Friday, December 11, 2009

Review – The Good, The Bad, The Weird

December 11, 2009

The Good, The Bad, The Weird – South Korea, 2008

Westerns tend to fall into two categories. Early westerns were decidedly pro-settlers. The West – or at least the land that lay west of the original thirteen colonies - was an undiscovered treasure trove just waiting for people from the eastern part of the United States to arrive and cultivate it. It offered hope to families yearning for a home, land to live on, and a better future. Early westerns reflect these sentiments. In this kind of western, cattle rustlers, gangs of thieves, and most Native Americans are impediments to these lofty dreams. Men are often their family’s defense against evil, and women are regularly held up as model citizens, traditional yet courageous. More recent westerns have tended to be darker. The settlers are not always so honest, and the heroes do not always have the noblest of intentions. In these westerns, heroes can be killers, and killers can be heroes; in addition, poor vulnerable settlers may just turn out to be hiding a horrendous truth, and Native Americans are often sympathetic characters wronged by cruel-hearted settlers. Moreover, the women in these films are not as innocent as they once were. Some have affairs; some seek revenge for perceived slights; others look for opportunity and are not shy about how they get it. For evidence of these differences, just compare John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, two exceptional films with very divergent views of the West and its folklore.

Ji-Woon Kim’s 2008 film The Good, The Bad, The Weird, inspired by Sergio Leone’s 1966 masterpiece The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, more closely resembles later westerns than early ones. The hero does what he does out of necessity, not because it’s the moral thing to do; the villain, while being a truly despicable person, has a legitimate grievance for some of his actions; and the humorous fool may not be so innocent after all. And yet nothing in American westerns completely prepares you for the chaos, double-crossings, and sheer oddity of Kim’s Wild West - Manchuria in the 1940’s, a land under loose Japanese control and completely overrun by gangs and clans.

In the film, Byung-hun Lee plays Park Chang-yu, said to be the most feared outlaw in Manchuria, a comment he resents for its implication that his deviousness does not outmatch tyrants in the rest of the world. Towards the beginning of the film, he is given a simple task – steal back a highly significant map that has just been shipped off to someone named Kanemaru. In an surprising twist, the person who sent it is also the person hiring Park to retrieve it. As he explains it, he can profit twice by doing so. The map is being sent by train, yet when offered a train ticket, Park declines it by slowly slicing the ticket in half with his trusty knife. He prefers another approach – stopping the train personally. On the train is Park Do-Won (Woo-sung Jung), a bounty hunter grieving the loss of his country to the Japanese army and making a living by hunting down individuals whose faces adorn “wanted dead or alive” posters. He seems to have predicted the “bad” Park’s actions, yet has no idea of the events that have preceded them. Also on the train, yet for far less noble reasons, is Yoon Tae-goo ( Kang-he Song), a man who knows exactly where the richest passengers sit and how to get to them. His act of armed theft puts him in possession of the very map that Park has been sent to retrieve.

From there, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is a wild ride filled with such action staples as gunfights, double dealings, rescues, and escapes. In typical action film fashion, the hero spends only one shell casing to rid the world of one of his enemies, while his enemies shoot round after round and never even come close to hitting their target. However, when the villain is in plain sight, his aim is suddenly off. The film also continues the tradition of pairing a fairly calm heroic character with a rather eccentric one who walks and talks in a way that continuously evokes laughter from the audience. Moreover, in an interesting twist, the villain’s motives become less clear as the film progresses. What starts out as a quest for riches ends with a rather startling revelation that at first is a bit surprising and then suddenly makes complete sense. There’s also a hilarious scene at an opium den that contains the kind of humor that would never have appeared in a Western starring either John Wayne or Henry Fonda. In fact, I’m not even sure Eastwood would have deemed it appropriate. Yet, here it is.

Not everything in the film works. Some of the action scenes go on too long, and there are several moments when viewers’ eyes will roll with incredulity at the sheer impossibility of what has just occurred. However, this is one time when this is acceptable, when spectacle outweighs plausibility. After all, in what other movie do three armies converge on a small town simultaneously and then chase a single character through the desert? I can’t think of one. In the end, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is simply a lot of fun to watch, and sometimes that’s all that’s important. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

*The Good, The Bad, The Weird is in Korean, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles.

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