Saturday, March 15, 2014

East Meets West: The Good, The Bad, The Weird

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.

The staging of The Weird is excellent. Costumes and sets are lavish and suggest the character of the American West while still conforming to the setting and period (The Bad, for example, dresses in a black three-piece suit which is very similar to Lee Van Cleef’s look, but it’s styled as a pinstriped 30s zoot suit instead of a cowboy duster. The Bad also uses knives to murderous effect in The Weird, which is an appropriately Asian extrapolation of the original Bad character. You get the sense that Van Cleef might have used knives if he’d only known how). It’s clear that there was a great deal of planning in executing the action sequences, which involve complex camerawork, set design, and choreography – characters run across rooftops of shanty-town markets, fall over balconies, and blast away at each other with an insane variety of weaponry. The initial burst of action on the train at the film’s outset uses exciting camera techniques, with complex crane shots even in the confined space of a train car. You don’t expect to see camerawork of that kind in a set so small, and it adds excitement to what might be forgettable shots of characters facing off. Each fight sequence outdoes the one before it, and they get progressively funnier, too. 

Humour is perhaps the most significant way in which The Weird departs from its spaghetti western heritage, and it’s mostly due to The Weird himself, called Yoon Tae-goo in the film. He’s very well cast and brings a manic liveliness to the role, the way Eli Wallach did for the character of Tuco. Like that famous bandit, Tae-goo is both likeable and detestable, and we learn more about him than the other characters in the movie – we meet his Granny, for example, who’s happily senile and sleeps her way through a gunfight which tears her house to pieces. The Weird’s version of the final Mexican standoff is a clear highlight – taking what might be the most famous shootout in film history in an unexpected new direction. The Bad suggests the three-way duel as a “fun game”, and convinces the other two to join in. The Weird’s initial reaction is one of the funniest moments in the film: he simply says “no thanks”. The shootout is built on the same skeleton as The Ugly, with tense intercutting between closeups of faces and hands reaching for guns, but isn’t drawn out to agonizing levels of tension like the original. Kim can’t hold a candle to Leone, but he deserves credit for trying something new. There are other things that The Weird misses out on, notably the powerful emotional moments that take place in Leone’s fictional West; scenes such as Tuco’s unfortunate reunion with his brother or Clint Eastwood’s Blondie sharing his cigar with a dying Confederate soldier are tender in a way that would have been out of place in the wacky world of The Weird. Gone too is anything akin to Ennio Morricone’s masterful film score, which couldn’t possibly be recreated (and thankfully Kim doesn’t try, instead relying on licensed tunes and a forgettable dramatic score).

What a strange co-mingling of influences that conspired to give birth to this film, bouncing from East to West and back again – Dashiell Hammett inspired Kurosawa to make Yojimbo, which inspired Leone to make his “Man with No Name” films, which in turn inspires Kim Lee-woon’s The Weird. Weird indeed – what other specific subgenre of film is so pervasively popular across the world? What is it about these stories of desperadoes, bandits, heroes, and villains that speaks to people from places as disparate as Europe, the US, and Asia? Maybe it’s an attraction to the idea of freedom, of living without rules, of a world where bad guys wear black hats and you can do anything you want if you’re brave and quick enough. Or maybe it’s just a sense of fun – and if you’re looking for a fun flick, The Good, The Bad, The Weird doesn’t disappoint.

–  Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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