Korean Movies You Should Watch Before You Die #6

April 18, 2010

This is a guest post by Nick Mann

The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Quick Question: What are the ingredients of an ideal theatre going experience?

Basically you need a great story, charismatic characters, a bit of excitement, something to get your adrenaline pumping or to stimulate your mind… or better yet a bit of both.  At the end of it all hopefully a few of the lines, or a particular shot, or a few bars from the soundtrack linger with you as you leave the theatre and you have something you want to talk to people about.

According to those criteria The Good, The Bad, The Weird definitely makes the grade.

I’ll break it down…

a) “Great Story” As is made clear from the title, this film is in essence a Western.  It takes place in 1930s Manchuria: a largely lawless and brilliantly multicultural frontier where outcasts from all over East Asia coexist at the edge of Japan’s expanding empire. Within this mythical ‘Wild East’ director Kim Ji-woon (also responsible for the atmospheric Tale of Two Sisters) transplants all the symbols and archetypes of the conventional Western in an homage to the genre as a whole and specifically to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s.

The basic plot involves a map which is sought simultaneously by the Japanese army, the Korean resistance, and pretty much every gang and outlaw in Manchuria. The map is what Alfred Hitchcock would call a classic ‘McGuffin’ and in the midst of this chase the movie focuses on three very different individuals, their motivations and the circumstances that connect them.

The premise itself isn’t all that original, but it allows the adventure to move at a breakneck pace without stopping for a lot of exposition.  And the unorthodox setting lends the film a freshness and scope that is totally unique, moving it beyond a simple collection of allusions to other films. In that respect I think it serves as a ‘great story’.

b) “charismatic characters” To put it simply, you would be hard pressed to find any other combination of actors in Korea that could possibly rival the level of charisma leading men Jung Woo-sung, Lee Byung-hun and Song Gang-ho bring to the lead roles of this film.

For starters Lee Byung-hun’s magnetism has already been discussed on this site (here). As ‘The Bad’ from the film’s title Lee lives up to the name in every sense of the word.  The goth-mullet hairdo and black suits complete with leather gloves might have seemed just silly without Lee’s irresistible intensity.  He manages to capture the nihilism of this character perfectly in his wicked smile.

Song Kang-ho plays the role of ‘The Weird’. While he provides most of the   comic relief in this film,   he also brings dramatic weight to a few scenes, all the more striking as it seems to contradict his role as the fool. Song is an actor who can completely transform himself for a role, though mannerisms the way he talks, etc. and is in my opinion one of the best actors in Korea in the WORLD!  If Song Kang-ho is in a movie, it’s worth watching.

Jeong Woo-sung as ‘The Good’ comes up slightly flat next to the other two.  There are many possible reasons for this… first of all his character’s motivations are most unclear and difficult to relate to; a problem which probably goes back to the script.  Furthermore, it seems that ‘The Good’ is in a very morally precarious position on a lawless frontier and that may have complicated the performance. Finally it may be that Jung Woo-sung is more of a pretty face than an actor in the category of Lee and Song.

Nonetheless the characters complement each other well and they’re very unique in everything from their costumes down to their combat style.

c) “a bit of excitement”  …scratch that — A LOT of excitement… Highlights include a robbery on a crowded train in the middle of the Mongolian desert, a showdown in the very cool “Ghost Market” and a run-in with the Japanese army as the climax approaches. For me the most impressive thing about all this action is that the filmmakers pulled it off with minimal computer tampering.  The stunts feel real enough to actually get your adrenaline pumping.  In other words it’s the Raiders of the Lost Ark, not Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

In terms of stimulating the mind, there are a few lines of half-baked philosophy here and there, but I think much more interesting is the environment itself: lawless, teeming with Machiavellian characters; and immersive, seeming to extend beyond the edges of the screen. There’s something about characters and communities that function outside the values and morals of civilized society that always captures, our imagination from Mad Max to The Sopranos.

d) “lingering impressions” More than once I found myself marveling at a breathless sequence and wondering, “was that all one shot?!”  For me Kim Ji-woon has a knack for shooting action that is rare in films from any country. His approach is unique but reminds me of directors like Leone and Rodriguez – unabashedly intense filmmaking, at the risk of spilling into the realm of excess or ‘cheese’.  In the case of The Good, The Bad, The Weird the risk paid off.

So do yourself a favor and watch this movie.  It’s everything a movie should be.

(Korean trailer can be viewed here)



  1. The trailer I decided to provide a link for is the original Korean one, but it doesn’t have subtitles. There are N. American/U.K. trailers which you can find pretty much anywhere from itunes to youtube, but they just aren’t quite as good. Neither one captures the style… one is just simple plot exposition and the other one is a menagerie of the most exciting shots in the movie.
    Plus the Korean version has a classic exchange between Lee Byeong-hun and his boss: His boss says “You’re the best in Manchuria.” and Lee replies, “Only Manchuria…?” Or something like that. However, without subtitles that loses all its punch unless of course you understand Korean.

  2. […] 6 The Good, The Bad, The Weird […]

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