Action Fest 2010: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD Review

X

[X's review of Kim Jee-woon's The Good, The Bad And The Weird originally appeared all the way back in September of 2008 but with the film now screening at Action Fest in advance of its US release we hereby present it to you again.]

If there ever was an Asian equivalent to an historical paella, Manchuria was certainly it. Today the Chinese government has changed the concept completely, turning millennia of history into a mere regional moniker that conveniently cancels the problem -- dongbeiren (东北人), the people from Northeast. Yet, looking at that ever changing beast called history through the modern concept of territory and state is always reductive, almost criminally so. Whatever Chinese 东北工程 (Northeast Project) "scholars," Manchu nostalgics and Korean ultra-nationalists think, what is now known as Manchuria always belonged to the entire Asian continent's history, as the rainbow making up the area's ethnic fabric involved several of what we now call countries, and their rich past. Take a look at the dusty pages of history, and for instance you'll find this place was called Manchukuo in the 1930s, Japan's puppet state created as a buffer zone between them and Russia's advance. Go back a good three centuries, and you'll find out it was in Manchuria that the Aisin Gioro ("golden clan" in Manchu language) led by Nurhaci laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Qing dynasty. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, as this chaotic cushion at the center of Northeast Asia passed hands more than just a few times.

It was once ruled by Japanese (Manchukuo); Manchu (Qing dynasty) and their ancestors the Jurchen (Jin Dynasty); Han Chinese (Ming dynasty and all their previous incarnations and ancestors); Mongol (Yuan dynasty); Khitan (Liao dynasty); Xianbei (Northern Wei); what would become the building blocks of today's Koreans (Gojoseon, Buyeo, Goguryeo, Balhae), and going past centralized states it also became home for countless other minorities. It was like the Asian OK Corral: someone came and acted as the fastest gun in the Northeast for a while, then other gunslingers would join in on the fun, and it would become a good old mess of diplomatic shootouts and robberies. Yee-hah! Strangely enough, Chinese historical dramas don't quite take the opportunity to put the spotlight on this issue as often as they could. Even when great conquerors are highlighted, such as Han Wu or Tang Taizong, those dramas tend to adopt the "ten foot pole" approach to this strategically crucial region. The most striking recent case would be that of 薛仁贵传奇 (The Legendary Warrior), completely dedicated to general Xue Rengui, someone who made a name for himself fighting with Goguryeo.

How the drama copes with the issue? They completely avoid the matter and create the fantasy state of 渤遼 (Balyo/Boliao), a healthy mix of Balhae (born out of Goguryeo's ashes) and Liao, the Khitan. Of course, more than the deadly serious and generally quite accurate epic dramas shown on CCTV, this was one of those 勵志劇 (lizhiju, roughly "encouraging spirit" drama), success stories with protagonists getting hit by an impressive array of obstacles, and triumphing at the end. On the other hand, Korean sageuk are even a little too in love with diplomatic issues discussed over tea and cookies on the Manchurian afternoon party table. Be it a slightly nationalistic reaction to the Northeast Project, or just simply the desire to do something not set in the Joseon dynasty, most of the sageuk we've seen in recent years have dealt in some way or form with the former Manchurian territory. Monster hit 주몽 (Jumong) and currently airing 바람의 나라 (Kingdom of the Wind) have their Jolbon and Liaodong, 연개소문 (Yeon Gaesomun) was like a love letter to proto-fascist ultra-right wing grandpas and their beloved two war heroes (Eulji Mundeok and Yeon Gaesomun), with most of their impressive wins coming exactly from that famous soil. Both 태왕사신기 (The Legend) and even the period drama 서울1945 (Seoul 1945) had their brief encounters up there in the plains, while 대조영 (Dae Jo Young) was almost forced to speak on the matter.

