I had the good fortune to get a ticket to see AFI’s screening of Kim Ji-Woon’s latest film, Jongheunnom, Nabbeunnom, Isanghannom, or: The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Devin Faraci, one of the best writers to grace the non-physical pages of www.chud.com, got me the word the morning of the showing, so I called in sick. THANK YOU DEVIN. For serious.
I’ve been aware of it for a few months, advertised as a Kimchi Western, with a title obviously referencing Sergio Leone’s Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo, and I’ve been itching to watch it- even more so than lauded Japanese shockmeister Takashi Miike’s own Spag Western tribute/pastiche Sukiyaki Western Django. Miike’s movie looks like a hoot & a holler, but the trailer to Kim’s movie got me cranked far more…
So was it good? Was it bad? Was it weird?
It was AWESOME.
At two and a half hours I barely noticed the length. Beautifully (and I mean beautifully) shot is sort of a pre-req for westerns… ah, but it isn’t really a western, is it?
Some will say that the movie is influenced by “westerns”, which isn’t entirely true until you put the word “Italian” in front of “Westerns”. Kim isn’t doing Shane or The Searchers or even The Magnificent Seven here. His influences, worn proudly on his sleeve, are overwhelmingly Leone and Corbucci and Sollima- with just the barest hint of the wuxia genre- and a bit more of Korea’s own variation on the blood soaked gun-opera gangster films, particularly the grimly funny Takeshi Kitano yakuza films come to mind (only without the incredibly static, in-your-face shooting style Kitano uses).
Set in Japanese occupied southern Manchuria during the late 1930s, the movie begins with a voice harshly telling us to “Pay attention”. I think in Japanese, and this is important: the movie fluctuates between the languages in use freely, and the current subtitles (sadly) don’t differentiate… There are Japanese Soldiers and spies, Korean ex-pats, freedom fighters and bounty hunters, ethnic Chinese bandits and gangsters, some Russian (possibly Chechen), Mongolian, and Kazakh or Uzbeck… phew.
Now I don’t know a whole hell of a lot about Manchuria during the late 30s… but the world Kim sets up, from the truly astounding production design to the wonderful, culturally layered costumes feels 100% real and lived in. I believed in it without stopping to think about it very hard- always a good sign.
“Pay Attention”. Rasps the Wealthy Man. He has a map, a very important map, which he is selling to the Japanese Army. He is also hiring the most dangerous bandit in Manchuria, Park Chang-i, to steal the map back. A bit complicated, sure- but everything is except when it isn’t.
Chang-i isn’t just dangerous, he’s also neurotic as all hell. When his boss tells him he wants him to do it because he’s the most dangerous man in Manchuria, Chang-i looks a little worried and then mad before covering with a grin: “Only in Manchuria?” he says.
Chang-i is The Bad, and he’s the first of the main characters we meet. Impossibly skinny and constantly covered in a light sheen of sweat (he doesn’t prespire, he glows), Lee Byong-Hun embodies Chang-i with such a shifting sense of confidence that in many ways he surpases what you need from a “The Bad” in this game. He’s good, no doubt about that- in fact he’s so fucking dangerous that everybody he knows is afraid of his mood swings- but he drinks a lot, and seems to take a great deal of pride in his black silk suit and his Western style gunbelt. He’s almost neutoric about his badassery is what I am saying.
Chang-i will take his gang of bandits and stop the train and get the map back, as his Boss requests- though we do get the sense that his boss fears this tool he uses, even while relishing in said tool’s ruthless competence.
Suddenly we’re out of doors after this clausterphobic prologue and the movie just kicks into gear… we follow a soaring eagle, then a raven crouched on a piece of roadkill on the train tracks, and then another eagle swoops down and steals the carrion- just as the Manchurian Express rockets across the frame. Each of the actors who portray the three leads name floats along with the three different birds. Nice.
