Review of Kim Ji-Woon’s The Good, The Bad, and the Weird (2008)

My friend May-lee was asking my thoughts on this film, so I thought I’d post this as a note to initiate a conversation with any other folks who have seen this.

The Good, the Bad, and The Weird is the 2008 film by director Kim Ji-Woon. He also did A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and A Bittersweet Life (2005). The Good, The Bad, and The Weird is a re-imagining of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, this time with 1930s Manchuria set as the Wild West. Three money-driven outlaws–a Bandit (the Bad), a Thief (the Weird), and a Bountyhunter (the Good)–face off over a treasure map that allegedly details where an ancient Qing dynasty treasure is buried. The Japanese (funding the Bandit) want this map to fund their failing war efforts. The guerilla Korean Independence movement have hired the Bountyhunter to also steal the map so they can thwart the Japanese and fund their own independence efforts. The Weird happens to foil all these efforts when he robs the Japanese banker with the map while on a train. He later makes a short-lived (and unwilling) allegiance with the Bountyhunter, who seems vaguely sympathetic with the Independence movement but is ultimately driven by some unnamed desires–in a scene where the Bountyhunter is about to tell the Weird what he fights for and what he wants out of life, the Weird cuts in with a loud snore, leaving us forever in the dark about The Good’s motivations.

To illustrate just how bad the Bad is, **SPOILER ALERT**, he executes his Japanese handler in order to go after the map himself. When he finds out that the Weird possesses it, the film implies some previous bad blood between the two men in order to justify the Bad’s obsessive fixation with beating the Weird. At the climactic moment of the film, the movie devolves into a three-way Mexican Standoff/pissing contest to see who is the best gunslinger around. Just as in Leone’s film, the Weird really wins out in this movie. His goofy posturing, earthiness, and bumbling heroics make him a focal point of almost every scene. He also serves to deflate the grandstanding, uber-action antics of the Good and the Bad. A favorite moment of mine was when the Weird dons an antique undersea helmet during a gunfight, illustrating his common sense wits, whereas the Good soars like Tarzan on a rope over the action, reloading and shooting his shotgun with one arm. The Good might *look* good, but as far as surviving a gunfight goes, I think the Weird has it right.

There were some glaring anachronisms, like the fact that The Bad was dressed like Prince, the Good was dressed like a cowboy, and neither seemed to have any actual roots in the 1930s. Overall, the movie took itself too seriously to be just a comedy, but as an action flick was kind of goofy and didn’t hang together very well. The action sequences were a beat or two too long, and the epic chase scene, in which Manchurian Bandits, the Japanese Army, and the Bad’s goons are all chasing the Weird across the desert, felt like it lasted for years. The film also made insistent Korean claims on Manchuria–though those moments were meant as plot devices, they seemed quite earnest, and betrayed more about the film than the film perhaps intended. Lawless Manchuria, where all this takes place, represents the hopes and desires for two national imaginations–the Japanese and the Koreans (the Manchurian barbarians don’t have any dreams in the film). The “richness” of this space seems to lie in its possibilities–the way its desert spaces withhold secrets rather than fulfill desires. The ocean can appear over a ridge without any warning, just as oil can gush up from an abandoned well, only to recede again, inexplicably. As a contested territory, Manchuria doesn’t seem, well, worth it. It’s dirty, dusty, and dry. It’s true value, the movie suggests, is underground, unrecognizable, and ultimately forgotten by the film’s heroes, who are more interested in fighting for fame and prestige rather than material or spiritual reward.

I think the good reviews this film received were in part due to the novelty factor–of how it imagines Manchuria as the Wild West. It IS doing something interesting with its lack of emotional substance/mythic posturing, yet *insistent* historical context. Some critic called it a “cartoon of a cartoon,” and I think that is quite apt, in both good and bad ways. I loved the old Spaghetti westerns for their mythic handling of something as base as human greed. There really isn’t anything mythic here, just a lot of grandstanding over emptiness.

One STANDOUT aspect of this film, in my opinion, was the actor who plays The Weird–Kang-ho Song. Mr. Song is now certifiably one of my favorite actors. I’ve seen him in The Host, The President’s Barber, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Thirst, and now this. He is really QUITE transformative. I just watched Thirst a few weeks ago, and seeing that and then this film in quick succession just made me marvel at how he really became two different people for these films. In Thirst, he prowls about the screen with a guilty restlessness. In this film, he bumbles about with earnest self-interest. Wow and Wow.

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