The Good, The Bad, & The Sukiyaki Western Django Happy Fun Time!

I’m no otaku. And I’m certainly no Japanophile. But I have a passing awareness of chambara movies- and a strong fondness for the Lone Wolf & Cub series starring Tomisaburo Wakayama. Those I enjoy- well, the first two primarily- a whole hell of a lot.

Oh, and I love Spaghetti Westerns. If you didn’t know that, you might not read here verymuch.

Back to Japan, I am also a big Takeshi Kitano fan, both as an actor and a director. I like his incredibly dark, dry humor.

Someone once told me that Takashi Miike has a dark sense of humor too. But it’s a very wet humor, I think. Miike’s fans point to his use of insanely over-the-top violence (evidenced in Ichi The Killer), insanely over-the-top perversion (Visitor Q), or both. Er, actually both of those movies are incredibly violent (a human face sliding down the wall, blinking, after being severed from a skull) and perverse (a teenage boy slipping and falling in a literal pool of mother’s breast milk and his father’s piss and jizz. At least I think it was his father’s).

So yeah, I guess Takashi Miike has a dark sense of humor, even if it doesn’t always line up with mine. I enjoyed his Gozu, a sort of meditation on Yakuza films gone wrong… it involved two incredibly memorable “WTF?” sequences. One involving the most bizarre on-screen “birth” I’ve ever seen (taking Udo Kier’s emergence in Lars Von Triers awesome The Kingdom and placing it during coitus), and the other being an admittedly hilarious soliloquy involving “Yakuza Attack Dogs” that must be seen to be believed…

But what Miike does best is keep the audience off-balance. In his best films he uses sound and visual to maintain a constant sense of disequilibrium- in Audition, he frames the story like a romantic comedy, until…

Well, if you don’t know about the laundry sack, you don’t know about the laundry sack.

Miike also, as well as David Lynch inspired horror, perverse fluid-splattered ruminations on Swedish filmmaking and Yakuza deconstruction horror-comedy, does children’s movies. Make of that what you will.

WHAT is all of this COMING to? Spaghetti Westerns. Sukiyaki Westerns. Takashi Miike does a Chambara/Spag Western hybrid, and calls it Sukiyaki Western Django.

And it’s not nearly as crazy as one might expect, nor is it deliriously fun like Ji-Woon Kim’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird– and while Kim is Korean and Miike is Japanese, they are both riffing on one of the most self-referential film genres in the sandbox. Oh, and Miike loosely remade Kim’s 1998 breakout The Quiet Family as The Happiness of the Katakuris in 2001.

Anyhow, Miike’s “Sukiyaki” is… pretty much a combination of low-budget chambara (sword fighting samurai) movie and spaghetti westerns… and unfortunately, he decided to dwell on the lesser aspects of both genres.

I am glad I watched SWD, but I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience- it wasn’t a grueling test of perseverance the way Miike films can be. Nor was it terribly violent, no more so than any of the 60s/70s euro westerns- lots of squibs and some blood mouths, but we were spared the intestines and genital mutilation that smear across much of Miike’s oeuvre.

The perversion was pretty low-key too; there was an attempted rape that was as tasteful as such a thing can be- and was even prettily shot, if symbolically heavy-handed: a shrieking woman (literally an instant widow) splattered with her husbands blood, crawls away from her would-be-rapist through a rainswept Boot Hill cemetary, her white dress with blood splashes becoming covered in thick brown mud…

The plot is Yojimbo, begat A Fistfull of Dollars, begat Last Man Standing. We can even argue that Boaz Yakin’s Fresh covered the same story, just in an urban sprawl/drug-dealing setting. Two sides, new guy… except after the setup, who gives a shit? Two sides, equally evil, a few scattered “neutral” townsfolk for the drifter to befriend, and then a whole lot of killing… oh, and all of those were lifted from Dash Hammet’s Red Harvest which begat Miller’s Crossing

So a drifter comes to town and can chose between two opposing sides, only the Drifter is about as interesting as watching paint dry, which I’m sure is some hyper-commentary on the Spaghetti Western’s genre-specific tropes… the blending of the visual styles works half the time, with the plank walks in front of traditional Japanese architecture and paper lamps next to kerosene lanterns… but at times it slides weirdly into the now, with a modern standing corner lamp in a character’s store…

And then there is Quentin Tarantino. Yeah, he’s in this. In two roles, or possibly one, and it wasn’t a good idea. I like his steampunk/clockwork wheelchair, but not his attempt at speaking English in a phonetic Japanese accent (WTF?) or the weird time-looping/sideways aspect of his two incarnations.

