Sunday, May 15, 2011

Shootout at High Noon: The Good, the Bad, the Weird

Joheunnom Nabbeunnom Isanghannom/The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008, Kim Jee-woon)

This is the second film in a row in our Shootout at High Noon marathon that allocates more energy to action and style than anything else. What is curious about this entry is the director behind the project, South Korean wonder Kim Jee-woon. Not that there should be any doubts with regards to his talents or accomplishments for I think anyone who has seen some of his work knows perfectly well what the man can accomplish. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is on another scale altogether though with a variation of action stunts that he had not exactly tackled up until then, or since. Kim’s popularity as a director, both at home and abroad was due mostly to his proficiency in smaller genre filmmaking, with the horror classic A Tale of Two Sisters and the mob film A Bittersweet Life. With the film under review today, Kim stretches his creative wings as far as he can in bringing a tremendous sense of thrills and scale to the old west.

Almost everyone who has seen The Good, the Bad, the Weird has heaped virtually suffocating praise onto it. Genius, stupendous fun, endlessly entertaining, etcetera, etcetera. It makes watching a film like this (for the record, the viewing that occurred yesterday was my second over the past 6 months or so) somewhat tricky. What if the picture fails to live up to the expectations and, if such is the case, how does one explain oneself to the masses who most likely will not understand where you are coming from? To get the essential point out of the way, the one anyone reading this article wants to learn straight up: The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a very good movie, a borderline excellent movie, one that does certain specific things so remarkably well that it covers up for the couple flaws. Flaws which are not disastrous, far from it in fact, but they do exist and I am a little bit surprised no one with whom I have discussed the film ever brought them up.

Treading on some familiar territory (the very title itself should be something of a giveaway), Kim’s film sees the long and difficult journey of three characters, a vicious outlaw named Park Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun), another vile but slightly more comical villain named Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho) and a bounty hunter that goes by the name of Park Do-won (Jung Woo-sung) as they walk, run and ride across 1930s Manchuria for different purposes. For Do-woon, the reason is fairly simple: there is a mouth-watering bounty on Chan-yi’s head. In the case of Chang-yi and Tae-goo, there missions are interconnected to a certain extent. The latter has laid his hands on a coveted map, whom his friend Man-gil (Ryu Seung-su) explains will lead him to a bountiful treasure, while the former is only after the map because he was hired to do so, but also because his past is intertwined with that of Tae-goo and a score must be settled once and for all.

Expecting the unexpected from South Koreans directors has become the norm (which not at all means that they have become boring, only that one instinctively knows one will get something different), and in that regard Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird fits the bill. Not many westerns have the scale that this movie has, nor do many westerns seem this fully intent on filling the screen with as much action as this one either. The most evident examples of the film’s inventiveness are in the variety of ‘stuff’ Kim tosses onto the screen. The movie is not limited to a series of gun fights with flamboyant style (like the previous entry in the marathon), but offers any sort of action scene that could have taken place in the old west…of course with flamboyant style. A train robbery that, a foot chase through an inn, a rainy gun fight in a market, an extended and surprisingly elaborate chase sequence involving army trucks, a two-passenger motor bike and horses, and finally a true stand-off in the tradition of western films of yore. Kim also recognizes that the ante need be continuously raised, and therefore each successive sequence appears more grandiose as the one before it. When referring to the ‘style’ dictating the action, it can be analyzed in more ways than one, the first and most evident being the tone. There is a nice sense of adventure to the proceedings, with some pretty wild things happening from time to time, such as Do-woon swinging from a high rope with his trusty shotgun in the middle of a market to dispatch Chinese bandits, and the Japanese launching bombs onto an entire fleet of horse riding Korean and Chinese criminals as they chase Tae-goo. Kim does not relinquish his more violent tendencies just for the sake of crowd pleasing. While not nearly as grisly as, say, I Saw the Devil, The Good, the Bad, the Weird does not limit itself to family healthy fun. There are some pretty brutal deaths, although some are played for comedic effect. It is an interesting middle ground that so frequently does not pay off in the landscape of Hollywood PG13 projects but works rather well here. 

