If you’re shopping for quality and disturbing horror, you can safely turn to the Asian filmmaking community — Korea, Thailand, China, or Japan. But a new genre has come rallying to the herd: the Eastern Western. Maybe calling Stephen Chow’s delightful Kung Fu Hustle a western would be stretch, but you’d be hard pressed to find something more ludicrous and discombobulating than Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django. Yet, for sheer enjoyment and absolute popcorn Leone-boners, you need turn no further than Korean filmmaker Ji-woon Kim’s fantastic The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Allegedly the most expensive Korean film made to date, it recalls everything that made Clint Eastwood’s squinty-eyed desperados balls to the wall awesome, infused with a Tarantino-esque mania and penchant for bloodshed, and adds the humorous light action of the original Indiana Jones series. If you’re a bullet counter or someone who gets angry at obvious wirework, then go watch Terence Malick. But if you don’t mind cowboys flying around like swashbucklers and firing blind over their shoulders, check this out. The only misfire comes from an overly busy, muddled, and convoluted plot, and my frequent complaint with Asian cinema, stagnating plodding timing. However, even when you feel yourself kind of slipping out of the story, Kim draws you back in with what is simply put just a goddamn pleasure to watch.
A train takes off across 1930s Manchuria carrying a government official and a map to buried treasure that can save the country. The Bad, Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee - Storm Shadow, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra), a hitman decked out like post-Purple Rain Prince — slicked over one eye emo hair, a pencil-thin moustachio, a tuxedo jacket with tails, and guyliner — hijacks the train with goons to steal the map. The only problem is The Weird, Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song, the priest in Thirst), a goofball dolled up like a sherpa Amelia Earhart, is already robbing the train and unwittingly swipes the treasure map. Further gumming up the works is a bounty hunter — The Good, Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung) — a hybrid of Mifune and Roland from The Dark Tower series. Tae-goo flees to his cohort waiting with a motorcycle and sidecar, which draws the attention of a pseudo-Mongol-looking gang. And from there, the film goes triangle: Chang-yi wants to snatch the map and kill Tae-goo, the only gunslinger able to best him; Do-won wants to collect the bounty on Chang-yi and then Tae-goo; and Tae-goo wants the treasure. It goes full bronco across opium dens, through grandmothers, over the entire Japanese/Manchurian army, and ends somewhere with a Cannonball run across the Russian/Korean/Manchurian border near Mongolia in a battle featuring cavalry, machine-gunning military, mortar rounds, horses getting hit with jeeps, and ending in an inevitable truel.
The cinematography is astounding, with shots I haven’t seen since Scorcese was throwing down old school gangster shit. There are so many effortless tracking shots following gunfighters as they escape from exploding doorways, without the ridiculous amount of bullet cutting and jittery camera effects that have plagued recent action films. There’s a deft blend of hilarity and headsplosions, a nice ramped-up violence quotient without losing any of the kid-like glee. It’s got the same popcorn joy of The Mummy or National Treasure without ever once feeling boiled for meek consumption. The last time I had this much fun with a western was Sam Raimi’s fucking spectacular The Quick and the Dead.
I was surprised to see this kind of film out of Ji-woon Kim, who’s only other major contribution — that I’m aware of at least — was A Tale of Two Sisters, which became the drudgerous The Uninvited when it got repackaged for American shores. Koreans are fucked up filmmakers, and yet they’ve got a sinister sense of humor, so you get a nice level of violence pumped up by some funny fucking shit. If I knew more about Korean cinema, I would probably be going insane with the amount of talent they scraped together. Actors from Chan-wook Park’s Vengenance trilogy and The Host are all over this. Seeing Storm Shadow going all Fall Out Boy was a hoot, plus he played a glam-rock villain in the vein of Bowie’s Goblin King. But I adored Song Kang-ho, who I’m used to watching play sort of brooding and melancholy parts. He was able to just go berserker playing a total doofus while maintaining a decent enough gravitas to make you buy Tae-goo as a legendary gunslinger.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird really just makes you realize why you liked watching popcorn action in the first place. The action is kind of ridiculous — at one point Do-won’s careening around a village on rope pulleys like motherfucking Sloth in Goonies, firing one handed with a Winchester. And sure, sometimes, Kim telegraphs a few punches. Everyone knows when a sniper stares through a scope at a good guy, he’s inevitably going to get popped through the eye. It’s an unspoken rule. But sometimes, you just want comfort food. And this is a big fucking Korean BBQ platter of comfort food cinema. Keep an eye on Korea, because they’ve been batting it out of the park as of late with the efforts that make it to our shores.