By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Ji-woon Kim’s “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is set in the 1930s, with a criminal boss giving a dangerous assignment to a hired gun. If you’ve watched a fair number of movies, you might get the feeling that you’ve seen this before.
And you probably have. For all of its energy and dashing action, the film never rises above the sum of its stacked parts. Director Kim wants the look and feel of the Spaghetti Western films, such as the ones done by Sergio Leone. But Kim doesn’t seem to understand the restraint and streamlining in the making of those films. He settles for commotion, noise, and a cursory glance at some potentially fascinating real-life Asian history.
Across from the boss sits the sinister and deadly Chang-yi Park, who is “the Bad” (played by Byung-hun Lee).
His task is to rob a train and bring a treasure map back to his employer. Unfortunately for Chang-yi, a fanciful bandit named Tae-goo Yoon, “the Weird” (Kang-ho Song), gets ahold of the map first. Last on the scene is bounty hunter Do-won Park, “the Good” (Woo-sung Jung).
The Good wants the Bad’s head on a platter. The Bad wants the map. The Weird also wants the map and whatever it leads to. The three men spend the movie chasing each other around Manchuria.
Manchuria in the 1930s was actually a fascinating and dangerous place. The Japanese, who took over in 1931, separated it out from the rest of China. This was done in large part to insulate Japan’s homeland from the encroaching Soviet Union. The Rising Sun government evicted native farmers by the hundreds, allowing its own people to run that land. The Japanese, and later the People’s Republic of China, both fought the Soviets over the borders of Manchuria.
Ji-woon Lee doesn’t seem interested in the history beyond window dressing. His characters dash through the film in such unrestrained frenzy that soon you can’t tell, or much care, whose side anybody’s on.
Ultimately, everyone’s looking out for themselves. That’s easy cynicism. But it ignores the many ideological and cultural disputes in the region.
Visual style counts for a lot in the film. As the Bad, Byung-hun Lee never loses his three-piece, pinstriped suit, open-necked shirt, and immaculately slicked hair — not even when riding a fast horse through a dusty desert. As the Weird, Kang-ho Song sports a wide variety of odd headgear throughout the film, though his deadlier trademark is the two automatic pistols he keeps within reach, even as he sleeps. As the Good, Woo-sung Jung looks sedate in comparison, although his soft-spoken demeanor and wide-brimmed hat are reminiscent of Clint Eastwood from Leone’s original Spaghetti Westerns.
Individual personalities, however, keep dissolving due to Lee’s huge battle sequences. You wouldn’t imagine that a huge shootout/chase combination involving the Japanese Army would leave you cold and confused, but it does. The cross-cutting camera work, seemingly accomplished by an industrial blender, follows no through-line, no buildup. One explosion follows another. One hailstorm of bullets follows another. Nameless, characterless extras fall, trailing blood.
A better appreciation for the historical background would have gone a long way towards improving “The Good, the Bad, the Weird.” As it is, the film sacrifices detail and depth for shallow flash. If you want Manchurian history, consult a good book. If you want high Western spaghetti drama, stick to Leone. “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” comes across like day-old dried-out noodles. ♦
“The Good, the Bad, the Weird” opens Friday, May 7 at Seattle’s Varsity Theatre, 4329 University Way N.E. Call 206-781-5755 for prices and show times.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.