Killer Imports: The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Killer Imports is a regular feature on Film Junk where we explore foreign-language films from around the world that haven’t yet had their chance to shine.

As a film genre, the western has not been one that I have followed with any enthusiasm. Westerns seemed to me to simply be retelling the same good guy versus bad guy story with variations on that theme. I realize that the love of my life, Star Trek, is based on a western. But Star Trek offered a wider range of storytelling because of the unknown of outer space.

Growing up, there were only two westerns that I can really remember enjoying: Shane and The Magnificent Seven. With Shane, I think the little boy was someone I could relate to in the movie. The whole theme with the effeminate, handsome hero standing up to the bully was something I could cheer for. I suffered from the “hero worship of older brother” syndrome, so when the little boy cries out for Shane at the end of the movie, I guess I could imagine my older brother abandoning me.

With The Magnificent Seven, having a group of friends taking on a group of bullies was great to watch. I think Elmer Bernstein’s majestic musical score was indelibly etched into my brain. I love hearing it over and over.

In later years, I enjoyed Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. To me, it was a mature retelling of Shane with a reluctant “hero” seeking some sort of redemption. A few years later, I went to see The Quick and the Dead to see what Sam Raimi could do with the western genre. I was disappointed. The only scene I enjoyed was the camera flourish used with the draw of the gun. Perhaps I was expecting some zombie cowboys.

I admit that Gene Roddenberry’s involvement with the pre-Star Trek western television series, Have Gun, Will Travel, led me to watch the television series when it was released on DVD. I found that series highly enjoyable because the hero is a philosophizing intellectual. I had been so use to the western hero being a rugged, silent individual. Through the years, I have appreciated when fantastic elements have been added to western television series like The Wild, Wild West, Legend, and The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr.

A decade ago, I decided to revisit Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. (I had watched Fistful of Dollars probably with my brother when it was aired on television in the 70’s, but I was too young to appreciate it.) I still didn’t really appreciate it. Sometimes it takes someone to tell me why something is classic before I can really appreciate it. It’s interesting that Sergio Leone thought that American westerns were becoming too intellectual by the 60’s, so he created his simpler spaghetti westerns.

This entire preamble is to acquaint you with my tastes before I review the Korean western, The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Now if the title reminds you of the Sergio Leone western, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, with Clint Eastwood, then that’s good, because this Korean western takes its inspiration directly from this film. The main title is “shot” onto the screen with accompanying gun sounds. The “good” and “ugly”/”weird” characters share an uneasy relationship. And there is a hunt for treasure. Even the music is Ennio Morricone-esque.

The plot can be summarized with its tagline: One map. Three villains. Winner takes all. This western takes place in the Manchurian desert during World War II. In the mix are also Manchurian or Mongolian bandits, the Japanese army, and the Korean independence army.

The three lead actors are Korean superstars. The “good” bounty hunter, Jeong Woo-seong, was a lead in The Warrior aka Musa. He plays the same sort of cool, rugged, handsome, silent type. Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name had a stubble beard in contrast with previous American western heroes. In this movie, the good guy is somewhat clean-shaven with some short chin hair. Asians typically have a hard time growing a good beard. (I should know, and oh, pun intended). The “bad” cold-blooded hit man, Lee Byeong-heon, plays Storm Shadow in the upcoming G.I. Joe movie. His hair and make-up reminded me of the “bad” Peter Parker in Spider-Man 3. He even has two ring piercings in the vertical side of his ear. I’m not sure if this is anachronistic or if people actually did that in those days. And the “weird” train robber, Song Kang-ho, starred in the horror film The Host. He plays excitable really well. I enjoyed the distinctive personalities of each of the male leads.

The director, Kim Jee-Woon aka Kim Ji-Woon, directed the infamous horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters, which was recently remade in America as The Uninvited. In press conferences, he has stated that his intent was to violate the laws of the western like Leone did with his spaghetti westerns.

The music is provided by Jang Yeo Gyu, who is one of Korea’s best known film musical directors. There is a distinctive theme, and the instrumentation includes trumpets, electric guitar, clapping, and whistling. Because there are some extended action sequences, there are some driving disco drums used as well. I don’t recall Morricone using drums this way in his western scores.

After an introductory conversational sequence, a train robbery occurs that is filmed with awesome camera movement and film editing. Throughout the movie, there is variety in the action with some stuff that has probably never been seen in a western before like a guy shooting a rifle while swinging up high on ropes, and a guy brandishing a huge hammer. (I’m not being metaphorical.) And then there’s the usual stuff like shooting a rifle while on horseback at full gallop.

I was a bit disappointed in the rest of the film, but the train robbery sequence was so amazing that anything that followed was bound to disappoint. I admit I had a great deal of difficulty understanding the English translation. There are several long conversations like an obligatory conversation around a camp fire. These conversations would be more bearable if I understood what they were talking about. There is a somewhat crucial plot point that can be understood from the visuals alone.