But Manchukuo always had a different vibe, something an historical drama told from a single country's perspective wouldn't be able to convey. The reason why this region was constantly unstable always came down to the fact the different ethnic groups coming into command and later expanding their territory would rarely try to rule by integration, so whenever trouble would arise, old ethnic fervor would come to the surface once again. The Qing weren't successful in creating a completely homogeneous empire, and their mistake carried over until the shit started hitting the fan, as many minorities (ethnic or political) bargained with the bigger powers and jumped off the ship (or were forced to anyway). First the Russian Empire, then the Japanese cut off territorial integrity limb by limb, developments ironically connected to the building of two important railways (the Chinese Eastern and South Manchurian Railways). Outer Manchuria was in Russian hands, and after warlord Zhang Zuolin was assassinated, Inner Manchuria became the Japanese Emperor's new toy, its new ruling mantra 五族協和 (five ethnic groups living in harmony) only working in theory, as Japanese, Han Chinese, Manchus, Koreans and Mongolians weren't exactly in good terms in this almost space opera-like "every man's land."

Really, think about it. Two of the biggest world powers next door. Five major ethnic groups (add Russians and other minorities, and you'd probably reach a dozen) fighting off for survival in a buffer zone with immense plains drawing monumental landscapes before you. Smells like "Far East" all right, and I'm not just talking about geographical matters. But did films really take advantage of such a premise? Sure enough, the Japanese quickly established their own propaganda machine there with the 満洲映画協会 (Manchukuo Film Association), mostly producing documentaries and "educational" films. One of the most fascinating stories from this period was that of actress and singer Li Xianlan, a Japanese-Manchurian film star-cum-singer who later went on to risk her head courtesy of the Kuomintang, and was finally repatriated back to Japan, where she started a very successful political career with her birth name, Yamaguchi Yoshiko. I'm sure there's countless stories like that, and there's even some past Korean presidents who, well, enjoyed their convenient stay in Manchukuo, although we shall name no names, lest Mrs. Park gets grumpy. Yet, strange enough, when I think of Manchuria and cinema, the Korean golden age of the 60s comes to mind. Not just Manchuria-themed films. Manchu westerns!

If the 60s make you think of the studio system's decline, big ass historical epics a la Cleopatra and the momentous advent of spaghetti western, Chungmuro was a slightly different beast. Sure, you look at the 150 to 200 film output per year, the impressive commercial success the industry went through, and you'd be inclined to think it was paradise on Earth. Eh eh. Not really. With the Yushin shoving commercialism down film people's throat, the few remaining film companies were forced to xerox out copies of the same successful formula every few weeks to stay afloat and get their import quotas. Nobody ever bothered to do so, but really sit and take a serious look at those numbers, and you'll see how many films of dubious quality, spin-offs, sequels, half-assed series "borrowing" a character and/or story and similar shenanigans you'll find. Echoes of the Shin Sang-Ok, Yoo Hyun-Mok, Kim Ki-Young and Kim Soo-Yong of the world resonated anyway, standing out even in an environment which asked directors to make 4-5 films a year. But 70%, perhaps even more of that output was cheap, quick pap thrown out of the oven still hot, eaten up by the viewers and then thrown into the trash bins of oblivion. It happened in Hong Kong during the Shaw Brothers era and the early 90s; it's been Hollywood' leit motif for the last 30 years, why not Korea.

Strange, then, that you'd find peculiar genre choices among the torrents of melodramas and endless copycats. One rather peculiar case was the Manchu western. Now, more than genre one should say theme, because the mood could wildly vary from the very sober and bleak to the hilariously silly, and just telling a story set in "Manchuria" was the link. Think of Im Won-Shik's delirious 영 (Yeong), for instance. Im was a pretty prolific director back then, mostly focusing on action films and historical dramas - like the quite watchable 大暴君 (The Goddess of Mercy) or 의적 홍길동 (Hong Gil-Dong). But this, oh boy. Music directly lifted off of Django (well, it's not like it wasn't ripping off the story to begin with)? Check. His Evilness Hur Jang-Gang dressed up as a bald, ruthless villain, complete with rubber splotch covering his hair, looking like it was held up by spit and chewing gum? Check. The great Dokko Seong playing the hero straight as humanly possible, as if he was oozing the thespian vapors of The Bard? Most definitely check. A lot of those films will feel like complete comedy today, but it's not just unintentional laughter that makes up their legacies. You'll also feel a certain energetic bravado, the smell of fun, not only what you feel watching the film, but what transpires from the actors' eyes. You can sense they were having a blast shooting those flicks. Think like "It's not Manchuria, it's actually Jeolla Province and they covered the horizon with a matte; it's August and I'm wearing a purple fustian jacket, because the cold breeze of the Manchurian plains is truculently cold. But I can handle it, dammit, I'm a man. I'm Shanghai Park!"