Down the crowded halls of the passenger cars we go, following a rice-ball and cracker salesman, who is quickly revealed to be The Weird: Yoon Tae-goo, played wonderfully by the expressive Song Kang-Ho. Tae-goo is such a scamp, he holds the movie together with spit and grimaces. With half a rice-ball in his mouth he drops his food-wares and hauls out his hardware (a pair of Walther P-38 pistols that he can fire so quickly they are almost fully automatic) and kicks open a door without breaking stride, gunning down a half dozen surprised guards before they can react. He then ducks back out the door, reloads the pistols, continues to munch on his rice cake, and then bursts back in to order everyone to “Freeze!” promptly shooting one of the guards as the wounded man stirs-
Kim balances the extremely LOUD GUNFIRE and quick, frenetic action of the movie with a casual humor that I personally find indicative of a lot of Japanese and Korean cinema- and part of the reason I love the output of those two countries. Hong Kong cinema is a lot more self-serious, it seems to me.
Tae-goo doesn’t know anything about the map. He’s just there to rob the Japanese officers who travel in the first class coach with some Geisha-by-way-of-Shanghai beauties. Tae-goo is sort of a scrappy, giggling, slovenly scamp of a thief. He’s considered (we’ll find out) extremely lucky by his contemporaries, most of whom won’t work with him because they don’t trust him- it isn’t so much that he is a keen killer (certainly not a cool/hot sociopath like Chang-i), but he always survives whatever gets thrown at him.
He left Korea behind to plunder the wild east of Manchuria, and is always irritated when the Japanese don’t understand Korean (a great bit this, his eye-rolling frustration, “Oh, so you don’t speak Korean, eh?”)…
Eli Wallach loves to relate how the Tuco character in il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo got more and more screen time as the movie went on, because Leone liked all the little quirks and business Wallach came up with (the infamous “assembly of the revolver” sequence certainly comes to mind, partially improvised by Wallach the day of)- Kim & Song obviously went into this movie knowing full well that Tae-goo was carrying it on his shoulders.
As Tae-goo is holding up the Japanese officers, Chang-i launches his attack on the train with his band of filthy, iconically awesome bandits- including a massive slab of tattooed, scarred and dreadlocked meat that growls instead of speaks and prefers to use a huge wooden mallet as a weapon- his appearence in a scene is usually indicated by a character looking up, looking horrified, and then a quick cut to them being propelled through the air and smashing into the nearest wall (which usually splinters under their impact)- but wait!
Park Do-won (played by Jung Woo-sung), yet another Korean ex-pat, disenfranchised by the Japanese occupation is on board the train. And he’s a ruthless bounty hunter. Of course, what other kind are there?
With the train screeching to a halt, under attack by Chang-i’s gang, with Tae-goo frantically trying to escape with a valise of plundered loot (including, of course, the Map), and Do-wan trying to get a bead on Chang-i… everybody is shooting at everybody else and Tae-goo barely escapes in time on a motorcycle (with sidecar) driven by his associate, Man-gil.
A gang of bandits, mixed ethnicity, mostly Mongolian and Chinese, sit on a ridge staring at the confusion below.
“What is going on down there?” asks the grizzled leader.
“Uh. Um. I’m really not sure,” says his right-hand man.
We’re given a few minutes to giggle, catch our breaths, and then the plot lurches forward again…
The sound design needs to be commended, the gunshots and bone-cracks and screams and thudding hooves and roaring engines and pounding rain are an aural symphony, a far cry from the poorly dubbed foley of the Spag Westerns. And the production design.. oh man…
After an interlude where Chang-i further cements his ruthlessness and also finds out that Tae-goo might have the Map- of course he knows of Tae-Go, in fact he seems pretty intent on finding Tae-goo whether there is a map or not… Chang-i is given more motivation than most pretty-boy villains, and it becomes clear that no small part of his neuroses rest on his finding/killing Tae-goo for some past insult.