I liked the costume design. Each character had a distinctive look. The assortment of weaponry and modes of transportation is awesome. It was weird seeing someone on a horse taking on soldiers in Rat Patrol-type jeeps. The set decoration and background elements were quite varied including stuff like deep sea diving helmets and camels. There were some obvious CGI visual effects, but I loved the overall look of the film.

I didn’t find the movie humorous, but the bad English translation may have affected that because there were some conversations where facial expressions implied that something funny was up. I also don’t find having a pole stuck up your ass all that funny, but I imagine some of you might. As an example of one of the few bad translations that I understood with the accompanying visuals was “Smile what.” Better translation: “What are you laughing at?”

After I watched this movie, I picked up the Sergio Leone Anthology in order to get some insight from the extra features for the film that this film was based on. I gained a whole new appreciation for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. I’ll probably end up going through Eastwood’s entire back catalogue, and take a look at Sam Peckinpah’s westerns.

I did find it interesting how cross fertilization has been occurring between west and east filmmakers in the western genre. We have John Ford’s westerns influencing Kurosawa’s samurai movies. Western remakes of Kurosawa’s samurai movies became The Magnificent Seven and Fistful of Dollars, and influenced the creation of spaghetti westerns. Now we have a spaghetti western influencing a Korean western set in Asia. Kim Jee-Woon also includes an obvious nod to Fistful of Dollars.

Interestingly, the bad guy in the The Good, the Bad, the Weird plays a vinyl record of Benny Goodman & his Orchestra’s “Moonlight Serenade”. He’s also seen in a movie theatre watching an American film.

Apparently, there is an on-going trend of Asian filmmakers making westerns with other films like Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger, and Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django. I haven’t seen either of these films, yet.

Clint Eastwood claims that the term “spaghetti” western came about because the Japanese had started calling Leone’s films “macaroni” westerns. (I think he was being serious.) It’s interesting to note that spaghetti came to Italy from China. I think Marco Polo gets all the credit for spreading discoveries like this.

In a press conference, Kim Jee-Woon cited Shane as one of the American westerns he liked, but he thought the spaghetti westerns were the coolest because they offer more “cinematographic pleasure” with Leone’s style probably being the greatest factor. For this reason, you might rightly conclude that The Good, the Bad, the Weird is more style than substance. I don’t think Kim was interested in exploring any of the classic themes from westerns. With the Civil War as backdrop for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, there was an anti-war theme in that movie that is missing from this movie.

In comparing the directing style between Kim Jee-Woon and Sergio Leone, I noted that Kim Jee-Woon uses several western conventions that Leone used like shooting hats off heads and shooting from underneath the table. Some of the camera work is reminiscent as well with the camera following behind characters, top-down shots, close-ups, and quick whip pans. As a concession to modern film-making, I think Kim keeps the camera moving more and uses some frenetic hand-held shots. Leone’s habit of building tension is also minimized. There is a Mad Max-style battle in the desert that is unlike anything Leone would stage. (From a Q & A at one festival screening, Kim Jee-Woon said he told his crew working on this scene to watch Ben-Hur and Mad Max for inspiration.)

In the scene where the three protagonists come together, Kim Jee-Woon mimics Leone directly. One thing I was wondering about was where the extreme camera close-up on the eyes originated from. I was used to this camera shot from martial arts films in which quick zooms are also common. I’m guessing that Leone originated the technique on his own as a result of using the Techniscope process which is discussed in the Leone Anthology. The Techniscope process allowed sharp focus on close-ups. Leone started with face close-ups in Fistful of Dollars and ended up with extreme close-ups of only the eyes in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

One thing I wanted to discuss briefly, because it will have no interest to most people, is the lack of a conjunction in the title for this movie. That is, this movie is called The Good, the Bad, the Weird, not The Good, the Bad, and the Weird. What’s up with that? I couldn’t find an explanation probably because no one really cares except for me and a dozen grammarians. I noticed that in some foreign posters for Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that the word “and” is not translated in the foreign language, so the “and” was perhaps added by American marketers. Perhaps that movie in Korea is known as The Good, the Bad, the Ugly so that when they were coming up with a title for their homage, they simply replaced “ugly” with “weird”. And so when an American distributor does release the Korean movie, perhaps it will be called The Good, the Bad and the Weird.

Okay, maybe I’m not being so brief, but stay with me for a few paragraphs longer on the subject of marketing and Sergio Leone’s westerns. (Sean and Jay will probably say that I’m no Pauline Kael, so I should have edited these paragraphs out of my review.) Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars was marketed in America with an extra article in the title. That is, the movie is referred to as A Fistful of Dollars. And there is also some advertising that mistakenly refers to the film as For a Fistful of Dollars!

In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, there is some confusion as to who the “bad” is and who the “ugly” is. Thankfully, the film itself makes it clear with labels written on screen that the “bad” is Lee Van Cleef’s character, and the “ugly” is Eli Wallach’s character. But there is some American advertising that states that Lee Van Cleef’s character is the “ugly” character. Richard Schickel of Time magazine even goofs up on a commentary.