Shanghai Park, of course, was none other than Park No-Shik, perhaps the biggest action star of the 70s, and also father of actor Park Jun-Gyu (it's peculiar his most frequent co-star, Hur Jang-Gang, was himself father of an actor, Hur Joon-Ho). He found fame thanks to his recurring role as "Yongpal," but Shanghai Park was another very popular character. Why Shanghai, of all nicknames, is easy enough to explain. During the 70s, the rapid industrialization of the country started making its mark through commercial films as well (it often was thinly veiled propaganda, obviously), with films expanding in scope, shooting on location overseas and engaging in co-productions. During those days, macho action was the rage, and stars would often attach flashy monikers to their names to add flavor (Shanghai Park was also a famous gangster active during Kim Doo-Han's days, so that added to the "prestige" even more). There's quite a few action flicks starring Park as Shanghai, but the most interesting of them all was exactly a Manchu western, Im Kwon-Taek's 애꾸눈 박 (One-eyed Park).

Veteran director Im often commented his early films up to... say, 1973's 증언 (Testimony), weren't exactly high art, that he just took a paycheck and made what producers wanted. I haven't seen nearly enough of his early work to have any opinion on the matter, but the few highlights I could see were far from the artless commercial pap he referred to. One-eyed Park is one of those exceptions. It was a bit all over the place, with romance reminding of Ryu Seung-Wan's parody in the 2000 version of 다찌마와 리 (Dachimawa Lee), some more dramatic moments in the middle as Shanghai Park falls for Lady booze and its obscure charms after a tragic mistake, and later turning into full throttle "I'm a man's man bent on revenge and dubbed by a tenor, so I have nothing to fear except bad fashion" mode for the finale. But it had so much energy, with even the quietest moment exploding with ironic bravado and wonderful kitsch. Really brilliant stuff. Where are Celestial-like deals when you need them?

A lot of those Manchu westerns from the late 60s-early 70s have that quality. Insanely over the top, the themes were more or less the same (a sort of bizarro world connection between machismo and trying to regain national identity), and even the casts were filled to the brim with the usual suspects. Watch one and you could tell where half the others would go. It was quite a short lived genre, and pretty much disappeared after the 80s, but it's still has an unique charm, even a few decades later. Perhaps the most entertaining of all those machismo kitsch Manchu westerns was Lee Man-Hee's 쇠사슬을 끊어라 (Break Up the Chain). There is no doubt the other Manchuria-themed film Lee shot in 1966, 만추 (Manchu), is worlds better than this, in no small part because it's actually a serious drama first and foremost. Some of you might remember Lee as the director of early 60s masterpiece 돌아오지 않는 해병 (The Marines who Never Returned), one of the few films of his with a DVD release. But he's actually one of the best directors of the 60s and 70s, before his untimely death in 1975.

