With Gangnam Style destroying the charts the world over, we will soon see a second wave of the Korean invasion taking place. Three of South Koreas most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors have their English language debuts set for next year. Kim Jee Woon (THE LAST STAND), Park Chan Wook (STOKER), and Bong Joon Ho (SNOWPIERCER) have already proved themselves in their homeland, and here at THN we are taking a look back over their past efforts. Starting with the films of Kim Jee Woon, join us each week over the course of the next few months as we explore The Land Of The Morning Calm.
Director: Kim Jee Woon
Cast: Song Kang Ho,Lee Byung Hyun, Jung Woo Sung, Yun Je Mun, Ryu Seung Su, Song Young Chang, Son Byung Ho, Oh Dal Su
Plot: Three men; a bounty hunter, a mercenary, and an opportunist, fight over a map they believe will lead them to treasure. However, they may also have some personal issues to resolve along the way.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD is what director Kim Jee Woon would like to be referred to as a ‘kimchi western’. Like spaghetti westerns in the past, this is certainly a western, but with a unique Korean flavour. It’s spicy, it’s different, and it takes a while to get used to. Kim jumps into the western and action genre would all the confidence of a pro. Although he has handled violence in a spectacular fashion in the past, THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD is a pure unadulterated action adventure of the highest calibre. At the time this was Korea’s most expensive film, and it certainly looks it. But still it only cost $10 million. Someone should give the producers a lot of credit for good budgeting because not once does this look like such a cheap film. It rivals, and greatly exceeds many Hollywood heavy hitters.
The film wastes no time in setting up the plot as we cut between The Good (Jung) and The Bad (Lee) as they are asked to steal a very important map. The Bad is asked to steal it for the man who sold it to Japanese officials, so that he can have both the money and the map, whereas The Good is asked to retrieve it by the Korean Independence Army. It’s simple enough, and feels like the final moments before the climax of a separate film. Things would all go swimmingly if not for The Weird (Song Kang Ho) who boards the same train that the map is on, and is out to steal from the wealthy passengers. The opening 20 minutes on the train is an incredible way to start a film. Having skipped over a real introduction to the main protagonists, you would think that the action would lose some of its bite. That is far from the case, as Kim pulls out a wide range of different cinematic techniques. Remember how people complain about the amount of slo-mo Zack Snyder uses? Well Kim varies his techniques, and never seems to use them more than once. It adds to a constant feeling of progression and kinetic energy. The violence is fun in an INDIANA JONES kind of way, but also packs the same punch as Sergio Leone’s westerns.
Another thing that is clear from this opening is how much loving detail has gone into every facet of design. As The Weird walks through the carriages you could pause it on any frame and revel in the detail of the individual costumes. Brightly coloured dresses, smart uniforms, traditional Manchurian garments, and more are all represented. Although yellows and oranges are very dominant throughout the film, they are accompanied by many other beautiful and strikingly warm colours, which do add to the feeling of heat and allow us to feel the blistering sunshine of the desert settings. One scene has a character’s eyes suddenly turn to yellow, with the kind of contacts usually reserved for werewolves of demons. Kim also uses these early scenes to instil his underlying themes of Korean identity and independence, as a man waves the Taegukgi (Korean flag) and shouts for the independence of Korea. Something that is echoed later when The Good mentions “Every Korean has a sad story.” And the fact that The Weird has left Korea for Manchuria in search of a new identity.
The plot may be simple, but the characters and performances are far from straightforward. The Bad is a smartly dressed sociopath. With such an awesome outfit and the coolest mullet you’ve ever seen, in another actor’s hands the look could easily dominate over the performance, but with Lee the look and the performance become one. As he walks into a room his head bobs from side-to-side in an almost playful but certainly sinister manner. Lee always looks so comfortable in the role that it is only gradually that he reveals a more vulnerable side as he makes The Bad’s insecurities clearer and clearer. The Good is named in an almost ironic fashion, because even though he is doing the “good” thing, he is also doing it for the wrong reasons; being more interested in the money. Jung has all the stoic charm of any all-American cowboy and also reveals his character little by little. Then we come to The Weird, who is most certainly the hardest role to play. On the surface Song Kang Ho is giving us a comedic character who is both over the top in his mannerisms and quite a slapstick natural. With his motorcycle goggles upon his head, he’s always ready to take off, leaping through windows and crashing around like something possessed. However, Song must also continuously remind us of how lethal The Weird can be. It is often stated of how talented he is, but we usually see his dumb luck favouring him. As his true identity is revealed to us he is all at once sympathetic, likable, cunning, and deadly.
