Kim Jee-woon's "The Good, the Bad, the Weird""
Set in the Northeast provinces of China in the 1930's, Manchuria is under the colonial rule of the Japanese, acting as an equivalent Rhineland to the powers of Russia, China, and a Japanese-occupied Korea.
A perfect setting then, for the kind of lawless lifestyles captured in the original spaghetti Western, where news has spread of a highly sought after map being carried on a cross-country train by Japanese officials.
Arriving to steal the document is hitman Park Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun) and his mercenary gang, followed by Park Do-won (Jung Woo-sung) who's been hired by Korean freedom fighters. Both are beaten to the map, however, by Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho), who's just out for a train robbery.
Add to that the onlooking Manchurian Bandits and the stage is set as all parties vie to track down Tae-goo and what he supposes to be a treasure map.
At this point it may sound a little like the Good, the Bad, and the Rat Race, but history between the three men surfaces as they repeatedly cross paths. While Do-won is also after the bounty on Chang-yi's head, he's tempted by Tae-goo's offer to split the treasure and Chang-yi himself seems vengefully driven to confront the ever-elusive Tae-goo.
"The Good, the Bad, the Weird": Summary
This is not a commercially driven re-make of the like we're often treated to in the East-to-West tradition. That's clear from the fact that at $17 million this was the most expensive film production in Korean history (which may be pretty meek by Western standards, but these are directors and crewmen used to working with much, much less).
They can do wonders with $17 mil' and it shows.
There's a sense of scale to the production with big fights, live betting, big scenery and big set-pieces, where an elaborate market provides the setting for one prolonged shoot-out, but even that is dwarfed by a sequence in which Tae-goo is chased across the Gobi desert by bounty hunter, hitman, mercenaries, bandits, and the Japanese army. It's pretty damn breathtaking.
So it definitely has BIGNESS, but these extended scenes of sweeping violence do come at the cost of narrative depth. For instance, more could have been made of the national struggles between Korea and Japan, as it was with the American Civil war in Leone's Epic.
Kim Jee-woon's version, however, makes no attempt to retain the heavy-hearted conflicts around the main trio and the film's levity should tell you that it's a celebration of the original, intent on pursuing it's own style and humour. So it's either not a re-make, or what every re-make should be.
This is highlighted by Jang Young-gyu's music score, which brings plenty of the right spirit for this film, but doesn't try to capture Ennio Morricone's famous opening or 'The Ecstasy of Gold' track, in what might just be the greatest film score ever composed.
Comparing the film then, to Leone's original just wouldn't be right. This is film-making with genuine flair, a lot of laughs, and has rightly been praised by most critics and viewers alike.
"The Good, the Bad, the Weird": Cast
A big production demanded a top cast and Weird got it.
Jung Woo-sung (known for films like "Musa", and "A Moment to Remember", "Hunt") has the least developed character of the central trio as the analogue of Clint Eastwood's 'Blondie'. Where Clint was only relatively clean for the setting, Jung Woo-sung's youthful features appear completely untouched by the environment in a deliberate nod to the premise. Nonetheless, Jung Woo-sung remains perfectly passable in a character whose heroics are a basis for some great stunts.
Lee Byung-hun ("JSA - Joint Security Area", "A Bittersweet Life") is another top Korean actor, here as the counterpart of Lee Van Cleef's "Angel Eyes".
There's been plenty of characters in this archetype (i.e: cool, brooding, psychotic, talented killer-type) but Lee Byung-hun would make any director proud to have him as their own cool, brooding, psychotic, talented, killer-type. Between the calm exterior fasade and the venomous rage that's eating away inside, Lee Byung-hun intensely portrays the unhinged middle ground, giving him a vulnerability to go with his lethal prowess.
Song Kang-ho, meanwhile, is the star of Weird just as Eli Wallach was for Ugly. Like the irrepressible Tuco, he's neither heroic bounty hunter or mercenary killer, but a thoroughbred survivor. Here, there is the added dimension of his history with Chang-yi, which works well for both characters and a film whose plot is, albeit, paper-thin.
Song Kang-ho started his career under Kim Jee-woon's direction, with an early appearance in Kim Jee-woon's debut film, "The Quiet Family" (which also featured a part for Choi Min-sik) and had the lead role in "The Foul King". Song Kang-ho has since become an award-winning actor and, suffice to say, is faultless in the part of Tae-goo.
There's a lot of notable bit-part players as well - but there's just no room for 'em.
Director Kim Jee-woon Filmography
Kim Jee-woon has been successfully plying his trade across genres. Working here with a capable crew, even the extended version of the film feels pacey, with great cinematography and dynamic camera-work. If it's not amongst the very best in Korean cinema, it's still very close and of a high quality.
For anyone interested in pursuing other films by this director, below is what Kim Jee-woon's filmography looks like. Undoubtedly he is one of the greatest directors in the region.
1998 "The Quiet Family"
2000 "The Foul King"
2003 "A Tale of Two Sisters"
2005 "A Bittersweet Life"
2008 "The Good, the Bad, the Weird"
2010 "I Saw the Devil"
2016 "The Age of Shadows"
2021 "Dr. Brain" (drama)
"The Good, the Bad, the Weird" Further Details
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Screenplay: Kim Jee-woon, Kim Min-suk-IV
Starring: Jung Woo-sung, Lee Byung-hun, Song Kang-ho, Yoon Je-moon, Ryu Seung-soo
Released: July 2008 (Korea) by CJ Entertainment
Running Time: 139 min (extended version)
Definitely "The Good, the Bad, the Weird" is a must-watch and one of the most meaningful movies in the recent decades. It will not disappoint.
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Available on DVD and Blu-ray from YESASIA and Amazon
DVD (MY - En, Ch, My Sub)