Tae-goo, on the other hand, has retired to the Ghost Market, a fantastically designed set built on top of itself, a shanty-town strung together with flickering strings of lights and guttering torches and precarious rope-bridge walkways and… it’s just awesome. I know I mentioned the costume design above, but lemme diverge on it a bit here: Tae-goo wears riding pants, short boots with puttees wrapped all the way to his knee, one of those quilted shirts that seem ubiquitous to China, a leather British-style Jerkin vest, the shoulder holsters holding his German pistols and a leather pilot’s helmet topped with goggles. It’s like a steampunk explosion in the far east…
And the music is a perfect blend of Italio Western and Eastern pomp. Acoustic guitar and whistle during the slow parts, fuzzy/chunky guitar back by horn during the action set-pieces… and the horn-section has that very Asian cinema trait- it sounds over-produced, a wall of sound with no real diferentiation between the instruments the way Morricone and his like composed. Plus, the main musical theme during the huge set-pieces is a variation on the Animal’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,”: it’s a weird choice, but it fits perfectly.
The plot just careens along nonstop. Man-gil finds out that the map is apparently a treasure map the Russians have, which the Japanese want to help out with the war effort. The Mongolian gang wants the treasure, Tae-goo wants the treasure, the Japanese Army wants the treasure, Chang-i wants to kill Tae-goo, and Do-wan wants to kill/capture Chang-i.
But first Do-wan captures Tae-goo, and we have the Blondie/Tuco relationship begin in full swing. Both Korean ex-pats, displaced and disenfranchised, Tae-goo convinces the reluctant Do-wan that they’ll be filthy rich- if they stick together. Do-wan isn’t sure the treasure exists, but he really wants to get Chang-i.
The two reluctant allies need to get the map back from Man-gil who has sold a copy of it to the Mongolian gang- and Chang-i is closing in on the Ghost Market which is protected by (you guessed it) The Ghost Market gang…
So now comes are second huge set-piece (there have also been three or four “lesser” action sequences in the last twenty minutes or so since the train), in and over Ghost Market, where Do-wan takes to the sky by shooting various ropes and pulleys and swinging around like Spider-Man with a Winchester… meanwhile Chang-i displays his mad skills in one of the most brutal knife fights I have ever seen in a movie… and Tae-goo finds a brass diving helmet, which he uses as armor, during a running gun battle through the muddy alleyways of Ghost Market…
Amidst all the carnage there is some wonderful bits of humor. Some of it sweetly funny (Tae-goo’s ancient granny keeps falling asleep while bullets whiz past her and smash her tiny hovel to pieces) some of it tension raising (while Tae-goo is throttled by a gangster, Do-wan casually tosses his pistols at him without looking, they land a good twenty feet away) to my favorite piece, a nasty bit of squeamish humor: Chang-i goes to make a lesson out of an enemy and cut off the first two knuckles of his trigger-finger… he asks for a knfie from his henchmen and tries… and tries… the victim screams and Chang-i gets frustrated: “This knife is dull!” he shouts. “Another knife!” goes up the cry from his henchman who start checking their belts…
After the second, massive set-piece there is another break on our ears (this movie is LOUD) and Don-wan gives us his reason for wanting to kill Chang-i, and Tae-goo tells what he wants the money for -to buy land and livestock back in Korea: he isn’t even sure why he wants Japanese occupied land, but it’s all he wants.
“Where you a bandit, back in Korea too?” asks Do-wan while they sit by a campfire.
“I left Korea behind,” says Tae-goo.
More crosses get doubled and tripled, some Opium Den gangsters become involved during an entirely extraneous but high-spirited side plot that involves Tae-goo rescuing some kids from slavers- a shot of the giddy kidlets crowded into the sidecar on his motor-cycle as he drives off across the desert stands out (I understand Kim shot the film in the Gobi desert, it looks incredible)… Do-wan is left behind, and the various forces amassed for the Map begin to converge… on Tae-goo.
