The Good, The Bad, The Weird – 좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈
Director: Kim Ji-Woon (김지운)
Cast: Song Kang-Ho (송강호), Lee Byung-Hun (이병헌), Jung Woo-Sung (정우성)
Endlessly stylish, darkly comical, and containing some of the best on-screen action of 2008, Kim Ji-Woon’s loving homage to Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly provides solid entertainment and acts as an appropriate introduction for many to the genre of Manchurian Westerns.
Lifting the basic story right from Leone’s film, the macguffin consists of buried treasure in the middle of the desert. Song Kang-Ho is The Weird, Yoon Tae-Gu, who comes in to possession of a treasure map at the beginning of the film which in turn incurs the wrath of The Bad, Park Chang-Yi (Lee Byung-Hun), who is sent to get the map. Stuck in the middle is The Good, Park Do-Won (Jung Woo-Sung), a bounty hunter commissioned to take out Park Chang-Yi. This triangular relationship is a perennial foundation for movie conflict, and Kim gets the most out of it thanks to his actors, particularly Song Kang-Ho (Like Japan’s Koji Yakusho, Song is one of the best and most watchable actors on the planet. It’s almost a shame he’s not more well known outside of Korea, but I fear for his image if Hollywood were to get its hands on him. After all, look what happened to Koji Yakusho, stuck in insulting dreck such as Memoirs of a Geisha), but also thanks to the Western’s genre conventions.
The traditional Western itself is a genre unique to life in the United States. Taking place in the Western frontier between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century, its common themes include contested space, conflict between savagery and civilization, and maintaining social order. Take a look at John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach as the archetype for the genre. What Kim does with his film is transpose it to a different geographical area at a different time while keeping intact much of the visual conventions and iconography: horses, six shooters, Winchester rifles, gun fights, and the uncompromising harshness of the desert. So the film has all the visual makings of a fine Western. Take a look at the opening scene.
But outside of the three leads and their Western foundations, there is a larger triangular conflict at work between Korea, Japan, and China. Some may consider the film a bit lacking in the plot department because in the end, it may not have much insight to offer on these three competing forces in Manchuria during this time period. But compare it to a film such as Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive: Final in which different characters speak to one another in English, Japanese, and Chinese. The film never questions how they understand each other. They just do. Sho Aikawa speaks to Terence Yin in Japanese, and Terence replies in English, no problems. The implications for multiculturalism in an undefined space are quite strong. Perhaps that is where the power of Kim’s film lies, in its implicit depiction of conflict and a trouble, yet shared, past. Making this more interesting is the underdeveloped nature of the Japanese, the bumbling depiction of the Chinese, and in-fighting among the Koreans.
In short, nobody comes out of the film looking good (unless you’re one of Jung Woo-Sung’s female admirers), and this approach gives Kim a chance to flex his already proven creative muscle and to enjoy skewering the genre within a very slick, commercial package. And there can be no confusion about the film’s commercial prospects. It became Korea’s highest grossing film of 2008 with over 7 million admissions. From the elaborate gun fights and chases to the hybridized/eletronica guitar riffs and the bankable actors, there is plenty to admire on the surface and a great deal more to think about underneath.