Directed by: Kim Ji-woon || Produced by: Kim Ji-woon, Choi Min-suk
Written by: Kim Ji-woon, Kim Min-suk || Starring: Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, Jung Woo-sung, Yoon Je-moon, Ryoo Seung-soo, Song Yeong-chang
Music by: Dalparan, Jang Yeong-gyu || Cinematography by: Lee Mo-gae || Editing by: Nam Na-yeong || Country: South Korea || Language: Korean, Japanese, Mandarin
Running Time: 139 minutes
Perhaps the only genre film weirder than Hollywood’s Westerns (and their Italian crafted “Spaghetti-Western” descendants) is the Western that is completely foreign-born, made free of prototypical white-American elements. What I’m referring to of course are the “Oriental Westerns,” those wonderful cinematic experiences crafted by the masterful but always idiosyncratic Akira Kurosawa and now, more recently, the Korean-Western adventures. These Asian Westerns capture the essences of the American Western film, including the picturesque outdoor settings, flashy guns, and most importantly, the ever present conflict between lawful, ordered civilization and the barbaric, chaotic wilderness that threatens to overtake it.
In Westerns, both in Asia and in the Americas, the primary element of chaos opposing order, or a sort of “chaotic society,” is what makes the genre work and is what defines that group of films more than anything else. Asian Westerns are both interesting and bizarre for the fact that they take the primary ingredients of what has historically been considered a distinctly American genre of film, and meld the genre’s conventions with Asian culture to create a new breed of cinema.
Korea has arrived recently to the Western-scene, only adapting to the genre’s tropes since the recent blossoming of the Korean film industry in the past decade or so. The nation’s film industry seems prime for the takeover of Westerns, however, as the country’s film infrastructure has hardened and developed into one of the world’s leading artistic centers for cinema. There are few places more interesting these days than the Korean peninsula if you’re movie-fan, and that’s what makes Korea’s take on the Western genre so exciting.
Enter Kim Ji-Woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird (GBW). This latest Asian take on the Western packs a visceral wallop, executing action scenes and intense, diverse shootouts with both fluidity and an eye for style. The action set-pieces are expertly choreographed and staged in a wide range of arenas. Ji-Woon shoots the violence in variety of fashions, orchestrating the action from many different platforms and at wacky, diverse angles. The shootouts have both a vertical and horizontal composition to them, spreading the characters throughout a dizzying maze of levels at a hectic pace. At times, the action can almost seem a bit too confusing and chaotic, and it can be difficult to discern exactly who is shooting whom given all the various players, but the hard-hitting violence and frequent comic relief always manage to satisfy nonetheless. If there’s one thing GBW doesn’t lack, it’s energy.
Speaking of that comic relief, GBW has a great sense of humor that combines wit, sarcasm, and good ole-fashioned slapstick with gory violence. Much of the comedic value comes from Song Kang-ho’s “Weird,” but all the characters have their memorable quirks that give this Sergio Leone-inspired flick a smart, funny personality.
The expert presentation of the picture is composed of a gorgeous visual style and a lush soundtrack that pervades the narrative. The action-pieces and tense character confrontations that take place feel grounded as a result of the expertly crafted mice-en-scene, despite the wacky antics themselves. The music melds with these visual fireworks to a synergistic effect, making this rootin’-tootin’ adventure a pleasure on both sets of senses. In many ways, the music gives the movie as much of a personal touch as the humor. The soundtrack is cool, dynamic, and sophisticated. All things considered, GBW nails its presentation and style, from its amazing cinematography to the memorable music down to the beautifully composed historical setting.
Things are rockier on the writing end of the spectrum. While all three of its main characters (the Good, the Bad, and the Weird) have personality and are distinct from one another, the script suffers from the lack of any singular protagonist to lead the action and direct our sympathy. The film never decides through which set of eyes the adventure will unfold, instead opting for a mix of all three. Additionally, the lack of any sufficient backstory for any of the three main characters leaves many of their actions feeling like they lack impact. A few scenes here and there don’t go anywhere and add little to plot, indicating some mismanaged editing. The story’s ending also feels somewhat contrived and unimaginative, despite being shot in a neat way. Things come to a muddled, indecisive conclusion that lacks any sense of closure or symmetry, which is disappointing given the film’s sophisticated personality. All in all, the screenplay, while certainly capable of supporting the action, never takes center stage like it should, and as result many surrounding aspects of the story’s narrative (like all the political elements at play, as well as numerous supporting characters) feel like missed opportunities.
What all this equals by the story’s end is that Kim’s Western-homage to Sergio Leone’s storied library (and other Western films) ends up being more of a tribute to the technical aspects of Western cinema, rather than a detailed examination of the complex narrative elements that the greatest of Western stories have exemplified (e.g. High Noon , Unforgiven , Seven Samurai , The Searchers , The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ). This doesn’t make GBW as a whole a disappointment, but it does separate the film from the truly momentous greats of the genre. It is, on some level, a shame such an accomplished cinematographic presentation was held back by an average-at-best screenplay.
With all that said, I do hope to see another Korean-Western soon, as the genre has more or less gone extinct in the United States despite a few blips on the radar here and there (True Grit , 3:10 to Yuma , The Revenant ). Given the East Asian country’s growing repertoire of talented film-makers, though, I may not have to wait too long. Ji-woon’s creation here is not a homerun success by any means, but it’s a solid film that deserves a shoutout and demonstrates the juicy results that occur when filmmaking cultures collide. It’s a weird concoction to be sure, but if GBW is any indication of things to come, the Western may have a new home out East…
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Good, the Bad, The Weird’s action is inventive and always exciting, including intense chase-scenes on vehicles and horesback, pulse-pounding shootouts, and gory close-quarters-combat. The three titular characters are all memorable and tenacious in their own right, despite having little actual characterizations or background. Through their performances and the energetic soundtrack, this film maintains a fun, charismatic charm throughout.
— However… the screenplay hits some potholes by refusing to pick a main character, lacking substantial character development, and boasting an unsatisfying ending.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? How did no horses die in the final act? Those stunts were amazing. Also, who played all the Imperial Japanese extras/cannon fodder? Did they work for scale?