As you can imagine, the map ends up switching hands and other gangsters and unsavoury characters become involved in the hunt, which leads to a number of excellent confrontations. One thing Kim shows himself to be a master of is camera placement. During action sequences he knows exactly where to place the camera and makes it feel like a living character itself. As The Weird is attacked at The Ghost Market, the camera is shaken to its core as a gang member flies through a window. It isn’t that the character impacts against the camera (or where it should be), but as he enters through the glass. It’s a technique that adds a brief thrill but isn’t overused. In fact, for some it may go unnoticed entirely. This Ghost Market attack is one of the times when you would think the sheer volume of people involved in the chase would become a confusing mess. That’s why Kim’s decision not to resort to shaky cam is a very wise one. We have gun battles, swords, motorcycle and horse chases, between various members of different gangs and yet we always know who is who and what it is they are after/doing, making every action scene an enjoyable, exciting, and understandable one.
Like A BITTERSWEET LIFE, Kim adds in brief moments of realism that also accentuate the dark humour. The Bad interrupts the slicing of a man’s finger to ask for a sharper knife. Just as Kim builds up the tension, he breaks it just for a moment which gives us a quick breather, but doesn’t excuse us from the squirming we feel inside. The harsh lighting brings about the delicacies in every actor’s face, as well as glittering off every particle of sand. The film could have easily looked sparse and lonely, but despite being set in Manchuria, the film feels warmer and more comfortable to be with than A BITTERSWEET LIFE, which was set in the bustling city of Seoul.
The film never really lets up on the action, and it gives birth to one of the greatest chase sequences ever filmed. As The Weird speeds off on a motorbike, he is chased by The Bad and his gang, the Ghost Market Gang, and the Japanese army. The chase includes horses, exploding artillery shells, and some brilliantly used music. An instrumental version of Santa Esmerelda’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, is used to just as much effect as it was in KILL BILL. But then again, that song would go with anything. Just like sweetcorn. The chase also includes some more of Kim’s inventive use of camerawork. We get a mace-eye-view as the camera takes on the role of a weapon as it spins around and around, and the chase becomes so intense that at one point after a motorcycle crash, the camera just collides straight into the debris. The film also includes some real harm to horses, which does put a dampener on things, but the UK version has those shots cut out for any of you horse lovers. The chase also segues into what we all came to see, the epic Mexican standoff between all three protagonists. Stood at a distance, there is no guessing who will come out on top, and Kim looks towards the classic genre pieces of the past to grab the same amount of expectation. Close-ups on the eyes, hands twitching where their hips be at, and the slow-motion draw. It’s all grand stuff that is made even more exciting thanks to some last minute character revelations.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD proves one thing for certain, that Kim is a chameleon, jumping from genre to genre, but always making his voice heard. He adds social commentary, but not at the risk of entertainment. He effortlessly glides through action sequences, but makes them original with a cavalcade of techniques. The film comes across as a cartoon, but one with real heart and emotional investment. If Kim set out to make a ‘Kimchi Western’ then he certainly succeeded. It’s fun without losing any integrity or sincerity. Despite the well choreographed action sequences, there is always a sense of threat to each character, which makes this a film you will probably return to a repeated amount of times.
What To Take To THE LAST STAND? This is the film that makes THE LAST STAND such an exciting prospect. Kim has proven he can handle incredible action and great characters, as well as integrating some unique techniques. Hopefully the humour remains intact, and also, Johnny Knoxville’s character certainly has an aesthetic resemblance to The Weird.
THE LAST STAND is released on 18th January 2013 in the US and 25th January 2013 in the UK. It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaimie Alexander, Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Luis Guzman, and Genesis Rodriguez.
Join us next week for a look at another Kim Jee Woon classic. You can find all the articles in the series here.