The Good, The Bad, The Weird
When you think of film westerns, you probably have a certain image in your mind’s eye. The Monument Valley vistas of John Ford and John Wayne. Sergio Leone’s Spanish Almeria set pieces. But 1930’s Manchuria, probably not so much. Nevertheless, that’s where 2008’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird takes us.
When Yoon Tae-Gu (The Weird, played by Kang-ho Song) attempts to rob a train carrying a group of Japanese soldiers, a treasure map isn’t the score he’s expecting. Then again, he probably wasn’t expecting murderous Park Chang-Yi (The Bad, played by Lee Byung-Hun) to rob the same train with his gang. Or to have the daring bounty hunter Park Do-won (The Good, played by Woo-sung Jung) after both of them.
What follows is a non-stop chase across Manchuria as Tae-Gu and Chang-Yi fight for the map while Do-won hunts them both. He believes one of them to be the notorious serial killer “The Finger Chopper.” The chase culminates in a battle between the Japanese army, Manchurian bandits, and the three leads that ends with a three way shootout for the prize.
What Makes The Good, The Bad, and The Weird Special?
At the time of its release, The Good, The Bad, The Weird was the most expensive Korean film ever made. And it shows! The sets are lush, the costumes are gorgeous, and the world feels completely lived in in a way few films are able to achieve.
The lengthy gunfight in the Ghost Market has every right to go down as one of the best shootouts in film history. The director employed an unusual technique, wiring his cameramen to his actors to follow them in unison during the filming process. It doesn’t hurt that both Kang-ho Song and Byung-Hun Lee have regularly worked with writer-director Jee-woon Kim previously. Byung-Hun Lee’s Chang-yi easily became one of the most terrifying villains in the history of film westerns.
Kim both knows and uses his history as well. He chose the exact time and place in Korean history that was both most like an analogue for the American wild west and would provide the most over-the-top visuals. How many other films can boast a lengthy, dynamite-riddled final chase featuring jeeps and heavy artillery, flail-wielding Manchurian bandits on horseback, and the archetypal duster-wearing, rifle-firing bounty hunter all at the same time? And yet, somehow, it works.
When we look at the history and influence of the American western, perhaps the influence and counterinfluence of Asian cinema isn’t so strange after all. Sergio Leone’s A of Fistfull of Dollars, the beginning of one of the most famous film trilogies of all time was, of course, an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, itself an adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett story Red Harvest. What’s old is new is old again, and it doesn’t get much fresher than Jee-woon Kim’s kimchi western The Good, The Bad, The Weird.
About the Reviewer
Thomas Gregory is an author, playwright and performer from Ypsilanti Michigan. In addition to hosting the film podcast Cinema Guano, his work appears as the title story in the anthology The Queen of Clocks and Other Steampunk Tales and his full length musical Benestophelese: The Last Days of Ghoulita Graves takes the stage in April, 2020 with Ypsilanti’s Neighborhood Theater Group.