Good, the Bad, the Weird, The

By Michael T. Dennis
“The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is a madcap Korean action-comedy that reimagines the spaghetti Western as a story about a treasure map heist in 1930s Manchuria, with layers of intertextuality and slick, stylized surface, turning the watching of the movie into a spontaneously enjoyable experience.
Director Kim Ji-woon caps his first decade of successful films, including commercial and critical hits like “The Quiet Family” and “Coming Out,” with the biggest budget Korean production to date. “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” stars three of the country's most popular actors in the title roles while employing lavish sets, huge choreographed fight sequences, and stunning location photography on Manchuria's vast desert plains.
The events of the film begin, and end, with a map, which serves as the perfect cinematic McGuffin; we don't need to know where it leads, just that everybody wants it and along the way they'll do just about anything to get it. Early on the map is being transported across the country via train, and that's where our three characters converge.
The first to lay hands on the map, without even knowing what it is, is Yoon Tae-goo (The Weird), a simpleminded bandit with a good heart and an eclectic wardrobe. Before he can disembark with his loot, The Weird runs into The Bad: Park Chang-yi and his band of marauding killers-for-hire. The gun fight intensifies with the arrival of Park Do-won (The Good), a righteous bounty hunter with a pocketful of wanted posters that tell him The Bad and The Weird are high-value targets.
In the ensuing confusion, The Weird makes off with the map, returning to his village to try and figure out what to do with it. Hot on his trail are The Bad and his gang, along with the entire Japanese army, who also have a vested interest in the map for unknown reasons. On more than one occasion The Good saves the day, protecting The Weird to claim the bounty on his head, and perhaps to satisfy a curiosity about how the map fiasco will finally play out.
As The Good, The Bad, and The Weird continue to cross paths on a long and circuitous journey toward a surefire treasure trove, each man reveals another side to his character. The Good has an inner weirdness, and The Weird has a cloudy past that includes actions we might have expected from The Bad.
Backstory and character arcs are as convoluted as the route to the treasure, which culminates in a long, loud dash through the desert with artillery firing overhead, Jeeps jousting with horses, and an escalating body count that leaves our three antiheroes alone for a climactic standoff.
That final, three-way gun battle, complete with extreme close-ups and palpable tension, is only the most obvious and straightforward reference to Sergio Leone's “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” from which “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” draws much of its inspiration. An earlier comic scene with The Good escorting a bound prisoner through the desert behind his horse recalls Clint Eastwood's humorous mistreatment of The Ugly in the 1966 classic.
But other references abound throughout the movie, making it much more than a Korean version of an Italian twist on an American genre. Plot elements, along with the surplus of wacky characters and wry humor, suggest the treasure hunt in Stanley Kramer's “It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” At the other end of the cinematic spectrum, the desert chase is like something out of “Lawrence of Arabia” with the overpowering sound of galloping horses and the thick dust providing only short glimpses of the chaos.
It's also hard to watch the movie without thinking of Quentin Tarantino, whose Asian-Western epic “Kill Bill” takes much the same approach to stylized violence, genre-bending, and dark comedy amidst grotesque spectacle. Where “Kill Bill” has characters who pluck out one another's eyeballs, in “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” they chop off fingers and insert knives into vulnerable orifices.
Both films also cite the countless examples of on-screen vigilante justice, vendettas, and honor codes: elements that are equally at home in an American Western or a Korean thriller. This completes the complex web of references, eliciting Korea's master of horror, Park Chan-wook, who also cast Song Kang-ho (The Weird) in the first film of his “vengeance trilogy.”
Still, “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is predominantly seated in the Western genre, encompassing nearly every trope from classic and revisionist Westerns. This makes it a thoroughly watchable film for an American audience, who will get the gist of the action without even needing to read the subtitles.
The value of “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” lies in its form, not its content. There's a well-constructed game to be played in decoding the film's references and commentary. Happily, there's also a sufficient story with amusing characters to hold everything together. Whether or not this is a worthy use of the biggest Korean film budget ever raised is beside the point. “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is some kind of film buff's dream and a layered piece of entertaining movie-making that we see far too seldom from any national cinema.
Yoon Tae-goo (The Weird) – Song Kang-ho
Park Chang-yi (The Bad) – Lee Byung-hun
Park Do-won (The Good) – Jung Woo-sung
Barunson, CJ Entertainment, Cineclick Asia, and Grimm Pictures
Distributed by IFC Films
Directed by Kim Ji-woon
Written by Kim Ji-woon and Kim Min-suk
Producers, Choi Jae-Won and Kim Ji-woon
Original Music, Dalparan Chang Yeong-gyu
Cinematographers, Lee Mo-gae, Oh Seung-Chul
Editor, Nam Na-Young
Production Designer, Cho Hwa-sung