Several characters behave in a fashion you can accept (aha! She’s a femme fatale who wants revenge!) and then don’t (oh wait, then why is she helping out the side that killed her husband?). There is a Cowardly Law Dog who might have a split personality, which may have been intended as comic relief but wasn’t funny. There is a very strong anvil about how the Kid whose parent’s get killed off might be a variation on the Mysterious Drifting Gunfighter who- like all MDGs, has a painful past anvil of his own- only his isn’t resolved, nor is much made of their hinted “connection”, other than some half-swipes at the stereotypical Shane MDG/kid relationship. But, you know, we’re never given a real reason for the kid to respond to the MDG as a father figure.

There are some wonderfully charismatic performances, that said. The problem isn’t in the perfs, it’s in the “plot” and, frankly, in the fact that this isn’t a movie for my wife and I to watch- it’s the director’s faul- EDIT- or rather, it’s our fault for choosing a director we already know doesn’t entertain us the way we want to be entertained.

My briggest problem with Miike has aways been that he seems a little spiteful, like he feels a little superior to his auds. He likes to set up something for the audience and then not deliver on it, because that is his Power as a director. That disequilibrium, that unbalance that Miike is so talented at creating and cultivating… that is his shield. He views himself as a satirist, the joke is always on the audience- it isn’t a shared enjoyment, it’s a smirking “I pulled one over on you!” enjoyment.

I think Miike is a major talent, I respect his body of work (especially his volume of output, I mean jesus, he’s made nearly 70 movies since 1991. Stop and think about that for a minute), but I don’t particularly enjoy his movies. I’ll keep watching them, but he inserts so many layers of commentary and contempt and affection and dillution and deconstruction- it’s physically exhausting to watch because I have to fully immerse myself in what he might be trying to do… and with Sukiyaki, I just couldn’t care that much.

It looked like fun, but I’d forgotten that Miike doesn’t do “fun”.

Oh, and the names of the two warring clans, and all their named members, are taking from Chambara/historical characters, so there is another level that I didn’t quite get in ther, with the Genji (red) and Heike (white) clans led by Kiyomori and Yoshitsune wearing dusters and weird acid-washed jeans… except the Genji and the Heike existed in a post Genpei War setting, which would have been 1180-1185… obviously the six-guns and steampunk trappings (and acid-washed jeans) aren’t to be taken seriously, but ow my head.

Again, charismatic strong perfs by all but the Gunfighter (again, probably intentional and “ironic”).

Yusuke Iseya as Yoshitsune with his anime hair and his pierced face was magnetic and a good “sneering” villain- he had an iconically “cool” gunfighter vs. samurai showdown in the falling snow- something that was probably intended to be a microscopic glance at how absurd the “dramatic” weather cues in Westerns and Chambara movies are…

Koichi Sato registers as the leader of the Genji, a Toshiro Mifune-esq buffoon whose fascination with the English War of the Roses leads to a number of Shakespeare references… Sato’s best scenes come towards the end, when he makes all of his henchmen march in front of him so they’ll get shot first…

Yoshino Kimura suffers a lot, does a beautifully sad dance sequence, and cultivates hybrid red & white roses to symbolize her love for doomed husband Akira -whose father informs us he named him that because he is an “anime otaku”, again, this takes place only 200 years after the Genpei War…

See, this is where, for me, Miike is just being weird for weird’s sake. I’m sure I COULD study it and look into and talk about how deep this deconstruction of two genres is, but instead I was left feeling off-put and vaguely bored.

Except for Kaori Momoi’s Ruriko, who utterly captivated me. We meet Ruriko as the drunk, disheveled general-store/innkeeper who cares for her mute grandson- struck dumb by the vicious murder of his father. During a particularly nasty bit of lust-fueled spite-killing, Ruriko suddenly transforms from a shrieking bystander into a two-gun harridan and the movie gets a jolt of much-needed adrenaline from then out, whenever she is on screen. Kaoir Momoi’s perf is actually several levels (was this intentional? Ow, Miike, you dick!) above the other characters, with Ruriko showing a sort of gun-opera flair for the death-dealing, while the rest of the shooters all yell and duck and don’t look terribly fluid (in other words, possibly a little realistically scared) while Ruriko fights like everybody who has ever seen a John Woo/Chow Yun Fat movie wishes they could fight.