삼포 가는 길 (The Way to Sampo), his last film, and 마의 계단 (The Evil Stairs) stand out in particular. The latter, a sublime psychological thriller just as wicked as Kim Ki-Young's 하녀 (The Housemaid); the former, one of the top road movies of the 70s. He's done a bit of everything, from the Hitchcock-ish 다이얼 112를 돌려라 (Dial 112) to anti-communist films, from action to thriller. In that sense, Break Up the Chain might feel a little like a fish out of water, a sort of 싸이보그지만 괜찮아 (I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK) next to Park Chan-Wook revenge trilogy, but it's actually quite an accomplished mix of genre sensibilities all wrapped into a glorious B-movie like aura. Action star Jang Dong-Hwi, legendary villain specialist Hur Jang-Gang, and Korea's Gregory Peck Nam Gung-Won made up the impressive cast, which feels like a cross between a spaghetti western and a 70s Bond flick, complete with action scenes done on skis. Kim Jee-woon said all he needed to watch were 20 minutes of this, before he literally ran out of the door. Was it that bad? No, he just had to run home and start writing a script. After all, when Hur Jang-Gang comes out in his zebra-patterned jacket, red scarf and 40s gangster hat, nobody could ever resist the temptation. Let's make a movie!

The reason why Koreans in the 60s and 70s moved out to Manchuria (figuratively) for their action films was certainly because of their recent past and for issues of national identity, but there might have been simpler, much more "primal" reasons why they ventured out to the plains. Director Kim hinted to this in a recent interview as well: when you live in one of the most densely populated countries on Earth (currently South Korea is ranked 21st), when even mountains are filled with villages and you'll find people all over the place, you never get that sense of nature's creation, the romantic and silent beauty of a desert, or places like Death Valley. It's as if everything, even the parks, felt artificial. Of course you can go to Gangwon province and feel its "power," as Hong Sang-Soo once showed, but Manchuria was another story. Then again, today's Manchuria is not exactly the place it was in the 30s, as it's rapidly turning into a sort of Northeast Asia's answer to Abu Dhabi, rapid industrialization et al. Kim and crew had to move to Dunhuang, Gansu Province. This is actually an incredibly fascinating place with a history so rich it would deserve its own mention in a future DVD of this film.

Dunhuang was actually the trait d'union between the Northern and Southern portion of the Silk Road, a sort of oasis in the (Kumtag) desert becoming a cultural mecca, a must-see spot for many pilgrims, with the magnificent Mohao Caves being the highlight. Chen Jialin recently produced an historical drama on the subject, 大敦煌 (The Great Dunhuang) set in three different periods (Northern Song, Qing dynasty and the Republic era) and highlighting the struggle of Buddhist monks who protected the caves (Song version), the Qing's approach to the matter of foreigners stealing the relics (Qing), and finally a couple trying to give new luster to this once great place (Republic). It's a sort of old-style epic historical drama meets Raiders of the Lost Ark-like thrills, but I digress. The crew spent months shooting there, with 40 degrees Celsius as the norm, and the kind of climate that would remind of 무사 (Musa: The Warrior)'s insane shoot (wondering why they don't even bother anymore shooting that kind of film? There you go).

And that's the idea, really. The fantasy about westerns many Korean male directors feel might come down to something ingrained in Korean men's psyche, a sort of primal gene from their Balhae and Goguryeo progenitors, who roamed those plains riding horses back in the days. It has nothing to do with the desire to reclaim lost territory (as in nostalgia for Manchuria->nostalgia for Goguryeo), although that's certainly one of the reasons many older viewers tend to be very interested in sageuk pushing exactly those buttons, like Yeon Gaesomun and Dae Jo Young. No, it's in some ways the same thought process of those 4 million people who went out of their way to watch 집으로 (The Way Home). The unadulterated countryside and its oh-so-nice inhabitants, cows and people. Unsophisticated yes, but with a heart full of gold. It's more or less the same "high density" syndrome of people living in a crazy metropolis like Seoul. You want to escape, to just stare at an immense pile of nothing, run in the desert for miles with your horse, then stare at the horizon for hours, as it paints some of the best work of arts nature knows. It's never really been about copying Hollywood, I always saw it as something much deeper than simple genre sensibilities or macho fantasies about cool men riding horses into the horizon.

