The Great – The Good, The Bad, The Weird

20080610gbw2I had put off writing about ‘The Good, The Bad, The Weird’ (‘좋은놈,나쁜놈,이상한놈’, or ‘놈놈놈’ for short) for some time now for a few reasons. The first one is that I wanted to have a better understanding of the director’s style and thought process. Kim Jee-woon (김지운) is arguably one of the finer directors in world cinema today, and not just because he had the balls and temerity to make this film. Having had a closer look at his films, I have to say that as a director, he is one who is not scared of crossing genres and trying out new things. At the same time, there is also a very unique sense to his film, something that I don’t see in other film. I’ll get to this soon enough.

Can you believe it if I told you the fact that I haven’t seen the first film is the other reason?

Train robbers: damn cool.
Train robbers: damn cool.

This film, with obvious references in the title, is attempted to be a remake (reinterpretation, reimagination, have it your way) of the classic Clint Eastwood film, ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’. It is regarded as one of the canonised films that one should have seen if one is serious enough about films. Shamefully, I’ve always put it off and off and off, until in the end, I realise that I couldn’t really put it off any longer. So on I went to the library, popped the video in, and realise that I may have seen it after all as a young kid. You see, there are times when I watch the film, and I realise that a lot of the actions and dialogue and conventions within the film was quite familiar. It made me wonder, then, whether I have actually seen the film beforehand, or whether the film merely influenced other filmmakers to the extent that its conventions became commonplace not because of Sergio Leone himself, but because of other people’s homages/ripoffs to him and his film. As it stands, I have seen the film, and it is quite a fun one to watch.

It has to be said that Kim Jee-woon’s version is quite the rollercoaster ride in its own right. Set in Manchuria, the Bad, Park Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun, 이병헌) is hired to steal an important treasure map from a Japanese official. Of course, this is not taking into account the Weird, Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho, 송강호) who actually manage to steal the map itself when he robs the train the Japanese official is travelling on. The Good, on the other hand, is Park Do-won (Jung Woo-sung, 정우성), a hunter hired to go after both the map and the Bad. All the action and she-bang goes down within the first 20 minutes or so, when all of them meet on the train. Of course, the Weird manages to escape with the map, without really knowing what it is that he has in his possession. The Bad goes after him, and the Good goes after them both. It is the pattern that pretty much repeats itself throughout the film. Throw in the Japanese army, Manchurian gangsters and Korean independence fighters, and you have a pretty potent mix for a thrilling ride.

Visiting his second wife is always a risky business...

And for the most that, that’s what it is: a rollercoaster ride. The film couldn’t survive without its constant diet of shoot outs and chase scenes. This is quite possibly one area where it outdid the original – there’s a lot of things here that gets the adrenaline pumping compared to the old film. In fact, there is a lot in this Korean version that really takes things to the next level. Sergio Leone zoomed in a fair amount in his film, but Kim Jee-woon really goes over the top with in. I especially like one particular action scene, with the Good chasing after the Bad in the Ghost Market. The camera zooms in and out as he runs along the rooftop, before jumping unto a short bridge, and continuing the pursuit. All within what appears to be a single take, as well. The director is so liberal that he is the Barack Obama to Leone’s McCain.

I intend to put the politics aside for a bit, but I can’t go further without mentioning a bit of it. Being a Korean film, there are serious nationalistic undertones that is there, but very subtle, and only perceptible to those who actually look for these things. Thus, the Weird’s dream of owning his own land, and running a farm, could be read as a reflection of Korea’s then-sense of displacement (as they were still conquered by Japan at the time). There’s a few more places where this occurs, but I’ll leave it up to you to seek out on your own. Just letting you know that it’s something worth considering, and having a quick peek at Wikipedia before watching the film wouldn’t cause much harm either.

No horses were harmed in the making of this film.
No horses were harmed in the making of this film.

Let’s get back to its European roots, though, because there is a lot of it here. It comes mainly in terms of the music, and though the original film was itself a European film, I don’t think that it is the biggest factor. Having made the effort to watch ‘Three’ and ‘Tale of Two Sisters’ recently (I saw ‘A Bittersweet Life’ way back when. That’s a must-see, too), I realise that perhaps, not unlike other Korean films, Kim Jee-woon has a certain obsession with music that has Spanish guitar in it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes to sleep at night or drive around Seoul while nodding his head along to this music. It’s actually makes for a lovely difference, and is one of the reason why this film stands out a lot more. The music is incredibly brave. Put it this way: give the remake of this film to a Hollywood director, he would probably get John Williams or Hans Zimmer to score the scenes. Though it would still be epic, I very much doubt whether he would even dare to contemplate using Spanish instruments and an electric guitar in remixing an old Korean song, and using that as the main theme of the film (though to be honest, it only came out once during the film itself, as the Good is scything his way through the Japanese army).

Of course, the director would not be able to pull it off without the help of his three stars (and I do mean stars). Two of the three actors, Song Kang-ho and Lee Byung-hun are arguably the most famous actors in Korea, whose work I am most familiar with. The third, Jung Woo-sung, is also quite well-known, but I dare not blow his trumpet so much because I haven’t seen many of his films. In many ways, then, they are not so much acting as posturing around looking mean, cool and/or funny. Song Kang-ho, in particular, has probably the most important role in the film. Not the coolest, but the most important; in addition to being the character who got the map, that also means that he’s the one being chased after all of the time. Almost all of the film’s comedic gold comes exclusively from him. I absolutely love it every time he steps up on the screen, and I am not disappointed. Lee Byung-hun might be the one heading to Hollywood (look out for him in ‘G.I. Joe’), but he’s not the most fun character to watch here. Which is not to say that he’s terrible, it’s just that Song Kang-ho’s star shines brighter than the other two actors.

It has to be said that this film, though it shares some similarity with the original, is almost completely different in every other way. I see elements of the relationship between the Good and the Ugly, the plot development, and some of the cinematic style…and that it’s. Beyond that, Kim Jee-woon has managed craft a film that is incredibly fun, packed with action, and not in any way boring. Unrealistic? Yes, certainly. But that’s what a rollercoaster ride is all about, I suppose. It’s supposed to be fun, and that’s what you’ll get from this film.

And all on $17 million as well. They really make their buck go far this side of the world…

Fikri meant to watch only bits of the film as he is writing the review, but he ended up watching it all the way through again. 🙂

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