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Friday, Aug. 21, 2009
'The Good, the Bad, the Weird'
Spaghetti Western gets kimchi flavor
By KAORI SHOJI
In what's being touted as South Korea's most expensive production to date ($17 million), three of that country's heartthrobs go on a nonstop, nonsensical action rampage that tears the screen apart and has the viewer cowering in the seat. It's not that "The Good, the Bad, the Weird" is scary, but its relentlessness and frenzied, go-for-broke pace evokes a certain terror. You want to get off the train. Failing that, you at least want it to slow down. But does director Jim Woon-Kim show any mercy (or mere common sense)? Hell no.
The story, the characters and while we're at it, the train (on which some of the action takes place) hurtle forward like a rickety roller coaster with a faulty brake system. That it all goes on for over two hours could only be attributed to Jim Woon-Kim's incredible stamina and apparent love for excess — the man behind ultraviolent Korean gangland films like "Bittersweet" favors lots of blood, lots of guns and fist fights galore orchestrated by the sounds of breaking bones.
In "The Good" Woon-Kim and his cast discard their usual Asian gang asethetics for outright laughs. The film has no pretenses — if you thought that the title sounded familiar, it's an unabashed homage (or reverential rip-off) of Sergio Leone's famed "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." The story doesn't stray too far from it either; both films feature three bounty hunters hot on the pursuit of a treasure map. Leone, who pioneered the "spaghetti Western" genre, would probably have gotten a huge kick out of this kimchi Western — Woon-Kim pays Leone ample tribute while injecting his own originality and some wildly glorious inventiveness. In short, it's a wicked remake with tornado twists, and much more effective than "Jiango" the Japan-made sukiyaki Western that sadly fell flat on its face two years ago. In terms of sheer, calorie-fueled energy there's no comparison.
In 1930s Manchuria (actually a gloriously shot Mongolian desert) the Bad (Lee Byung-Hun) is a ruthless killer burdened with some psych-baggage (due to some bad stuff that happened in his childhood) who always has a pistol grasped in both hands as if he can't stand leaving one hand empty.
Bad has been hired by a local crime lord to track down a legendary treaure map. Good (Woo Sung Jung) has been hired by the military to track and take down Bad. And Weird (Kang-ho Sung) is just out for his own hide, swiping the map before anyone else in the ear-splitting, synapses-singeing opening sequence.
From there on the story splinters into a thousand chases that eventually bleed into one continuous whir of motion, conducted on every kind of vehicle known to pre WWII mankind — including rickshaws and a unicycle. My regret was that they didn't have Rollerblades back then. Just THINK what a pair could have contributed in terms of chaotic damage.
The story weakens when Woon-Kim strays from the action and attempts to add content: Much more often than necessary, there are flashback scenes of Bad's traumatic past that supposedly tell the story of how he ended up as he is. That's a misservice to Bad's character and Lee Byung-Hun's performance. Bad revels in his unquenchable thirst for violence and craving for mayhem: How could such a guy let anything like REGRET spoil the fun? Plus, he's gorgeous — sculpted black suits and a terrifically contemporary hair style that enhance his whole, demonic-is-sexy ambience. But all that's dented every time the story swerves into psychoanalytic mode. Boooo. Good is straight-laced and boringly heroic. Weird, on the other hand, has no hang-ups and no logic. He's just inexplicably, mind-bluntingly strange and whatever else the film may have lifted from a thousand other action/Westerns, Weird remains its most daring and original invention, a splotch of red-hot kimchi on scorching desert sand.