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The Good, The Bad, The Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈)

June 21, 2010

I’m putting this here as a companion piece to Nick’s post below. Mild spoilers abound.

Released in Korea in the summer of 2008, The Good, The Bad, The Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈) was directed by Kim Ji-woon, internationally known for his previously successful films A Tale of Two Sisters (장화, 홍련) and the brilliant A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생). Although the title suggests otherwise, the film is not a mere Korean remake of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Certainly, it pays homage to Leone’s spaghetti westerns throughout, and lifts the character dynamic of its namesake directly, but there is more to this eastern gem than is immediately obvious from the name alone. The historical setting of Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the 1930s is a particular masterstroke and a refreshing departure for Korean cinema overall. Director Kim’s Oriental Western also manages to deliver in the action and screen violence departments, despite having the look and comedic approach of a “family” film.

As above, the film is set in Manchuria in the 1930s, a land occupied by the Imperial Army of Japan. At the time, the entire Korean peninsula had also been under Japanese occupation for decades, causing many Koreans to flee their homeland and seek whatever form of survival they could in the lawless wilderness of Manchuria. The Good, The Bad, The Weird opens with lethal bandit, the “bad” Park Chang-yi, being hired to steal a map from a Japanese official onboard a train. Despite the best efforts of the villain and his gang, he is beaten to the prize by the “weird” bandit Yoon Tae-goo, who discovers the map accidentally whilst indulging in a routine robbery of train passengers. At the same time, the “good” bounty hunter, Park Do-won, turns up in pursuit of the substantial bounty on Park Chang-yi’s head before turning his attention to the suspicious Yoon Tae-goo as well. The “weird” thief Tae-goo comes to believe that the map contains the location of hidden treasure from the Qing dynasty of China and it is not long before he is pursuing the treasure whilst Park Chang-yi, Park Do-won, the Imperial Army of Japan and an additional gang of Manchurian bandits pursue him. This leads to a number of thrilling set piece shootouts, a chase across the desert with horses, motorbikes and jeeps, and an almost obligatory Mexican (Manchurian?) standoff.

This film is packed with the kind of good old-fashioned action that you may have forgotten even existed in cinema. It is no accident that many critics have mentioned Indiana Jones when discussing this picture. There is a definite Indy feel to much of the stunt work here (that franchise itself being a celebration of old matinee style action/adventure flicks) with characters being dragged behind jeeps, falling off horses, swinging around rickety old market places on ropes. So far, so family friendly, but The Good, The Bad, The Weird also features some proper screen violence to add a harder edge to the spectacle on offer. During the many shoot-outs, bullet wounds are shown with squib-projected blood splatter, a classic, badass effect that is employed all too rarely in these dark days of Disneyfied action cinema. Bad bandit Park Chang-yi also provides plenty of onscreen brutality as he attacks the comic character Man-gil with a knife, repeatedly slashing him and taking great delight in trying to slowly chop off his finger. This can be put down to the ubiquitous Korean movie tonal shifts (of which there seem to be no major, but a few minor ones in this film) but there is some genuine shock in seeing a light-hearted character subjected to prolonged torture. The screen action also seems blissfully CGI-free, although reports suggest there is some in there albeit kept to a minimum.

Smoking hawt Korean heartthrob, Lee Byung-hun, (the subject of my serious ongoing man-crush), cuts through this film with lethal, psychotic charm and swathed in an aura of anachronistic cool. Whether standing in the desert, drawing down on some hapless goon whilst dressed in an improbably crisp white shirt or in a hotel room at night wearing only tight black underwear whilst throwing knives into a bug crawling up the wall; he is the Korean sex panther unleashed! As Park Chang-yi he has the fun of shifting between ice-cold super assassin and sadistic, shiny-eyed maniac. Song Kang-ho, rightly identified by Nick as a heavyweight acting talent, seems to have more fun still as the seemingly goofy bandit Yoon Tae-goo, a character that is slowly revealed to have many more layers than his “weird” moniker and comic introduction suggest. Jeong Woo-sung, as the “good” guy, has to play things more subdued, riffing on Clint Eastwood’s quiet “man with no name” as a brooding, stoic and hard-bitten hero. Unfortunately, he seems to be in possession of too affable and gentle a face to properly accomplish what he seems to be attempting here. Whilst not an abject failure, there is a slight, uncomfortable contrast between his performance and that of the more outlandish other two.

