Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom
The spaghetti western may more or less be a thing of the past, but interestingly enough, its influence has been showing up in Asian cinema recently, with 2007's Sukiyaki Western Django, by Takashi Miike, and now Korean filmmaker Kim Ji-woon has given us The Good, The Bad, The Weird, a film that, as of this writing, is getting excellent critical reception at numerous film festivals around the world. TGTBTW is not a remake of Leone's The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, yet it follows a similar plot and most certainly pays homage to the Dollars trilogy. This "kimchee" western, made for 17 million dollars, is the most expensive South Korean film made to date, and stars three of the biggest names in South Korean cinema, Song Kang Ho, Lee Byung-hun, and Jung Woo-sung.
Now, before getting into the review, let me issue a disclaimer of sorts... other than a few John Woo films and one or two others, I know almost nothing of Asian cinema; it's not something I've paid much attention to. As I did a little research for this review, there were references to certain aspects of Asian filmmaking in relation to this film that I'm not familiar with. So, I'm coming at this more from the perspective of a spaghetti western/action film fan, so if I miss some sort of detail, forgive me.
The historical setting of the film takes place in 1930's Manchuria, after Korea has come under Japanese control, and in this context, we have the Japanese army, as well as several gangs and insurgency groups. The plan is hatched by a bandit leader to steal a map from a Japanese bank executive who is traveling by train. This map is, of course, a treasure map, but what the actual treasure is, we don't know, other than it is extremely important to the continuing operation of the occupying Japanese army.Yoon-Tae-goo (Kang-ho, the "weird") happens to be robbing that train, not knowing about the map, or the impending gang robbery (led by Park Chang-i (Byung-hun), the "bad") which is also moments away. He manages to steal the map and get away to the "Ghost Market", a black market of sorts, run by a Mongolian gang, as the Manchurian gang is attacking the train and killing everyone on it. At the same time, Park-Do-wan (Woo-sing, the "good") has been hired by the Korean insurrectionists to get the map, as well. He gets into a shootout with the gang, but eventually they disperse.
The Good eventually catches up with the Weird, who has taken an interest in the map. The Good is also a bounty hunter, and realizes there's a bounty on the Weird's head, so he captures him, leading him through the desert behind his horse, just like Blondie and Tuco in TGTBTU. The Weird eventually convinces him to help him look for the treasure, but eventually, he escapes. As word spreads about the Weird and the map, many people are after him. This culminates in one of the most epic chases I've ever seen in a film, with The Good, The Bad and his gang, the Ghost Market Gang, and the Japanese Army all in hot pursuit of the Weird, as he races through the desert on a motorcycle. At times, it is reminiscent of the final, high-octane truck chase from George Miller's 1981 film, The Road Warrior.
The Weird makes it to the treasure before anyone else, but the Good and the Bad also show up, for the final showdown...
I'm not going to reveal how the shootout ends, but after it does, we find out what the treasure really is... it's not what you would have thought it would be.
Ok, so how was it? This is an extraordinarily entertaining film, independent of the things that would make it even more endearing to a spaghetti fan. The acting is good, and the action sequences are nothing short of incredible. There's actually very little computer generated action such as gravity defying leaps and those kinds of things we see in a lot of action films today. The CGI that is in it is quite flawless, mostly involving explosions and horses. There's even a very realistic scene with a horse and rider getting blown up by a mortar. Because the CGI is done tastefully, it looks quite real, and doesn't distract from the film with its fakeness,as often is the case with many of today's films.. Oh Seung-chul's cinematography is breathtaking in scope. There are lots of crane shots, fast dolly shots, and of course, the very Leone-esque extreme facial close ups and wide shots (see above). He could have very easily filmed a great spaghetti back in the day.
So, what about comparisons to TGTBTU? There are some marked similarities in plot: a war setting, three morally ambiguous (or in the case of the Bad, completely immoral) characters all after the same treasure, an interesting dynamic relationship between the Good and Weird/Ugly, and a comedic element in the Weird/Ugly. The cinematography combines the familiar techniques of spaghettis, as well as the quick-cut, insanely fast action of Asian action cinema. It's certainly much more violent than TGTBTU. There's lots of shooting, lots of innocents killed, and there's even a scene where two bad guys get impaled right up the ass... ouch! There are several right-from-the-Dollars-triliogy scenes in addition to the Good leading the Weird around by his horse. There's the hat-shooting sequence from For A Few Dollars More, and someone avoiding injury by wearing a metal plate under their clothing from Fistful of Dollars. I'm sure there were a few other derivative scenes I didn't pick up on, as it's been a while since I've seen TGTBTU, but the influence is undoubtedly present throughout the film.
The soundtrack, by Chan Young-gyu, like the film itself, is a hybrid of the two genres. There's trumpets, twangy guitar, and whistling, and even a theme that sounds strikingly similar to Cheyenne's theme from Once Upon a Time in the West, and there's also quite bit of music with driving, distorted guitars, and modern electronic instrumentation and rhythms, more akin to a modern Asian action film. Regardless, all of it is very appropriate for the scenery at hand.
I would have to say that this is an action film first, a western second. The train scene in the first part of the film, the desert chase scene, and final shootout will have your eyes glued to the screen, undoubtedly. There's also quite a few funny moments, most of which come from the weird, but they are never overdone like they often were in later spaghettis. All in all, this is a great film, whether you're a Leone fan or not, as long as you like good action. Highly recommended, and a lot of fun. I do hope that if it gets a wide release in the United States, that they do an English dub, as unfortunately, mainstream American audiences tend not to like subtitles and would more than likely miss out on a great film.
The English subtitled trailer:
The far superior Korean trailer: