escaping from their pasts, but there's a fair chance that for some of them -Do-Won in particular - that past involved pissing off the new Japanese overlords. Although the part I noticed the most was Tae-Goo's general indifference because, as he put, for guys like them, it doesn't really matter whether it's the Japanese or the nobility that's running things. Which jibes with what I read in A New History of Korea last fall. It makes me think I need to look up books on Korean expats living in Manchuria. I doubt their stories will involve gunfights where a guy swings from a rope over the roofs of a shanty town with one hand while firing a Winchester in the other, but that's OK.

Pacing issues aside, I really enjoyed the film. My guess is if you know more about the history of the region than I did, you'd get more out of it. Even without that, it's still a solid to very good action movie, with some decent comedy bits sprinkled throughout. And Byung-hun Lee as Chang-Yi looks very awesome. He brings a real, slightly unbalanced swagger to his character. 

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