Apart from the fact that so many of them are blazingly creative, with artistically rendered sex and violence not seen in Hollywood since the ’70s, South Korean films hold another attraction for Western film buffs.
The movies — influenced as they are by our own Golden Age — provide us a chance to see our classics through fresh eyes.
Look no further than The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Kim Ji-woon’s almost cartoonishly action-packed and loving spoof of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western trilogy (with the violence amped up to Peckinpah/Tarantino levels). Though the director clearly loves his source material, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is an utterly original (and sometimes just plain nuts) reimagining of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s tale of the uneasy alliance of a bounty hunter, a bandit and a gunman (which is only fair, since Leone had his own Asian inspiration back in the day: Japanese film Yojimbo).
Set in Manchuria, post-Japanese-invasion, the movie introduces us to “The Weird,” a thief of almost Three Stooges-calibre clumsiness, played by the quirkily talented Song Kang-ho (who played the hilarious lovable-loser single dad in the great Korean monster movie The Host).
Unfortunately, his heist (filmed from car-to-car with manic glee by director Kim) has netted him a Japanese-held treasure map that “The Bad,” a bandit played by Lee Byung-hun, had been hired to procure himself. In his own effort, The Bad derails the train, killing Japanese soldiers and setting the stage for some major Imperial retribution.
Enter “The Good” (Jung Woo-sung), a bounty hunter who is single-mindedly set on capturing The Bad, and regards the buffoonish third party as an annoyance at best.
Thus begins a long and absurdly convoluted series of chases, involving our three uneasy protagonists, a Manchurian bandit gang, a legendary gunfighter who may or may not be on their trail and an entire battalion of Japanese soldiers, all ultimately seeking the lost treasure of the Qing Dynasty.
Reputedly one of the most expensive live-action films in Korean history (at a paltry-by-Hollywood-standards $17 million), this is an object example of every dollar being on the screen. Indeed, the climactic scene in which everybody — the Japanese Army, the bandit brigade and our anti-heroes — have it out on a desert battlefield, is one that is eye-popping, hilarious and unforgettable.
No video-game/TV commercial film tricks here. Kim’s style is both old-school and alive, with the camera physically following the frenetic action as if it were a caffeinated member of the cast.
Produced at the same time as another comedically flavoured “Asian Western,” the Tarantino-sponsored Sukiyaki Western Django, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a superior piece of work, with more natural situational humour and, for all its Western influences, a uniquely Asian edge.
(This film is rated 14-A)
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