The only reason why we had to wait so long to see that, then, is because the premise wasn't there. In the 70s, producers would just head to Jeolla Province or somewhere without the smell of asphalt, put up a matte or two and shoot, but you can't just do that in a modern film industry. 좋은 놈, 나쁜놈, 이상한놈 (The Good, The Bad, and The Weird) certainly reminds of Break Up the Chain, it borrowed title and some basic character structure from Sergio Leone's Il Buono, Il Brutto, e Il Cattivo (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly). Yes, the film does have some of the ironic punch of Lee Man-Hee's camp classic, and some action pieces remind of Leone's masterpiece. But I'd stop there, really. If anything, if I had to describe this film to anyone, I'd say it's like 警察故事 (Police Story) with spurs and a cowboy hat. Surprised? You shouldn't.

Jackie Chan often commented he built the film in a pretty simple way: think up a few big action scenes, then use a few post-it's of script to loosely tie them together. It's not the best of ideas if you want interesting characters, or pure cinematic flow, but it's the perfect way to create a rollercoaster of a film. You have your exhilarating action sequence, you take a breather with filler, and then get ready to start again. It made a glorified stuntman (if judged by his acting skills) become one of the most beloved and successful actors of all time, why not. The Good.. works the same way. Forget this is Manchuria, it could be any other place that can accommodate horse riding scenes and shootouts, the only reason it plays as background comes down to the fact different ethnic groups shared the same space, and it felt like a proto-apocalyptic and slightly anarchist "zona franca." Think Mad Max with Mahjong taverns, and you're pretty much there. Sure, some of the weapons are well researched, and we do get a few lines about the plight of the average Kim, first going through the yangban's BS, and now having to endure pro-Japanese collaborators and the Dai Nippon Teikoku yada yada. But really, it's as important to the story as Yoon Je-Moon's Andre Kim-meets-Blade Runner choice of costumes is. Just part of the game.

But if you think about Kim Jee-woon's career, that starts making some sense, doesn't it? Think about it. Kim is not really someone who builds characters first, and then surrounds them with whatever is needed. He builds a space, be it physical, thematic or situational, and then throws some characters inside. His debut 조용한 가족 (A Quiet Family) started with a lodge up in the mountains and a pretty normal family, before things started becoming increasingly messed up and grotesque. Then, he took the cliches of sports dramas as a canvas, and threw a late 20s-early 30s bank employee inside, still trying to find any identity or tickets out of Neverland. In 장화, 홍련 (A Tale of Two Sisters), he created a breathing, pulsating house, an interior decorator's dream hiding the demons and illusions of a young woman, and finally the Melvillian mojo of 달콤한 인생 (A Bittersweet Life), that Dolce & Gabbana meets European noir vibe drenched the characters with its style. There's a reason why Kim is often accused by Korean critics of having weak scripts. Paradoxically, the strongest film he's ever made in terms of thematic consciousness is 반칙왕 (The Foul King), the lightest and silliest of them all. There's touches of that in what's still is high point, A Bittersweet Life. But a master storyteller, Kim is certainly not.

What he is, without a shadow of a doubt, is one of the most accomplished stylists in Chungmuro. Park Chan-Wook has tons of style, but coming out of 복수는 나의 것 (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) or 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), the thematic fire of his work burns just as much as those insanely creative camera angles and visual artistry. Bong Joon-Ho pumps up the social commentary even more, as his films ooze with satire and little details pointing the finger at a certain social or political issue. But Kim, he's like a real "director," one who gets several aspects that can work more or less on their own (acting, production values, etc.) and then forms a cohesive unit. Particularly after seeing The Good..., Lee Myung-Se is still a span ahead of everyone else when it comes to banking on visual storytelling, but Kim is pretty close. The reason why this film lacks the fire and madness of, say, 형사 Duelist, is because Kim stubbornly tries to tell at least a couple of pages of "story." Lee just told everything through feelings, movement, visuals and music, but here we get some uninteresting back story, some supposedly important revelations about characters' past that should make you go "aah, so that was it," but you'll probably be feeling "go get the gun and STFU." And.... that's about it.

