Treasure! It is the simplest of macguffins to get a bunch of characters going. And this motivation speaks volumes for one of South Korea’s most explosive movies, which is not deep, heavy or all that convoluted. Instead it is almost all about having fun and enjoying the ride. With a tip of the hat to those Western classics we all love.
The title of the film gives it away: The Good, The Bad, The Weird drinks deeply from the well of Sergio Leone’s timeless classic. It also follows the threads of three characters – a bounty hunter (good), a bandit (bad) and a thief (weird) – as they fight over a map that supposedly shows the way to buried treasure. But this is not a remake. Instead Kim Jee-woon’s movie is a breathtaking homage to numerous influences. Leone’s influence is obvious in many elements, but the the DNA of other movies are also clear to be seen. For example, the climatic horse chase in the third act immediately makes you think of the desert chase scene in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
The film is set in 1930s Manchuria, a desert region in China located north of the Korean peninsula. It is a vibrant part of the world, not the least because it was recently occupied by the Japanese military, and all sorts of strange characters run around its wastes. At the start a quick series of scenes establish two of the characters: Park Chang-yi is a bandit hired to recover the treasure map from a Japanese banker travelling on a train, while Park Do-won is the skilled bounty hunter tasked with capturing Chang-yi while also picking up the map. But everyone’s plans fall to pieces when a thief, Yoon Tae-goo stumbles upon the map while robbing the train. A manhunt for Tae-goo begins, including both the other characters as well as a bunch of nomad tribesmen. But soon the Weird and the Good team up to find the treasure before the Bad reaches them.
To explain the worth of seeing this movie, a parallel can be drawn with the the recent Lone Ranger. Both are bombastic epics set on a long runtime and chewing the bit of a Wild West theme while also nodding towards action-adventure odysseys. But whereas Lone Ranger opted to overstuff its motivations, The Good, The Bad, The Weird has no such compulsions. Story is a sideline and instead the real reason to watch are the three characters. While the Good plays it straight and focuses on action, the Bad is a great villain full of malice and psychopathy, while the Weird infuses the movie’s happy-go-lucky undercurrent. It’s a film that refuses to take itself too seriously, but never goes into ridiculous comedy. There are some slapstick moments, but that’s to be expected from Asian humour.
Somehow the three archetypes go beyond their moulds and prop up a movie that is largely explosive action and threadbare narrative. South Korea has no want for movies to show off its prominence, but The Good, The Bad, The Weird still manages to stand up as one of its most impressive. Why this has not been optioned for a Western remake is anyone’s guess. Probably because Hollywood executives don’t like seeing someone else totally beat them at their game.
Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.
Last Updated: March 23, 2015