You notice how I didn’t mark anything as spoilers? Because it’s a Spaghetti Western via Chambera via Takaashi Miike- everything is predictable, except when it isn’t. Like when a guy gets shot in the face, feathers explode out the back of his skull- the colors marking which side of the feud he is on. Only this doesn’t happen everytime there is a headshot, just twice that I can remember.

So it’s kind of perfectly Japanese, or at least perfectly Miike. And if you like that, you might enjoy Western Sukiyaki Django

Other than wanting more of Kaori Momoi, the experience just left me wanting to watch The Good, The Bad, The Weird again.

All the nightmares came today (and it looks as though they’re here to stay)

On Thursday I got to enjoy a little catching up w/ an old friend, who visited me on the Loading Dock. We talked about the frustrations of creative business, the ramifications of the word “art”, and how much it sucks that anyone who wants to paint, write, create music, has to basically find their own time to do their real work, because so much time is taken up by “work”. And stuff.

Oh, also, how he gets up at 4am every morning to work creative until he needs to help his daughter get ready for work, and then he does some more work.

Inspired, I’ve started getting up at 4am to write.

It’s remarkably easy, and alarm clock free. At 4am most mornings (on there abouts) my Son wakes up wondering why he isn’t sleeping on his mother’s breast. Which is why (currently) he sleeps in the bed with me for most of the night while she stretches out on the giant couch. When he wakes up and won’t be comforted back to sleep, she comes in and applies the coup de grace and he usually passes back out, enabling her to pass back out, and I slip away in the confusion to make coffee and hand-crank the ole’ computer awake.

Thus far it has provided mixed results. I’m already always ready for bed at 9:30 or so, so that hasn’t changed. But I got a huge amount of work pounded out Friday and Saturday mornings. Sunday, not so much, because I got up at 5:30 and Sam thought that if I was up, I was probably doing something fun- so in no short time, I was reading Treasure Island to my kid while he curled in my lap munching on popcorn. Some mornings it is a lot of fun to skip the work.

All the Strangers came today…

I don’t specifically remember learning to ride a bicycle. I have a recollection of training wheels. I know my prized bicycle was stolen off of our front porch when we lived in Denver and I was distraught. I don’t remember any epic spills, but I was always a cautious rider. I do remember riding through the alleyways of Washington D.C. and along the rocky paths of Rock Creek Park. They didn’t call it Rock Creek fer nuthin’.

I do remember learning to ride the Vespa. The parking lot at the office, where she first became my Vespa, is at a ridiculous cant, unlevel and dangerously sloped, so other than making a few slow, slow, slow donuts in the handicapped parking space, I had to learn how to drive on the streets of LA, in the largely Hasidic meets Hipster neighborhood between Beverly and Melrose, bordered in by Fairfax and La Brea.

I had a lot of trouble making left turns. Right turns were easy, I just sort of leaned, but turning across traffic didn’t come naturally, so for some time I just made loops. All right turns, of course. I figured out how to lean into a turn, accelerate while doing same, brake and make tight turns, and where my (Very very small) blind spots are all on those relatively quiet streets, which are wide enough for real cars and bikes, but the roads are frequently blocked entirely by terrified little Jewish matrons driving giant SUVs capable of carrying a fully equipped Marine Corps rifle team.

Now, years later, I don’t really need to think when I’m driving. It’s pure instinct. But every so often, despite the nearly 9,000 miles of practical experience on a bike, I start to think through what I’m doing, stop relying on experience and instinct, and drive like I’m in a car. Which is sort of belaying the point of being on two wheels.

I sort of feel like that is what happened this year with NaNoWriMo. 11/01/07 I started writing my very first novel, which I finished at the end of December, more than 50k words per month. I was pleased. A year later, I’m still editing the beast, but that is besides the point. After finishing writing that, and taking a break to pound out a draft or two of various screenplays, I started a second novel, which I am still elbow deep in. Still writing screenplays with my writing partner, as well as working on outlines and notes for other scripts, short stories and a pilot/show bible.

So really, why did I sign up for NaNoWriMo this year? I don’t need the “push” of a word count goal- number of words has never been a problem for me. I tried for a week, then tapered off. Why write a new novel just for the hell of it when I have a perfectly good one I’m racking up damn near 90k words on?

