By Lee Hyo-won
Director Kim Jee-woon
("A Bittersweet Life
", 2005) finally brings home what had judges in awe at 2008 Cannes in its out-of-competition section. While inspired by Sergio Leone's spaghetti Western "The Good, the Bad, the Ugly", 1966, "kimchi" Western (as the Toronto International Film Festival calls it) "The Good, the Bad, the Weird
" achieves, with finesse, the creative struggle of transforming self and heritage into something new.
"Good" is seductively entertaining in the way you expect a Western movie to be: three of Korea's most endearing actors ride around with guns on horseback and engage in a pulsating train robbery, cross-country treasure hunt and three-way shootout. But the films has that inherent Koreanness; it capitalizes on heritage in a new playing field. Exceeding all domestic records in terms of budget and number of takes for shoots, it recreates the exoticism of 1930s Manchuria, the natural born child of the ancient Silk Road where all of Asia seems to melt together in one pot.
At the time, Korea was under Japanese colonial rule (1910-45) and a network of independence fighters were stationed outside of the country. A treasure map supposedly leads to the buried riches of an ancient Chinese dynasty. Japanese rulers see this as a way to fulfill their imperialistic ambitions in Asia, while Korean freedom fighters cannot miss this chance to finance their mission (the contending forces thus replace Leone's Confederate and Union soldiers battling during the American Civil War).
Sniper hunter Dong-won (the Good played by Jung Woo-sung
), is paid by local independence fighters to retrieve the map before the bad assassin Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun
) does. However, the much-coveted item falls into the hands of an eccentric thief Tae-goo (the Weird, Song Kang-ho
And so, the three characters embark on a wildly exhilarating cross-desert chase, while local Manchurian tribesmen and Japanese soldiers complicate things. Meanwhile, Dong-won and Tae-goo form a shaky alliance against the evil, merciless Chang-yi, but no one can be trusted. Along the way, you meet opium-smoking courtesans, elephants and camel-driven caravans, and a great soundtrack accompanies the fun ride.
Dong-won, sporting a cowboy hat and long rifle, offers cool actions like flying around and shooting enemies. While no heroic freedom fighter, he senses a feeling of loss about his colonized homeland. He does things for money, but also saves helpless civilians. Chang-yi is charismatic in a black gothic suit reminiscent of John Leguizamo as Tybalt ("Romeo and Juliet", 1996). He is in charge of the gory knife work, including gruesome finger cutting. He's the type who's not afraid of dying. This bully is driven by the desire to establish a reputation of invincibility, and bitter contested feelings of being beaten by a legendary man called "finger ghost" fuel him.
A weird guy sets the perfect counterpoint to the good guy and bad guy. It's hard not to love Tae-goo, who adds in all the delightful comic relief. He is the king of chance and a slave of survival, and dodges bullets with bunny hops and uses strange little gadgets to stay alive. Song is irreplaceable for the role, as he plays goofy parts with an utmost believability.
The movie breathes with life and action. To make up for budget shortages, a "wire cameraman", rather than a wire-suspended camera, did the most dangerous stunts, the director told reporters at a recent press preview in Seoul. "It's an entertainment movie that I made like a madman. I hope the audience can be entranced", he said. Be ready for a wild ride!
In theaters July 17. English subtitles will be available at CGV Yongsan, Seoul (Open the link
). 15 and over. 135 minutes. Distributed by CJ Entertainment.