Time for set-piece #3… an incredible multi-party chase across the desert flats. Artillery, horses, motorcycles, jeeps… it’s absolutely fantastic, grin-inducing filmmaking. This is the kind of movie that makes kids jump from the chair to the couch, or try to climb the outside of the stair-case. When I was a kid, I had Raiders, sure, and Silverado- lots of leaping and rolling and shooting and ducking and running, that sheer exhilieration of watching the good-guy get away by the scruff of his neck, just by pure luck, pluck and gumption… and that, of course, is what Tae-goo has in spades. Do-wan, incredibly, just charges the Japanese cavalry and I actually had trouble not coming out of my seat at the raw audacity of the filmmaker… is this shit plausible? Hell no, who the hell wants it to be plausible?
After an endless, exciting chase, the various factions have been whittled away or turned back, and our trio finally reach the end of their quests…
And the movie stumbles.
FUCK. Come ON! Only in the last… five minutes maybe? But it came so close for utter brilliance… But a stumble, a misstep during the final showdown left me saying “no, wait… you almost had it!”
Okay, sorta spoiler: Leone’s film ends with a three-way standoff in a huge military graveyard- or actually in the middle of a big circle of stone in a huge military graveyard. The Good is the only one who knows the location of a certain grave. He’ll write it down on the underside of a rock and put it in the middle of the circle. The Bad and The Ugly and he face each other, to do or die- and get the money.
Now The Good, Blondie, has secretely unloaded his less the trustworthy associate’s pistol (The Ugly), but Tuco doesn’t know he has an empty gun, and The Bad (Angel Eyes) doesn’t know.. so Blondie only needs to worry about Angel Eyes, but Angel Eyes and Tuco are both unnerved and not sure who to fire at first… all three men are incredibly talented killers- after nearly three and a half hours Leone got that across… so what happens? The rest is cinematic awesomeness, pure win (whatever that is) and memorable for the reason that the build up is pitch perfect, and this important little niblet: we know that Blondie is gonna win, he’s Clint Eastwood fer christssake. Now maybe if we had all grown up watching il Grande Silencio we’d be lest assured that the good guys win, but here is what makes that stand-off so great: We’re worried about Tuco. We really like Elli Wallach’s roguish bandito- we don’t want Angel Eyes to kill him, and we certainly don’t want Blondie too either (oh, and the audience doesn’t know Tuco’s gun is empty till the gunfight begins)… we like Tuco- hell, he’s more personable than Blondie- and we aren’t sure if he’s gonna make it.
When Tae-goo, Chang-i and Do-wan face off in their little circle… and I’m not spoiling anything by telling you they do face off in a little circle- the chance for this movie to achieve mythic properties by playing with our expectations falls short.
Spoilers about the ending, and how I thought it would undermine the obvious, due to plotting follow (swipe to read)
The three men, at Chang-i’s urging, agree to face off and shoot it out. Tae-goo doesn’t want to, he just wants $$, but Do-wan is in: he wants Chang-i.
Now remember when earlier I said that we find out why Do-wan wants Chang-i? He thinks Chang-i is a vicious killer from back in Korea called the Finger Chopper, a deadly knife-man who would cut the trigger finger off opponents.
Okay, fine- we’ve seen him TRY to chop off a guy’s finger, so it works. But in a piece of baldly obvious writing, Tae-goo giggles at this information, and tells Do-wan that he doesn’t think Chang-i is Finger Chopper. Instead of saying: “uhuh, how would you know?” Do-wan just shrugs: he knows what he knows.
Kinda heavy foreshadowing.
So when the three man face off, we aren’t all that shocked to find out that the reason Chang-i has been searching for Tae-goo (and butchered a man who boasted that he was Finger Chopper earlier, further enforcing Do-wan’s belief that Chang-i is the killer) is because (in unison now) Tae-goo is Finger Chopper.