Yes, this film is mostly a wild jjambbong of other films' sensibilities. There is some Leone, some John Ford, some Peckinpah, some Lee Man-Hee, all rolled into a nice dish embellished with some of the craziest shootouts and horse riding chases you'll see. The 17 billion won budget, which in many ways caused production to shift from cash-strapped Showbow to CJ Entertainment along with Im Pil-Sung's 헨젤과 그레텔 (Hansel and Gretel), is all gloriously displayed on the screen, wild costumes, impressive sets and insane camera angles et al. It's really a bunch of amusing filler connecting three incredible set pieces, a rollercoaster just like the best Jackie Chan had to offer in his prime, only this time it's the director and his crew hanging from moving things (yes, that wasn't a wire camera, it was a stuntman going all Tarzan on us). There's some truly monumental work, and very quirky, ingenious camera angles (love the falling gunslinger's perspective). It's like Mad Max meets カウボーイビバップ (Cowboy Bebop) riding horses. A wild ride, and one you'll be able to enjoy for years to come.

But, how should I put it? Yeah... analogies. No, even better, let's just take a similar film in terms of "visceral" movie magic (at least in intent) to start with, again Lee Myung-Se's Duelist. Let's suppose you've been working hard to buy yourself that long awaited sports car, the one you'd always dreamed about. So one day they bring you this beauty, and you take it out for your first ride on the highway. The 2005 masterpiece would then be like driving a jetfighter disguised as a Lamborghini Diablo, sometimes becoming truly scary to handle, but bouncing with adrenaline, fire, the energy of an atomic bomb. It makes you feel like a child, like those shocked, lucky folks at the turn of the century, when some crazy geniuses showed them that strange monster called cinematograph. When that first experience would be over, you'd be sweating in confusion, still trembling, your eyes open wide, as if you experienced something really too insane to explain. And, oh mama, you'd like to do it again.

This one, hmmmmm. Maybe like a very fast Porsche? It's pretty, well acted (although all three have done certainly better), tremendously well shot, spectacular and just lots of fun. But then it's like the moment when your cocked up Pagani Zonda in Gran Turismo 4 hits the 400 km/h, and keeps sounding like a blank and mechanical "waaaah" until you either press pause or crash against a wall, rebounding back inside the road as if nothing happened. It's not like taking your first ride on a crazy horse, scared to death you might fall off, but hoping this experience will continue. It's more like watching a crazy horse ridden by someone else, as if the people making this film had more fun than me watching it. Duelist felt wild and "dangerous" in a cinematic sense, this feels like masterfully controlled chaos, not the visual poetry of a master burning film stock with his madness. And it all smells a little like Hollywood spirit, so to speak. Disconcerting, yes. Disappointing? I wouldn't say that, because this is nonetheless an excellent film, one of the best of a pretty horrible year. But it just isn't great. It doesn't burn with fire, nor it has the pungent wit of Kim's past work. It has very good points, and even some slightly bad ones (script is, well, a few post-its worth of filler, mostly). But at the end of the day, it's mostly a weirdly charming pastiche of something that's running away, driving a motorbike on the Manchurian plains...

RATING: 8

좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈 (The Good, The Bad, and The Weird)
Director: 김지운 (Kim Jee-woon)
Screenplay: 김민석 (Kim Min-Seok), 김지운 (Kim Jee-woon)
D.P.: 이모개 (Lee Mo-Gae)
Music: 달파란 (Dalparan), 장영규 (Jang Young-Gyu)
Produced by: Barunson, Grimm Pictures
Int'l Sales: CJ Entertainment
127 Minutes, 35mm 2.35:1, Color
Release: 7/17/2008
CAST: 송강호 (Song Kang-Ho), 이병헌 (Lee Byung-Heon), 정우성 (Jung Woo-Sung), 송영창 (Song Young-Chang), 손병호 (Son Byung-Ho), 윤제문 (Yoon Je-Moon), 류승수 (Ryu Seung-Soo), 엄지원 (Eom Ji-Won), 이청아 (Lee Cheong-Ah), 오달수 (Oh Dal-Soo), 마동석 (Ma Dong-Seok), Deligeer, Mavlyanov Jasurbek

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