THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

A couple of weeks ago I posted an article looking back at the 1980s apocalyptic-screwball singularity that was Miracle Mile. One of the comments posted to that thread exhorted TCM to stop showing imports—as non sequitur a remark as you could hope for. I wanted to respond with a list of the kinds of imported films I refuse to live without (Godzilla, Jackie Chan, Hammer Horror, Claude Chabrol, FW Murnau, Fritz Lang’s silent films, Ernst Lubitsch’s silent films, Alfred Hitchcock’s English films, Powell & Pressburger, J-Horror, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone…) or to try to argue what Hollywood would have lost—or never had in the first place—without the influx of foreign-born talent and the need to compete against foreign-made films.

But then I decided it would be more fun to be obstinate. Why not single out an import that hasn’t had the time to become recognized as a classic, and will have few—if any—defenders? An import that has barely been released in the US at all, and which sets itself conspicuously to be compared to a beloved classic?

So, this week, Ji-woon Kim’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD

The Good, The Bad, The Weird is not a remake of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, but it clearly wants you to have Leone’s classic in your head while you watch.

This fact alone mostly scuttled plans for a proper American release of this picture (it’s available on Blu-Ray and DVD, and can be found on streaming services—but it took way too many years to show up here, given its quality and crowd-pleasing panache). MGM is rather protective of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, and feels Mr. Kim ought to have asked permission to purloin that phrase. While it’s absurd to think a filmgoer could be confused (“Gee, Clint Eastwood looks funny”), MGM’s lawyers have a point. Quentin Tarantino licensed the right to remake Inglorious Bastards even though his film had no discernable connection to Enzo Casetllari’s original, and didn’t even spell its title the same way. Kim’s movie riffs flagrantly on The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, and does so with Tarantino-esque glee.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD

Identified by its producers as a “kimchi western” (get it?), The Good, The Bad, The Weird is set in 1930s Manchuria where a Korean insurgent army is preparing to confront the occupying Japanese forces. Both sides predicate their military success on a map, currently in the possession of a Japanese banker. The map belonged to a Korean businessman who has seemingly sold out his country’s future to the Japanese, but he has hired Manchuria’s most wanted assassin Chang-Yi Park (Byung-hun Lee, dressed like a 90s rock star) to steal the map back—so he can collect the fee for selling it but still get to keep it. Park and his gang hold up the train only to find that the map has already been stolen by petty thief Tae-goo Yoon (Kang-ho Song, dressed like James Coburn in Fistful Of Dynamite). Chang-yi sets off after the goofball, but is himself pursued by noble bounty hunter Do-won Park (Woo-sung Jung, dressed like Jason Robards from Once Upon A Time In The West). Meanwhile a Manchurian crime lord and his gang of blackmarketeers watch the chaos unfold, waiting for their own turn at the map.

It may sound confusing, but the storytelling is elegantly simple. For all intents and purposes, this is a sustained feature-length chase scene, with Kang-ho Song’s character desperately fleeing with his “Qing dynasty treasure map” while essentially every single person in Asia comes thundering after him. Like Tarantino, Kim is a filmmaker who has watched and absorbed a lot of genre cinema. Aside from obvious references to Leone’s films, Kim makes nods to Buster Keaton’s The General, various James Bond and Indiana Jones pictures, and the larger world of spaghetti westerns, yet he does so confidently within his own métier.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD

The basic triangulation of the good vs. the bad vs. the weird takes place within a larger triangulation of Koreans vs. Japanese vs. Manchurians, such that all of the opposing forces come together into a single point at the end. Leone’s The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly placed its action in the American Civil War and flirted with a larger social conscience, but the Korean national identity is even more rooted in historical grudges. By invoking those issues within an action movie, Kim manages to raise his dramatic stakes and make the action more meaningful for the viewer besides.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD

Kang-ho Song is one of my favorite modern-day movie stars—imagine a cross between Jack Black and Meryl Streep. Go ahead, I dare you. He has such distinctive—and even frumpy—looks, yet has managed to disappear completely into every role he takes. By avoiding the allure of Hollywood, he traded international stardom for a more rewarding career of worthy roles. In the closest thing he’s had to date of a proper “Hollywood” debut, second-billed under Chris Evans in Snowpiercer, he exclusively speaks in Korean, and not always with subtitles. That, my friends, is star power.

Officially, Song plays “The Weird,” but late revelations of hidden motivations and backstories in this film may cause your analysis of which ones represent “good” and “bad” and “weird” to shift considerably.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD

The Good, The Bad, The Weird exists in two different versions. The original Korean theatrical edition runs 135 minutes while the “International Edition” clocks in at 129 minutes. The difference between the two versions is largely confined to the very beginning and the very end, in which the Korean cut indulges in some more explicit storytelling. The shorter international version lacks for nothing without this material, and is a punchier and more effective film. Both versions are superb, and while my preference is the zippier foreign version, you won’t go wrong either way.

6 Responses The Good, the Bad, and the Weird
Posted By Gamera2000 : August 8, 2015 5:08 am

A terrific film which I am glad you highlighted. It’s more like a jazz riff on Leone’s great film as it borrows some of it’s structure, but then proceeds to go off into it’s own direction.

And then the plot twist about the Weird takes it into a direction that is completely different from Leone.

Posted By Martha C. : August 8, 2015 2:34 pm

I’m going to buy this today. Love your write up on a film I had never heard of, thanks! I’d love MORE imports on TCM. Really enjoyed seeing Bergman’s The Magician a few weeks ago. :)

Posted By tolly devlin : August 8, 2015 3:38 pm

Thanks for putting the spotlight on this film & Miracle Mile. I saw MM years ago in a Hemdale Films double feature at Chicago’s Music Box Theater. The Good, Bad, and The Weird is very good film thatis never predictable or lazy.Also thanks for mentioning one of my favorite actors. I first saw Kang-ho Song in Memories of A Murder & it seems he is insome of my favorite Korean movies. The guy is talented.

Posted By AL : August 8, 2015 10:46 pm

The new KINO restoration of MIRACLE MILE is superb, and the “extras” are wonderful…

Posted By Tom S : August 8, 2015 10:48 pm

I saw this in its very brief run in the IFC theater in NYC, and I’ve been proselytizing for it ever since- it’s one of the most _fun_ movies I’ve seen in years. There’s a lot of really cool stuff coming out of South Korea in general, and I’d put Kim Ji-Woon in the same broad category as Bong Joon-Ho and Park Chan-Wook, as people who I’d watch pretty much anything they put out.

Posted By swac44 : August 24, 2015 8:49 pm

This came out a while ago through a different distributor in Canada, and I’ve been a big fan of the film for ages. I’m rarely disappointed by action/thriller titles from Korea, they really know how to go for it and turn expectations on their head. I wish U.S.-made titles could have a similar sense of gusto.

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