I don’t need to put the training wheels back on. I know how to turn left now. Nostalgia towards how exciting and energizing the process was the first time around- and yes, the support from my wonderful wife and my awesome friends- but you can’t go back, you can’t get there from here, and the band don’t play that song no more.

It’s very freeing. I’m already writing. I’m continuing to write, and focusing on yet another project seems like a leeching of my energy- and it’s a good idea, to be sure (leeches and all), and I’ll doubtless revisit it. But I’m busy as the only whore in a boomtown saloon. Only, you know, writing instead of fucking. Though that might be fun. Until it starts to chafe.

…Of The Dead

Night. Shawn. Dawn. Rave. House. Flight…

And now Dance.

Written by Joe Ballarini (who I feel quite sure I met in my past life as a development exec) back in ’99, and brought to running, dancing, rocking life by director Gregg Bishop, Dance Of The Dead is a hell of a lot of fun.

High School kids played by age appropriate actors (with one notable, and more than acceptable, exception), the Power of Rock & Roll, one of the best “rise from the grave” tracking shots EVAH, charismatic perfs, solid creature design, some hilarious (intentionally so) set pieces…

Yesterday we started re-arranging the apartment, which involved a lot of sweating and lifting, and so we were both pretty exhausted by the time we put the disk in a little after 7. I say both of us because the Boy was OUT COLD by 6:30. Well, he’d done a lot of helping during the day, so…

Neither the Missus or I made much noise during the first 20 minutes or so, but I know my silence was partially because I had a huge grin splitting my face… Dance Of The Dead is just plain fun. The kind of well-crafted, put together hybrid horror/comedy that makes you wonder why the 10 or so trailers on the disc (Lion’s Gate) all look like boring horror crap. Oh and on that note, 10 or so trailers? C’mon! We picked this movie over Hot Fuzz because we’re exhausted and went for the shorter running time- we sat through damn near ten minutes of trailers before, frustrated, we skipped ahead to the main menu.

This movie is way more fun that it should be, or maybe… well, maybe its just as much fun as it should be, since the filmmakers obviously were trying for a rockin’ horror comedy, and they succeeded: so kudos.

Especial praise goes to Greyson Chadwick as Lindsey, the female lead, and to secondary male lead Chandler Darby as Steve. Which isn’t to say that Jared Kusnitz as Jimmy (the film’s hero with a Joseph Campbell to complete) isn’t solid- all the perfs are solid. But Darby has a hell of a lot of charisma and won us both over.

Movie makes some good decisions, early on the two “love” plots are separated (or at least the four characters involved are) and so we get to follow two groups of survivors before they come together and are joined… reunited in the case of slacker Jimmy and his estranged girlfriend Lindsey, and a 1st chance for Steve and dim but sweet cheerleader Gwen (Carissa Capobianca)…

Yeah, they zombies are inconsistent in their speed setting- the Wife always sneers that Death isn’t a superpower, it’s a fucking handicap- but I can forgive fast zombies when there is a brilliant visual sequence like the madcap rush of several survivors through the graveyard as graves begin belching forth catapulting zombies that hit the ground running- a truly bravura sequence, a great tracking shot.

In smaller, but no less memorable turns special mention needs to go to Randy McDowell whose Jules gives the absolute best line delivery in the movie (a hysterical throw-away gag revolving around his misunderstanding of another character offering him some chewing tobbaco), and Justin Welborn as peckerwood roughneck Kyle. Mark Oliver plays the stereotypical blustering “man’s man” Coach with just enough flair to not feel like a (nicer) R. Lee Ermey…

And really, thats the only caveat that I can give to fans of fun: the characters all feel familiar, the setting and situations as well- which isn’t to say that this is a bad thing. nobody needs filmmakers to keep trying extra-hard to find “a new” take on horror films every five minutes, as long as at least someone keeps making the familiar feel fresh and fun. Hopefully, Misters Ballarini and Bishop will continue to do so.

the beast within

“Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle.”

Werewolves are fascinating monsters. Once one digs into the psycho-sexual nature of our werewolf mythologies, they can be even more of a terrifying id-monster than even the orally suggestive vampire- which, lets not forget, is an undead creature (and the undead, no matter what modern romance writers say, can’t get it up). The werewolf is brutallity, bestial hunger, uncontrollable rage, savage zipless fucking. Whatever the storyteller, or the listener, needs it to be.