The Korean film industry had a bad year in 2008. Apparently, Korea has “screen quotas” that require theatre owners to show only Korean films for a certain number of days in a year. These quotas were lowered in response to the global economic crisis. The Good, the Bad, the Weird was only one of seven of over a hundred Korean films that made a profit in 2008 even though it is the most expensive South Korean movie produced to date at a cost of $17 million US. In Korea, it was the top grossing film of 2008.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird was shown at various international film festivals last year (2008). It was number seven on a U.S. International Watch List based on votes from over 50 U.S. film executives; the Swedish horror film, Let the Right One In, was number one on the list. It was released in South Korea on DVD on December 12th, 2008. I couldn’t find a North American release date for the movie on DVD although IFC has supposedly picked up the distribution rights.

  • Sounds like a cool flick, though I am not much for non-english (or danish) language films. For once I’m hoping for a dubbed version to get released, because, in all honesty, I don’t like how the asian languages sound, for some reason it annoys me.

  • joe

    I heard about this one a while ago, but didn’t realize the big name director and actors in it. I’m a fan of Song Kang-ho. Sounds alright, so I’ll see it if I can. Though I didn’t care for A Bittersweet Life that much. It was just ok, IMO.

  • Fatbologna

    @ Kasper F. Nielsen: I’m really hoping that you’re joking..? That’s a pretty ignorant response in general. Especially considering the guy who wrote the friggin’ review is ASIAN! What the hell, man? I’ve never understood people that will take a dubbed flick over the original language w/subs. It removes all the nuances of the acting! You’re also depriving yourself of a wealth of really great film making. From Kinji Fukasaku, Seijun Suzuki, the Shaw Bros. and the “Pink” and “Chanabrra” genres all the way up to Takashi Miike, Beat Takeshi, Chan-Wook Park and MANY more so numerous it would boggle your little mind!

    Ah well, to each his own, I guess. I personally find that people from the Netherlands come off like pretentious TWATS, so….!(j/k I’m from Swedish stock myself, actually…just makin’a point).

  • Kasper, ha ha. I didn’t take offense to either your “I am not much for non-english (or danish) language films” or your “I don’t like how the asian languages sound, for some reason it annoys me” comments. I’m guessing you don’t like black and white films either?

    I hope I don’t offend my own race, but I too find Asian languages somewhat “annoying.” It’s very “harsh” sounding as is the distinctive sound of traditional Asian opera music. Chinese is not the language of love.

    Fatbologna, your Swedish DNA is showing, because you’re the one that comes off pretentious. Ha ha. It’s okay to be pretentious if you like living alone. I’ve learned that.

    joe, I haven’t seen A Bittersweet Life, yet. I should check it out.

  • Good that you don’t take offense, as it wasn’t meant to offend, I just don’t care much for reading subtitles nor asian films. Not that I don’t like asian people or something, but watching a movie in ex. chinese just takes away some of the enjoyment for me.

    And you are spot on, black/white films is absolutely horrid, as is most films pre-70’s with all the theater-acting, urgh. I am bit picky, I guess?

    And Fatbologna, since when has Denmark been a part of the Netherlands? :)

    There’s a lot of languages I don’t much care for, ignorant or not. That’s just how it is.

  • iofu

    Nice review. :)

    I just caught most of this movie on ppmate and the subtitles were pretty bad.

    I think that dubbing would completely ruin this film, but I do personally think dubbing ruins most movies. I would rather take a guess at what the humor is, for example, than to have it rewritten to try and make it funny for whatever the target culture is.

    I’ll be looking for a better subtitled version of this film before I watch it again.

  • iofu, thx for the comment. Forgive my ignorance, but what is “ppmate”?

  • eigerfall

    Actually the language in this movie is Korean, which is a better sounding language and ranked higher than whatever they mumble over there in danish land. Thumbs down on danishes(I prefer donuts)but thumbs up on danish porn :)

  • Kamen Liew

    Jay should watch The Good The Bad The Weird.

    He’s mentioned before that he appreciates fine action set-pieces, and this film delivers in spades. Heaps of gunplay, sweeping camera shots, real stunts without CGI and some of the best shoot-outs I have seen in a long time.

    The 20-minute chase sequence at the end of the film will wet any action-movie-loving-fans who feel like Hollywood isn’t delivering with their big budget blockbuster movies. It’s worth the price of admission alone.

  • Kamen Liew

    Wet their appetites I mean to say ha ha

  • I recently picked up the blu ray and it’s on my ‘must watch’ list Kamen.

  • Kamen, not to pick on your grammar, but the word you want to use is actually spelled “whet”.

    I recently read a mainstream reviewer give this film high marks. I’m hoping to rewatch this sometime with proper sub-titles.

    I also recently watched an earlier film from this director, “A Bittersweet Life.” Contrary to joe’s opinion, I loved it. The motivations for the main character’s actions weren’t clear, but I thought the film was otherwise absorbing.

  • Primal

    Even though I loved The Expendables, The Good, The Bad, and The Weird is easily the best action film I’ve seen this year so far. Simply brilliant.

  • Kamen Liew

    It’s currently 83% on RT. That says something.

    (P.S – Thanks for correcting my grammar Reed. I can’t spell to save my life – giving Asians a bad name)