Holy fucking shit! Look at this cine-sexual treat.

In his earlier post on this film, Nick had originally included a footnote that raised the question of what it was that made the character of Park Do-won particularly “good”. I edited that part out because I thought the piece read better without it but, nevertheless, the question stuck with me and I thought to try and tackle it here. From what I can surmise from my own viewing, Park Do-won is the only character that expresses any real objection to Korea being under Japanese occupation. He asks Yoon Tae-goo why the weird bandit dreams of returning to Korea when their homeland is in Japanese hands and expresses a desire to hand over the treasure, should he find it, to the Korean resistance forces in Manchuria (whom I believe were fighting Japan alongside the Chinese at the time). Later, Park Do-won joins a chase across the desert on horseback during which he single-handedly slaughters dozens of Imperial Japanese soldiers with his sharpshooting skills. In the context of Korea under Japanese occupation, this is just about the most heroic and laudable act a Korean could perform. To this day the treatment of Korea at the hands of Imperial Japan provokes the bitterest of memories amongst Koreans and tends to result in very real and palpable anger. Ongoing disputes and other fresh wounds from that time remain controversial issues and significant stumbling blocks in Korean-Japanese relations. Park Do-won is, therefore, depicted in the movie as the only true hero and “good guy” as he is the only Korean to acknowledge the injustice of the Japanese occupation and the one who vanquishes the most enemy soldiers. Interestingly, Yoon Tae-goo’s response to the question of why he wants to return to Korea if it’s occupied by Japan is that it makes no difference to a little guy like him if his homeland is ruled by the Japanese or by the old aristocracy of Korean feudal times, their rule being one and the same to the peasantry. This is a far more radical view than Park Do-won’s, though it is also a historically accurate grievance that led to peasant revolts and to eventual widespread communist sympathy throughout the impoverished villages of Korea. Director Kim Ji-woon perhaps played it safe to sneak that more controversial political comment in there and to ascribe it to the overtly “weird” character in the film.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird was marketed as an Oriental Western, a fitting title but a far more charming label I’ve come across has been “kimchi western”, which quite aptly captures the dynamism and extra spiciness of this crossover romp. This movie is a helluva lot of fun but it is also darker and smarter in parts than it first appears. Like a great many Korean films, it’s somewhat longer than it has to be but still manages to hurtle along with plenty of set-pieces and chase sequences. Many of you film fans out there will have a gaping hole for old-school, rip-roaring stunts and gun play that you may not even realized existed until The Good, The Bad, The Weird fills it for you.

(The film’s Korean title, 좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈 or “Joheun-nom, Nabbeun-nom, Isanghan-nom”, literally translates as “Good guy, Bad guy, Weird guy”. For brevity reasons, the film was commonly referred to amongst Koreans as simply “Nom, Nom, Nom” which, translated back into English, becomes “Guy, Guy, Guy”.)

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2 comments

  1. Great post! I’m glad you emphasized this film’s extreme restraint in the use of CGI. “Gaping hole… that you may not have realized existed.” – very apt description.

    On the topic of “The Good”, I originally thought the ‘treasure map’ could have ended up leading to the site of a Japanese war atrocity — Japan is rushing to keep it covered up, everyone else is rushing to get at what they believe to be buried treasure. Obviously just too politically charged for a blockbuster, especially given Korea’s more friendly modern relationship with Japan. But it would have made Jeong’s “Good” character’s stand against the Japanese cavalry (which you describe as a key scene in his character development) even more significant.


  2. I like it.

    But then, did Japan even bother covering that shit up? Didn’t they commit atrocities quite blatantly and then just wait a few years to lie about it in their school textbooks afterward?



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