Friday, November 13, 2009


Original Title: Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom
Year: 2008
Director: Kim Ji-woon
Writer: Kim Ji-woon, Kim Min-suk
Genre: Western

The story of three Korean outlaws in 1940s Manchuria and their rivalry to possess a treasure map while being pursued by the Japanese army and Chinese bandits.

If the title of the film alone wasn't enough to clue you in, this is a high budget Korean retelling of sorts of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Three less than desirable fellows all pursuing a common "treasure" and dealing with one another along the way. Replace the American military and the Civil War backdrop with Chinese military circa 1930 or 40, and there you have it.

I guess it's "inspired by" the Leone epic.

This is actually the first film I ever watched with Song Kang-ho. He is Yoon Tae-goo or The Weird. In addition to his awesomely frizzy hair, he does a great job acting-wise living up to his name as the offbeat bandit who is just not as slick as the two pros he becomes involved with. This role is what made me want to see more of Kang-ho's work. The character carries around two Walther's, so that automatically gives him some cool points there.

The Weird stumbles across a map early in the film that he believes leads to some great treasure in China.

His role of the three major characters is primarily comic relief. He is the sort that stumbles into trouble, but has a good street sense about him, is willing to be nasty if needed, and some luck apparently, that allows him to be a successful thief. Kang-ho is really a lot of fun as the Weird.

Almost the exact opposite character is the cocky and handsome Park Chang-yi or The Bad, played by Lee Byung-hun. I've seen Byng-hun in other films including the remarkable A Bittersweet Life, another Kim Ji-woon directed film, where he plays a quiet but very efficient bodyguard of sorts. He also plays Storm Shadow in the GI Joe flick from this past summer.

Here, Ji-woon emphasizes Byung-hun's sinister attributes, including a fantastic hairdo to make him a great villain. And that's not to discredit Byung-hun's portrayal by any means. But when you already look like a great villain, it certainly helps. But Byung-hun is nasty and vengeful and really good in this role. I really like the contrast between this character and his character from A Bittersweet Life. He's the cold motherfucker that shoots a mate and just asks if it hurts. Badass!

The Bad has been hired to find a particular map that leads to a treasure somewhere in China. Hmmm... sounds familiar.

Then we come to the least compelling character... at least for me. He is the bounty hunter after both The Weird and The Bad. Park Do-won, or simply The Good, played by Jung Woo-sung, is your typical spaghetti western anti-hero. He is a phenomenal shot 99% of the time with whatever weapon he is using and can perform almost superhuman feats. There is a scene in the film where he is almost flying - or maybe slinging like Spider-Man - through a crudely constructed village. Woo-sung plays this character just as you might expect. He is quiet and efficient and seems private. It's straightforward and not as interesting as the other two, but I suppose you need this character to complete a trio.

His best scene in the film as far as character development go I think comes at a campsite with The Weird. They discuss what they will do with the treasure if they find it, discuss Korea, and life in general. It's a nice scene and sometimes funny... one of the best in the film for being a down moment. We see a human side of The Good, yet he still remains a mystery.

"Life is about chasing and being chased. There is no escape."

The interactions and story of these three is definitely inspired by The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but in a way it reminded me of Enzo Castellari's film Go Kill and Come Back, which I reviewed here in September. In that film, we also have a bounty hunter pursuing a handsome bandit, but then becomes involved in a treasure hunt as well. Edd Byrnes as a banker in that film doesn't exactly match up as The Ugly or The Weird, but he is the closest of that particular trio to the comic relief role.

The high point for me in the film is the direction and storytelling of Kim Ji-woon. Yes, the overall structure is borrowed, but along with cinematographers Lee Mo-gae and Oh Seung-Chul, he crafts a grand, sweeping tale with so many similarities to the Westerns we all know and love, and a definite Asian flavor with humor and some fantastic costumes and quirky side characters. Not only are there fantastic wide shots, but shaky action, some great indoor lighting, and cool little camera tricks that keep the film very lively.

I particularly like the camerawork in an opium den scene as The Weird slowly becomes inebriated without realizing it. It's slow and subtle as things slowly revolve and shift. Song Kang-ho is really good here also as he gets annoyed with the girls around him blowing smoke in his face.

As the story progresses, things get bigger and bigger in a manner of speaking, as we learn more and more about the treasure map and about all the forces involved in its retrieval. Our characters find themselves even in something much, much larger than anticipated, and it leads to one climactic scene with unbelievable stunts and camerawork.

Some of the scenes are CGI I believe, but it really does not hinder the film. It is all blended very well and is never a distraction.

The setting in 1930s/40s Manchuria is very interesting to me. And old world is meeting a new world, as buildings are constructed from bamboo but the urban crowding is already apparent. Horses run next to jeeps and motorcycles. Pistols fire and traditional weapons fly. (There's even a MAUL in there... incredible.)

These contrasts in eras all meeting together makes this film really unique to me and allows it to stand out from its older siblings.

There are a few issues with the film, but really nothing worth going into in detail. The final standoff (you knew that was coming) goes on a bit long despite some cool twists being thrown in there, but it's a minor gripe. I think things just could have been shaved down a bit more. The film's runtime is 2:15 or so, and this could have just been a little tighter while still having some of those special downtimes.

I had loads of fun with The Good, The Bad, and the Weird and would recommend it to anyone interested in Westerns, Asian cinema, or action films in general. It looks phenomenal, is very well acted, funny at times and bloody and gritty at times.

Great, great effort.

Score: 8.75 / 10


Matt-suzaka said...

Fantastic movie and Song Kang-ho does put out a great performance in the film, in fact, it made the movie that much better. Great review, as always!

Rach555 said...

Dead set, I've been trying to see this film for a stupid length of time. I only recently found out Song was in it and I've been searching every store since.
I will see it. I'm determined.
Love the review, cheers :)