Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Good, The Bad, and The More-or-Less Good Enough

(image courtesy of IFC Films and
“Life is about chasing and being chased,” says a character in The Good, The Bad, The Weird.  Which is the closest director/co-writer/co-producer Kim Jee-woon comes to a philosophy here, unless it’s “I want to make a movie that’s going to be huge in Korea and probably sell okay in the U.S., too.”

Which he did – it became the second highest-grossing movie of 2008 in its homeland and got the usual limited specialty release here last year.  For one reason or another, I didn’t see it until the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinema did a Kim retrospective about a month ago, another manifestation of their commendable habit of showcasing Korean cinema.

Whether or not you think Kim is worthy of his own series at a leading arthouse theater probably depends on whether or not you think the commercial mass entertainment of other cultures is worth paying attention to even in those cases where it’s not transcendent art.  I come down firmly on the side of “Yes,” as will be clear to anyone who bothers to follow this blog for a while (anyone?  anyone?) – so I was happy enough to plunk down my cash at the box office for the latest bit of gorgeous if only partly satisfying fluff from this filmmaker.  (But I do have to chuckle a bit at the marketing chutzpah of calling the series "Severely Damaged," when Kim is scarcely the grittiest or most trauma-fascinated of his country's filmmakers.)

Easily my favorite Kim product is The Foul King (2000), a rambunctious but melancholy comedy about masked wrestling as an antidote to workplace humiliation and other disappointments of adult life.  It’s the only one of his movies I’ve seen that has some sincerity and individual personality.  Otherwise, his career looks like a magpie’s nest of shiny tidbits collected from various genres, movies and moviemakers.  In A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) he did his lanky-black-haired-female-ghost movie with a twist ending.  With A Bittersweet Life (2005) he did his mob-killer-who-has-a-change-of-heart thriller/melodrama.  Both are well-executed, absorbing, extremely easy on the eyes and kind of forgettable.  None of that changes with The Good, The Bad, The Weird.

Its first reference point is obvious right from the title, lifted, like the lead characters and the basic story, from Sergio Leone’s so-definitive-I-shouldn’t-even-have-to-name-it spaghetti Western.  You’ve got your psychotically murderous gunman, you’ve got your taciturn, relatively more moral gunman and you’ve got your amoral , jabbering goofball gunman, and they’re all alternately competing and cooperating in a quest for buried treasure in a war-wracked desert setting, although in this case it’s Japanese-occupied 1930s Manchuria, rather than the Civil War-era American Southwest as played by Spain.

But the resemblance to the genre Kim is supposedly saluting largely ends with this setup – the execution owes a lot more to Hong Kong’s acrobatic crime-action movies and the post-Tarantino style of facetious violence blended with obsessive quoting of classic and cult cinema.  Kim, as usual, buffs the jerry-rigged, awkwardly welded contraption into exquisite eye candy – the first half glows with the Jolly-Rancher-colored beauty that even routine Korean filmmakers are able to produce with apparent ease (when the story retreats to the desert in the second half, the inevitable preponderance of browns and yellows is a disappointment).

It’s too bad his visual skills drop off when he needs to go beyond shooting pretty pictures – insert here the standard complaint about how young action directors nowadays can’t hold their damned cameras still for just a few seconds, produce a smooth tracking shot, or edit together a fight scene coherently.  The mayhem has lots of imaginative and funny choreography (one of my favorite bits is when the Weird wades into a shootout in a protective but none-too-convenient metal diving helmet).  But it’s often frustratingly obscured by a shakey image and fast cutting, to the point that I felt a twitchy urge to wave my right hand in front of my eyes as if there were cobwebs obscuring my view.

The biggest thing Good, Bad, Weird has going for it is actor Song Kang-ho – but that’s true of a lot of movies with Song, who specializes in making “Everyman” roles more interesting than just about everyone else onscreen.  His character might nominally be “the Weird,” but he’s still the closest thing to a regular guy among the trio, and the beefy-faced star easily makes him the focus of the viewer’s sympathies despite the fact that he’s more or less a scumbag.  Not to give all the credit to Song.  The character is the strongest element in the screenplay by the director and Kim Min-suk - stumbling into and out of dangerous situations, perpetually befuddled but somehow always convinced of his own craftiness, always ready to shoot himself in the foot with a motormouthed commentary (his Korean chauvinism is a bit of a running joke).

Byung Hun-lee also makes an impression as “The Bad,”, turning his Johnny Depp-worthy cheekbones and doe eyes to paradoxically chilly effect as a gleefully sadistic gang leader with a quasi-erotic love of knives.  It’s a one-note performance, but a striking one, with Byung barely recognizable from his previous part with Kim as the stone-faced, sad-eyed protagonist of Bittersweet Life.  His badass image is amusingly contemporary –sleek and skinny, with a spotlessly stylish rock star/cowboy wardrobe, neo-mullet and twice-pierced left ear, he’d be laughed out of any real group of desert bandits before he’d had a chance to even reach for his gun.  I mean, just look at this picture.

Who knew they had fitness clubs in 1930s Manchuria?  (Image courtesy IFC Films and k13greenfaery's Photobucket album)
But this is the movies, and pretty, amusing absurdities are what we go to the movies for, most of the time.  This movie being full of them, it does the trick until it wears out its welcome in the final act – in particular, a would-be-climactic chase/stampede/shootout on horse, motorcycle, jeep, and foot feels an hour long, though it’s probably not much more than ten minutes.  And at the risk of having someone say something similar about this review, I’ll end it here.

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