Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Korea, 2008)

What can I say other than that this another bitchin' film from Kim Ji-woon, the Korean director of The Quiet Family (1998 / trailer) and the original version of A Tale of Two Sisters (2003 / trailer). Needless to say, the title of this film, which Ji-woon himself calls a kimchi western, is a play upon Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966 / trailer), the third and final film of his Dollar Trilogy, from which Ji-woon borrows the basic concept of a trio of three protagonists of varying moral character, a buried treasure, a variety of scenes and the final Mexican standoff.
At the time The Good, the Bad, the Weird was made, it was the most expensive film in South Korean history, and it not only looks it, but looks as if all the money was spent in the right places. Currently, the movie can be found in two versions, the original Korean cut with its happy ending, which runs at 136 minutes, and the international version, which runs at 129 minutes and is the preferred cut of the director himself, as it is closer to the film he wanted.
The review here is based on the international version, so the ending is hardly happy – though oddly inconclusive considering the final 5 seconds. That said, it must be noted that going by what you can see here Schnittbericht.com (that's "cut report dot com" for those of you who can't read German), the longer version at least gives some background to the presence of the Good (Jung Woo-sung), who is literally suddenly just there in the international version. The English version, by the way, is even a few seconds shorter than the international version: they cut out some obvious and real animal cruelty, something that Koreans obviously have little compunction about. (Sorta like the Italians back in their exploitation heydays of the 70s.)
The plot of GBW is a truly simple one – so simple as to verge on being a non-plot – and is far less interesting than the various set pieces, the numerous action scenes and the vibrant style with which the whole film is made. The Bad (Lee Byung-hun of I Saw the Devil [2010 / trailer]) is hired to steal back a treasure map from a Japanese official on a train, but even as he attempts to do so, the Weird (Song Kang-ho as Yoon of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance [2005/ trailer], Lady Vengeance [2006 / trailer], the over-rated monster film The Host [2009/ trailer] and Thirst [2009 / trailer]) robs the train and makes off with the map just as the Good shows up (as mentioned above, literally out of the blue in the international version). Before long the Weird is being pursued by the Bad, the Good, the Japanese Army and a gang of Manchurian bandits all out to get the treasure map, which everyone believes leads to the buried riches of the Qing Dynasty... bullets fly, blood flows, opium gets smoked, grannies wander about, people die and the chase is on!
In a film full of exciting visual highlights, two of the best are undoubtedly the shootout at the market that is so obviously inspired, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2002 / trailer), by the tree-walking masters of classic Hong Kong sock-em-chop-em films, and the almost ironically overextended chase scene – 20 minutes long! – that never gets tedious. For that matter, the whole film never gets tiresome, which is not to say it is flawless. The narrative is a bit jumpy at times, tertiary characters simply disappear with no explanation, and the major twist at the ending is hard to swallow when taking into consideration the previous actions of the character up to that point in the movie. (In other words, it has all the flaws normally found in a real spaghetti western.)
Still, for that the ending of the international version is satisfyingly nihilistic – the ending of the Korean version, however, sounds like as much of a fairytale copout as the tacked on ending for the original Japanese release of the unduly overlooked spaghetti western masterpiece The Great Silence (1968 / trailer).
But seeing that The Good, the Bad, the Weird, unlike the Sergio Corbucci film, hardly intends to convey a political or intellectual message, perhaps a happy ending really isn't a copout after all... Whatever version you end up seeing, you'll probably like it.


Unknown said...

An ending that only a nihilist like Ji-woon would be satisfied with.

Unknown said...

I like the Korean version, actually. Maybe I'm soft and find Tae-goo really likable, and sure, it's a cop out that Tae-goo survived, but I also like the nasty futility in Chang-yi's utter failure to kill the dastardly Finger-chopper, the fact that his body is being blown up by the man who cut off his finger. Chang-yi is arguably the most sympathetic, so the Korean ending is the one I find "satisfyingly nihilistic", not the international ending which just made watching the movie entirely pointless.
(Also, Tae-goo's reaction to the lit stick of dynamite he was holding was just too funny.)