Korean western film takes pastiche to another level

The Good, the Bad, the Weird really moves. Oozing style from every frame, Kim Jee-woon’s Korean western starts with a thrilling train robbery in Japanese-occupied China and rarely slows down. Here is a film that understands the simple pleasure of a moving camera and moving characters.

Shootout · The Good, the Bad, the Weird uses 1930s Manchuria as a setting akin to the American West. - Photo courtesy of IFC Films

Kim’s movie is an absurd, gorgeous mash-up of Western and Eastern iconography: deadeye Koreans in cowboy hats, Chinese ghost towns and a roaring Gatling gun.

Bounty hunter Du-won (Jung Woo-sung), “the Good,” forms an uneasy partnership with “the Weird,” Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho), an amoral bandit looking for a legendary Chinese treasure trove. “The Bad,” gang leader Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun), seeks both the map to the treasure and revenge on Tae-goo.

Almost inevitably, the good character becomes lost against his more engaging counterparts. Byung-hun — tragically best known to Americans for his turn as evil ninja Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra — plays Chang-yi over the top, with a vicious style to match his menacing and carefully put together hairdo. Dressed in black from head to toe and never without a cold sneer, Chang-yi epitomizes the tone and style of Kim’s movie: cool on a plane that most pastiche pieces never quite reach. The chubby, crazy-eyed Kang-ho, who has played variations of “the Weird” in films like Bong Joon-ho’s The Host or Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, steals his scenes with an effortlessness that has defined his career.

One thing to appreciate about Kim’s films compared to other Korean action movies is his almost-American obsession with the power of the gun. His excellent A Bittersweet Life riffed on the normally martial arts-based Korean gangster genre by letting its protagonist bring a gun to a knife fight. The Good, the Bad, the Weird takes his fetish to a further extreme, seriously challenging the classic Golan-Globus American action movies from the Reagan era for the “most bullets expended over 120 minutes” world record.

Kim calls The Good, the Bad, the Weird an “Oriental western,” an emerging subgenre pioneered by Asian directors with roots in Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood pictures. Takashi Miike made a truly bizarre take on Akira Kurosawa’s western-inspired Yojimbo in Sukiyaki Western Django, but where that film felt like homage without much new to say, Kim’s version really strives to reinvent the classically American genre with the sensibilities of a modern Korean action movie.

The Japanese occupation of Northern China in the ’30s is as close as East Asia gets to a Wild West. In focusing on Korean immigrants fighting Japanese soldiers, Chinese bandits and each other, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is ripe for political analysis, but Kim’s film is so stylized and frantic that it resists such readings.

Even just 80 years removed from that dark history, still very much an open wound on the collective East Asian psyche, Kim’s Manchuria feels like a mythic setting, a world as far removed from reality as the Texas-Mexico border in Leone or Sam Peckinpah’s films.

The production design deserves special mention — the film was made inexpensively by American standards but the worlds it creates through digital effects and traditional sets flow together almost seamlessly into a fantastic vision of a ’30s China that never existed.

Kim’s reference-heavy old-becomes-new style demands comparison to the last decade of Quentin Tarantino’s work; the director even uses Chingon’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and some Ennio Morricone samples to the same effect Tarantino uses in his Kill Bill movies. Kim cares much less about dialogue than the often self-indulgent QT, and The Good, the Bad, the Weird feels much leaner than Tarantino’s bloated recent work.

Putting plot and character second to action finally catches up to Kim in a final showdown predicated on some poorly telegraphed plot twists, which carries less dramatic heft than it could otherwise, but the film earns a rare pass in putting style over substance.

The plot also sags terribly when it slows down even briefly, but while such pauses are necessary for any coherent action picture, Kim fails to handle them in an interesting manner.

As in his previous work, Kim’s senses as an action director are strangely flawed. The staging becomes so cluttered and the camera becomes so delirious with movement that scenes sometimes lose their sense of direction. A climactic desert chase featuring dozens of pursuers after the heroes runs so long and features so many changes of direction by the camera and characters that trying to follow it logically becomes an exercise in frustration.

But individual images from Kim’s relentless bombardment of action choreography stand out as better than their sum — try and find a cooler moment in any action movie this year than the rifle-bearing Du-won turning his horse around and riding into the pursuing Japanese army.