I’ve reviewed two South Korean films for this website, Memories of Murder and House of Hummingbird. One of them is a darkly comical detective mystery and the other one is a coming-of-age drama. In the review for the latter I mentioned my desire to watch additional Korean films that weren’t genre-films and I hope to do so in the future. But progress on that front is slow. I mean, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so here I remain several months later still watching only Korean genre films that all virtually contain the same elements; stylish camerawork, brutal violence and dark humor. And this time, I watched a film I had had my eyes on for a while from a director whose work I like that also contained all three of those key elements; Kim Jee-woon’s film The Good, the Bad, the Weird from 2008.
Much like the film it takes as a primary source of inspiration and indeed its namesake, Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the film revolves around three lawless men trying to get their hands on a treasure map, all whilst being chased by bounty hunters, rival Chinese gangs and the Japanese army in 1940s occupied Manchuria. And much like Leone’s film, none of the characters are terribly likeable or sympathetic in the traditional sense of the word. Despite being the “good”, bounty hunter Park Da-won (Jung Woo-sung) cares only for his own profit and the desire to catch both the sadistic and evil “bad” Park Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun in an evil turn) and the eccentric and irreverent bandit “weird” Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho). All of this whilst being chased by Chinese bandits, Korean resistance fighters and the Japanese army.
As far as the performances from the three leads are concerned, they all do a good job. But it must be said, I think Jung gets the most thankless and weakest role in the film of the trio. Yes, he does the Clint Eastwood-imitation very well, but even Eastwood as the Man with No Name had moral complications that prevented him from being the one-note character he’s often made out to be. That’s absent here, so Jung isn’t given much to do besides look brooding and talk in a low voice. Lee and Song get the much meatier roles. Lee continues to prove why he’s arguably the coolest actor currently living with his effortless charisma and amazing yet anachronistic haircut. He’s got a magnetic presence that makes you want to keep looking at him no matter what role he’s in. The real scene-stealer of the film however is Song Kang-ho as the “weird.” He is clearly having a ton of fun with the part, and much like Eli Wallach’s Tuco, he gets the most development and the closest thing that resembles a backstory.
Kim Jee-woon described the film as a “kimchi western”, not only because it pays tribute to the spaghetti westerns from Sergio Leone but also for the fact that kimchi can be explosive and spicy, and you certainly feel that in this film. In fact, the film moves so fast and so intensely that there were times I found myself losing the plot, and I suppose that’s in a way the point. You’re not really meant to follow the plot or think too much, you’re just meant to have fun watching this extravagant adventure. And that part the film does very well. Many of the action set pieces are so baroque and the camerawork is out of this world that makes your jaw drop. A major chase sequence towards the end of the film is insane in just how many extras, horses, actors, stunt doubles, camera moves etc and it makes most Hollywood action set pieces look tame and subtle by comparison.
If there is one major weakness with the film as a whole, it would have to be the lack of subtext for me. Now I do feel bad for criticizing a film for being something it isn’t, but I couldn’t help but think if the characters or the story would ever amount to much beyond the cinematic style, and I never felt that it did, and there seemed to me to be a lot of potentially interesting thematic ideas one could’ve dispersed throughout the film, yet the opportunity is rarely taken. If I were to compare it to The Good the Bad and the Ugly, that film deals with greed, violence and anti-war themes. Even the other films by Kim I’ve seen, A Bittersweet Life and I Saw the Devil at least felt like they were attempting to go beyond their respective genres and do something slightly more profound. I personally would’ve liked some of that in this film and I think it would’ve made it a superior piece of work. One could argue it tries to say something about greed and the futility of existence, but there isn’t enough to support those claims in the finished film, so if there are any themes they feel incidental.
But I must say, despite my wish for the film to have something more clear to say about, really anything, I still enjoyed the insane and coked-out ride that the film is, and really, that’s what the film is trying to do in the end. There is plenty of action, comedy, intrigue and craziness to keep one entertained for the films two-hour running time, and makes for a fun and enjoyable yet perhaps more incidental film in Kim Jee-woon’s oeuvre.