Or rather, he used to be. “I left Korea behind, forgot about it. You should too,” Tae-goo tells Chang-i. But Chang-i is all burned up on vengeance. We get the impression in this that his entire rationale for being a total badass, all his neuroses are focused on Tae-goo… this is kind of awesome, actually. For once, The Bad is more than just black-clad badass.
Chang-i needed to prove to himself he was the best, he needed to become the most vicious killer in Manchuria (“only Manchuria?”) due to shame that beneath his black leather gloves he never takes off, his has a hammered-iron prosthetic finger… (the desert wind blows through the open hinge over his scarred knuckle, making a wonderfully eerie sound that matches the grin on Chang-i’s face)
Do-wan never trusted Tae-goo, but he thought he was an ok guy, just a scrappy bandit who wanted to be a farmer back in Korea. Do-wan wanted Finger Chopper because Do-wan isn’t really in it for the money, he’s an Honorable Bounty Hunter. Plus, Chang-i is a vicious motherfucker.
But now, these two guys both want to kill him (and each other) and Tae-goo is revealed to be… a guy with some regrets. We see a quick flashback of him fucking Chang-i’s shit UP, and okay: Tae-goo isn’t just a bumbling pistolero who prefers number of shots fired over accuracy- he is apparently a very dangerous man with a knife (which is undermined since there is a sequence where Tae-goo fares terribly in hand-to-hand combat back at the Opium Den- this reveal’s lack of continuity is starting to irk)
So then the three men, Tae-goo reluctantly, unlimber their guns and just shoot each other. A lot. Then they lay there in the sand, dead and dying, while the treasure (a weird half-buried scaffolding they couldn’t figure out, with a closed pipe-like canister at the top) begins to burble and spew: an oil well.
“What the hell is that?” wonders a bloody Tae-goo, shot to shit. Do-wan laughs: it looks like he’ll make it. The movie ends as a dust-devil sweeps past the pooling oil-field (huh, like blood) and the three bodies… (is this a modern allegory?)
Whu? I mean, I KNOW it’s gotta end in a 3-way standoff. But…
Okay, so we’ve established that Chang-i is basically death incarnate, that Tae-goo is a goofy guy (who saves grannies and kiddies and mostly screams and ducks while shooting wildly) and Do-wan is in it for honor…
And then they just blaze away and… But if we establish halfway through the movie that Chang-i is death on two legs, especially with a knife, and that Tae-goo defeated him and stole face by doing so in such a vicious manner…
I honestly expected the 3-way stand-off, followed by Do-wan getting wounded or locked in an outhouse or something while Do-wan and Tae-goo went at it in the scaffolding of the wooden oil derrick, knife to knife… which is what the subtext (obvious as it had been) had pointed too…
so when the movie ends in the most expected and traditional way it could… hence my dissapointment. Not that the movie didn’t end the way I expected it too, but that it ended the way I would have expected it too before I got to know and love the characters, and their motivations… if it’s just about the $$$ the 3-way gunfight works, but being an Asian film it delves more into honor and face and inevitability… so after deciding that Park had hammered out a masterpiece of post-modern sensationalist action/adventure, I was let down by the easy finale, the predictable out.
It would be like if at the end of The Deer Hunter, DeNiro just grabbed Chris Walken and said “Okay buddy, lets go,” and Walken said: “First we’ll have a fist-fight!” and the audience goes: “But Walken is scary-bugfuck crazy and the best Russian Roulette player- because he’s bugfuck crazy. WTF, Cimino?”
Kind of dissappointing for me, at any rate. I still love this movie. I’m gonna buy/beg or steal it on DVD, and I look really foreward to watching it with my son in some years when he’s ready for it. And then we’ll dive behind the couch and go “pew-pew-pew-pew!” and try to slide down the stairs while firing both hands, fingers akimbo, as the other one climbs the outside of the stairs and dodges the bullets…or catches them in his teeth.