Considering that the month of May is to be devoted to westerns entirely, it should be little surprise that I will include, at some point, at least one spaghetti western, but the most recent viewing was not to be that instance. I felt it only necessary to begin by contrasting one of the most traditional notions of a western, with one of the most unusual and revisionist westerns to date, in what has been dubbed by some to be a "kimchi" western. Of course, this proves a double bonus for me because the film in question The Good, The Bad, The Weird, manages to be both a western and a Korean film simultaneously, therefore, making a perfect fit within the constraints of this month of specific films while also managing to allow me another viewing within my specific concern for expansion in the particulars of East Asian cinema. The director of The Good, The Bad, The Weird, Jee-woon Kim recently received notoriety on this blog for his wonderfully absurd The Foul King and continually proves to be a diverse and engaging filmmaker, although I am not so sure that his English-language debut will prove as rewarding and intense as Chan-wook Park's Stoker. What viewers receive in the highly engaging and action heavy adaptation (all be it, quite loose) of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is nothing short of a simultaneous embracing of everything within the tradition of westerns, as well as a complete rejection of its traditionalist notions of periodization. In fact, it is quite impossible to tell whether the film and its narrative exists somewhere far in the past, or is simply an insanely realized dystopia loaded with some of the most vile, yet incredibly engaging individuals. Between its decidedly modern soundtrack and use of masterful cinematic and editing techniques, The Good, The Bad, The Weird nearly bursts at the seams of the genre, but when it matters it manages to reign in its narrative beautifully, ultimately, adhering to the idea of a western film when it matters most, moving from the embracing of ultra-cool gunslingers to the stark and alienating realization that their own concerns with anonymity and indifference are exactly what will result in their being alone in their last moments of life.
As a pseudo-remake of Leone's classic spaghetti western, Kim's film centers around three distinct characters attempting to attain a map that will lead them to a treasure buried by a group of Japanese soldiers. The Bad (Byung-hun Lee) is a ruthless, thief and assassin who pulls a cue from Johnny Cash, moving through the world of Manchuria donning black clothing and a smoldering scowl befit to set the world ablaze. The Weird (Kang-ho Sung) is a madman whose lone wolf nature and complete indifference for social etiquette allow him to move about the landscape with an absurdly carefree attitude that seems to make him immune to death, although it is clear from early on that he harbors a rather intense past. Finally, The Good (Woo-sung Jung) stands as a symbol of justice with his shotgun and leather trench coat, he screams out to be the epitome of the sheriff figure in the world, although, like his two rivals he possesses his own problematic selfishness, which all runs amok when the three become aware of a the previously mentioned treasure map and its seemingly endless fortunes. However, while the three are clearly adept shooters and generally superior in every way, they are certainly not the only ones after the cherished items, confronting entire armies, motorcycle riding bandits and a gang of black market dealers along the way. Moving through the space of Manchuria, The Good and The Weird end up begrudgingly relying on one another to assure their outpacing of the maniacal The Bad who seems perfectly willing to kill all persons who bar his path and eventual success. It becomes clear, however, that The Bad's desire to beat the other two to the treasure has a high degree of revenge about it, so much so that he openly states his willingness to reprimand an injustice. After a handful of wild shootouts and chases, the three meet at the point of the treasure only to discover it to be far different that suggested, resulting in them making a game out of who is to survive that ends in a truly fatal manner, while the map blows away, revealing a treasure none of them expected.
Given that the setting of The Good, The Bad, The Weird is assumed to be in an unusual western world within the context of East Asia it has a certain impossibly ethereal nature about it, which makes it seem more science fiction than western, however, tropes, which will be the manner by which I approach the films this month, nonetheless emerge. In the case of this film everything has to do with identity and reappropriating one's past. For The Good, it is clear that he seeks to enact his wild sense of justice upon the landscape, one that breaks laws and moral guidelines when it fits the warped idea of good he seems to have created and reflects nicely on the often ambiguous nature law has within the traditional western. The Bad, much like The Good, is far more than his name suggests and indeed moves through the filmic space with a quest for revenge firstly, and an obtaining of riches second. Of course, he seems willing to kill those in his path, but his silence speaks to the inability he possesses to speak to his suffering which is both unusual and traumatic. Finally, in, as his name would suggest, bizarre contrast is The Weird, who absolutely rejects any sense of normalcy and moves through the madness of Manchuria expressly concerned with the most basic human needs and a desire to stay alive, yet it proves by the films closing to be the case that The Weird is indeed the most flawed of the three central figures, making his place within the quest for inconceivable riches one driven by his desire to clean his impure slate and return to a simpler lifestyle, one with livestock and agrarian simplicity. The past for each of these men is both obtuse and decidedly troublesome, allowing the expansive deserts and tight alleys of the cities to serve as figurative escapes from not only the threat of death, but from their own trouble psyches. Furthermore, given that contemporary Korean cinema is particularly concerned with deconstructing the patriarchal nature of masculinity, the film doubles as a sort of rejection of unchecked male privilege, especially in the closing moments of the film, wherein what is essentially a large scale pissing contest, results in an exceptionally defeatist end.
Key Scene: Given that it necessarily had to borrow the famous three way shoot out, Kim manages to both do credit to Leone's directorial choice, while updating it into something newly engaging and cinematically fresh.
This is on Netflix watch instantly, drop what you are doing and watch it immediately.