Now playing at NYC’s IFC Center, Kim Jee-Won’s “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is, as the name implies, an homage to Sergio Leone’s most famous spaghetti western. As a member in good standing of Korea’s New Wave, Kim might be expected to subvert the genre and that he does. While retaining the trio of desperate characters (weird substituting for ugly) and the nonstop action of the original, Kim is far more interested in mining Leone’s original for comic possibilities. And as anybody who has seen a Korean New Wave film can tell you, they are some of the funniest movies being made today even if they cannot exactly be described as comedies in the Judd Apatow vein—thank god. Think Buster Keaton instead.
“The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is set in 1930s Manchuria (actually filmed in China’s Gobi Desert) and has the parched, endless horizon look of Leone’s original. The plot, such as it is, borrows almost as much from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with a search for ancient treasure using a map that the movie’s antagonists are all killing each other to get their hands on. The movie starts with an evil Korean businessman dispatching his underling Chang-Yi “the bad” (the Lee Van Cleef role played by Lee Byung-Hun) off to rob a train, where the map is stored in a heavily defended freight car. Supposedly, it contains the location of the buried treasure of the Qing Dynasty.
Before Chang-Yi and his gang have a chance of raiding the train Jesse James style, Tae-Goo “the weird” beats them to the punch. Storming through the passenger section of the train, firing guns left and right like Yosemite Sam, Tae-Goo is bent on robbing cash and jewels. But when he discovers the map, he figures that bigger treasures are in store. Tae-Goo is played by Song Kang-Ho, the same actor who played one of the incompetent small-town cops in “Memories of Murder”. He is a gifted comic actor who might remind you of Hong Kong’s Sammo Hung. “Weird” does not quite describe the character. He should be thought of more as uncontrollable, bearing some resemblance psychologically to Eli Wallach’s “ugly”.
Just as Tae-Goo takes off from the looted train in a motorcycle across the Manchurian desert, his trail is picked up by a bounty hunter named Do-Won (Jung Woo-Sung), who is the “good” one and Clint Eastwood’s counterpart. The rest of the movie consists of the three main characters pursuing each other and the map with occasional interventions by assorted bad men from the Japanese army and Manchurian gangs, including a motley crew of Russians, Chinese and Koreans. For director Kim, Manchuria in the 1930s is a badland in the style of classic Westerns, including the Italian imports. Indeed, the press notes state that his aim was to create an “oriental Western”.
You know, however, that Kim has no interest in being confined by realist conventions. His movie is filled with anachronisms and absurdities that tip you off at once that his intention is as much spoof as action melodrama. Do-Won the bounty hunter is dressed in cowboy clothes including a ten-gallon hat. Not a single character bothers to ask him why he is wearing a costume. For his part, Chang-Yi dresses like Prince and even has two earrings in one ear. All in all, the effect is pastiche but not in the self-conscious postmodern fashion seen in some European movies. “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is targeted for the mass market and are fortunate to have such entertainment at our disposal at a time when such values are utterly lacking in the Hollywood products.