South Korean cinema seems to be caught up in the rapture of a cultural renaissance. Their films crackle with the energy and inventiveness of a newly successful moviemaking machine, like Pixar at its prime, from Oldboy (2003) to Pieta (2013). I’ve never seen a better example of this than Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird, which owes its existence to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti tour de force The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, but diverges from this legendary source material in creative (and often hilarious) ways. It’s not really fair to compare the two – one is a literal masterpiece and the other is a fun period action feature – but The Weird models itself too closely after The Ugly to ignore the similarities.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird takes Leone’s southwestern epic across the Pacific and seventy years into the future, landing us in 1930s Manchuria, where a hitman (Lee Byung-hun, “The Bad”) is hired to rob a train of a Japanese treasure map. An enterprising thief (Song Kang-ho, “The Weird”) interrupts this scheme and escapes with the map. Meanwhile, a bounty hunter (Jung Woo-sung, “The Good”) arrives to claim the bounty on The Bad. The film plays out from there in a series of escalating (and increasingly ridiculous) chases and escapes, until The Bad, The Good, a gang of Manchurian bandits, and the Japanese Army are all chasing The Weird towards the treasure’s hidden location. Only the three title characters make it there, where they engage in a classic Leone-style Mexican standoff. So the plot is almost exactly that of The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, albeit with a shot of Eastern flavour (the film is actually referred to as an “Oriental Western” in the end credits). It can’t exactly be called a remake, because the basic plot structure and rough character outlines are pretty much the only things that are the same. The Weird simply takes The Ugly and injects it with adrenaline – it’s almost the antithesis of The Ugly in terms of pacing, speed, energy, and humour, all of which it provides in spades. Where Leone’s film was laconic, Kim’s is hyperactive.