The Kimchi western is that oddest of genres: the non-US western. ‘Kimchi’ being a traditional Korean pickled dish made of vegetables with varied seasonings, it was obviously inspired by the Italian renaissance of the genre, the Spaghetti western (there are also Noodle westerns, Sauerkraut westerns and Borscht westerns). A popular genre in Korea during the 1960s and 1970s, like its progenitor, it eventually died out.
Enter Ji Woon Kim (aka Kim Jee-Woon), director of such hits as A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life. With an astronomical budget for a Korean film of US$17 million and three of the country’s biggest stars, he’s not about to just revive the Kimchi western for a new era but the entire Korean cinema landscape. Only a few years ago one of the world’s most vibrant and succesful, for the last couple of years South Korean cinema has been languishing with markedly decreased national attendance and quality films. His homage becomes not only the highest grossing film of the year, but one of the top ten of all time in the country.
The Good, The Bad and The Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom, 2008) takes place in 1930s Manchuria, a vast desert area north-west of Korea (that’s why they can call it a western), it incorporated parts of China, Russia and Mongolia. Korea was at the time under colonial rule by Japan (1910-1945) and in this largely unregulated area those unwanted by the Japanese – mostly independence fighters and criminals – are trying to carve out a living among the general population.
The Bad, played by Byung-hun Lee (A Bittersweet Life, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra), is given the task of stealing a treasure map that the local crimeboss sold to the Japanese and now wants back. The independence fighters hear about the map and hire bounty hunter Good, played by Woo-sung Jung (Musa), to hunt down Bad and get the map for them. Problems arise for everyone when motorcycle bandit the Weird, played Kang-ho Song (Memories of Murder, The Host), robs the train before them and gets away with the map. Pursued by the armies of the Japanese, Chinese, Korean independence and a large crime syndicate, the Weird stays one step ahead, on his way to the buried riches of an ancient Chinese dynasty.
Like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, TGTBTW has a western setting (west of Korea, remember), but is essentially an adventure story. There are plenty of nods to that film, but the film has a Korean character all of its own, mainly exemplified and driven by Kang-ho Song, who not only steals the map but runs away with the film. His reckless and eccentric Weird is reason alone to see the film. Song is not a particularly good looking guy (either) but he has charisma enough to power any film. I liked and respected Byung-hun Lee’s work in A Bittersweet Life but he tries to pull off a Bad that can’t restrain his own evil self and the actor doesn’t quite succeed on that front. He is basically too evil and too unrestrained, to the point of overacting. Woo-sung Jung is given the rather thankless role of being Good without any distinctive characteristics and somehow measuring up to Eastwood. Between those three he can’t help but be swallowed up.
I have now seen three of director Jee-woon Kim’s films (this, A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life), and it’s clear that Kim is one of the great visual filmmakers working right now, with a grand, opulent yet fresh style. The problem with Kim is that in a contest of style over substance, style wins, hands down. If something is cool, but is stretching it, Kim will go for what is cool. So Byung-hun Lee will have a punk haircut that no one in the thirties would have stood for (it covers up half his eyesight!) and Woo-sung Jung will be able to use his shotgun like a sniper rifle because, you know, what the hell. This leads to films where audiences are rarely bored and will have a good time, but also muddled and frequently confusing films. Elements will be thrown in arbitrarily and resolved, in my opinion, unsatisfactorily. His last third acts are often orgies of excess.
To Kim’s credit, the last fifteen minutes of TGTBTW are notably pared down (ironically, excessively so), but they are still preceded by a fifteen minute, hundred horse and car, Blues Brothers chase across the Manchurian desert that felt oddly lacklustre. Still, aside from Kang-ho Song, the set pieces are the main joy of this film. The train robbery has one of my favorite extended sequences since Children of Men and a village/market shootout was more fun than the entire Die Hard 4. In general, the film looks great.
The Good, The Bad and The Weird is a fun ride that is both made and doomed by its excess. Like the Weird towards the end, you can’t help but wonder how it’s going to get away with it all, and of course, it can’t. Still, you can’t fault them for the ambition.