Where the direction deserves special mention is in the editing. With so much happening in each individual action sequence and in each individual moment of each action sequence, never does Kim seem overwhelmed at the prospect of having the audience see everything through the prism of the film frame. Frequently, the result of frenetic pacing and over-dosage of visual information is the poor man’s Paul Greengrass style. In the case of this movie, while this author did not literally spend time counting the seconds between each cut, it felt pretty evident that Kim was choosing his edits carefully and judiciously. The camera would linger on something just a little bit longer than what audiences have come to expect. The pan would be a couple seconds longer, the reaction shot would be a couple seconds longer, the static shot showcasing something completely ridiculous (such as Tae-goo dancing around to avoid firing bullets) would last a couple of seconds longer, etc.  For these reasons, from its variety to the technical execution, the action is the film’s strongest element.

Two solid leads carry much of the film as well. Song Kang-ho is, for all intents and purposes, the real star of the show here. His determined, mischievous but a little bit off-kilter bandit character is never out of funny things to say, silly plans to escape danger, and near-perverted ways to vanquish his foes. Song is an actor with excellent comedic timing and oh so good at playing, for the lack of a better term, ‘annoyed.’ The glares, the sighs, the anger, that laugh of his...When he is on screen, the movie is a true pleasure to watch. The same can be said for now international star Lee Byung-hun, who portrays the most villainous member of the trio, Park Chyang-yi. A thought which became difficult to erase from my head and perplexed me was how his performance was similar, not identical, but similar to Johnny Depp interpretation of the Jack Sparrow character in those Pirates films. The perplexing aspect to that notion was that Lee is instantly watchable as the obsessive Park, yet Depp was instantly annoying as Sparrow. At Between the Seats we strive to provide opinions which are backed up with reasons at all times, but this may be an exception to the rule. I simply thought Lee was really cool, even though his character reminded me of another, more famous character which I cannot stand. 

Not much time will be spent on the aspects which did not live up to expectations, but it would only be fair to at least touch on them briefly. The most glaring weakness afflicting the film is the character whose handle name appear first in the title: the Good. Jung Woon-sung is a fine actor who has made a name for himself in South Korean cinema, and it should be noted that he is good at playing the confident, loner of a bounty hunter. There is a sense of ease about him that makes for an interesting juxtaposition against the other two leads. That being said, there simply is not much to him. No back story is required nor was one asked for, but at the end of the film, it felt much, much more like Lee and Song’s story. Jung is not even in it very much, in addition to the fact that Kim’s script creates a much more fascinating story for the other two characters anyways. He even links them up to an event from their shared past. Jung, while perfectly fine, never seems as if he is as essential as the other two actors are. Something else that came under notice while watching the film was that it suffered through a couple of scenes that did not feel the least bit necessary, ironically one involving Jung’s character (the one in which Park and Yoon reveal what their dreams are), which sort of contradicts the argument made just above, but whatever, this is my review. The movie has a running length of 2 hours and 10, and, while very entertaining, would have been a masterpiece if 10 or 15 minutes had been cut out. Bill will most likely call me out on this criticism, so specifics details shall not be revealed so as to avoid spoilers in the official review, but next week during rebuttals will be an opportunity to explore them more fully.

That about does it for this The Good, the Bad, the Weird review. Kim Jee-woon’s western exercise pays off handsomely. A sense of terrific fun and adventure carry the film, as do a couple of curiously fascinating characters. The director is most probably more cunning and daring when venturing into horrors and thrillers, but his version of the western is one anybody who enjoys the genre should seek out.

Done here? Find out if Bill ever got his hands that treasure at his Movie Emporium.


Anonymous said...

I agree with what you liked about the film, and as should be obvious from my review I disagree with the two flaws that you brought up. I'll save my thoughts for the rebuttal, but good work my friend.

Unknown said...

What happened to Man-gil after the Ghost Market fight? Judging by his injuries it looked like he wasn't going to make it.