Angela Carter rose to prominance as a writer of short stories and the magical realism she imparted- “intertextual”, which is to say heavily based on the writings of others; my kinda gal, a meta-writer. She was also intrigued by the slipping away of matriarchal oral story tradition, the way most fairy tales had begun as warnings- often from mother to child- and had lost their (if you will allow me) teeth, over the years.

In other words, Angela Carter was a big fan of two of the primary themes of this blog: creative narrative based on/heavily influenced by earlier works and the reclaiming of original intent- that is to say, Monsters exist for a reason. To be scary.

“They say the Prince of Darkness is a gentleman. And as it turns out, they’re right; a fine gentleman”

But all that aside, she wrote a number of wonderfully grimm and gorey short stories, several of which are collected in the indispensable The Bloody Chamber -and would it’s title be allegorical, metaphorical, or synecdochic?

Taking the classic fairy tales and taking them back to their roots (SEX and a little violence but mostly SEX and SEXUAL VIOLENCE) Carter made an unforgettable mark on weird fiction. Her stories speak out about the female role in fairy tales, but doesn’t make them allegorical martyrs or unrealistic heroes, she just allows them to be complex- as if that is enough (and it is).

“Get back to hell from whence ye came!”
“I don’t come from Hell, I come from the forest.”

And eventually, of course, a filmmaker comes calling…

In this case it was Neil Jordan, years before The Crying Game or Interview With a Vampire. In fact, The Company Of Wolves was only Jordan’s second film as director, and he and Carter worked on the screenplay together… the final result is more than adequate.

“Company” is perfectly cast, the young Sarah Patterson (as Rosaleen) takes the lead and makes the movie her own, helped out by a truly wonderful performance from Angela Lansbury, and supporting turns from the always solid trio of David Warner, Stephen Rea and Brian Glover. Also worthy of praise is Tusse Silberg’s performance as the Mother, and an uncredited Terrence Stamp leaves his mark on the proceedings, despite not having a single line…

The movie balances fantasy and horror, pathos and comedy very nicely. The script has some absolutely brilliant dialogue, as well as visuals that stay with you. I know Stephen Rea’s transformation bothered the shit out of me as a kid, though I love it now.

“I’m sorry. I never knew a wolf could cry.”

For me the real star of the movie (outside of Patterson and Lansbury) is Anton Furst’s incredible production design… the movie never tries to hide the fact that (with two notable exceptions) it is shot entirely on a soundstage- in fact, it revels in it. The dreamlike forrest, which is filled with patches of snow and bare-leafed, mystical looking trees also hides a conucopia of life; frogs and snakes, small mammels and birds, huge mushrooms… and pieces of Rosaleen’s own bedroom that pop up in odd places- because the whole thing, you know, is a dream (or is it?) as she lays in bed, somewhere between childhood and adulthood… it’s a story of sexual awakening- or at least of the awareness that this awakening lies in the future. And despite Granny’s warnings, maybe having a “wolf” of a man all up in her nethers isn’t as frightening as it is exciting…

“Jesus! What big teeth you have!”

This is a great film, I’m always pimping it out to those who haven’t seen it yet (Netflix has it), whether for the perfs (Lansbury is so good in this as a prim and flustered old gossip that it’s hard to believe she was only in her mid-50s when it filmed) or for the unbelieably fantastical sets and design (I can fuckin’ guarantee that Guillermo Del Toro has been influenced by, or at least admires, this movie)…

“And that’s all I’ll tell you, cause that’s all I know”

Oh, The Horror, The Horror…

When the Clan McQ gave us a Netflix gift certificate, there was much rejoicing- and it was just in time for Halloween too, so a good many horror movies needed to be greedily devoured and watched.

Among these was a pair of Del Tenney films. The Horror Of Party Beach and The Curse Of The Living Corpse, good, lurid titles for good, lurid b-movies. A resident of Stamford, Connecticut, Tenney consistently churned out a number of remarkably well composed, ultra-low budget, drive-in movie style horror bits, and made a pretty good career doing it. Famously, his movies didn’t play on the bottom half of the bill. When asked by his NYC theater-crowd chums how he could make such dreck, Tenney gave ’em the classic: “Yeah, I cry my way to the bank” response.

Understand this: Tenney’s movies are gems for those who enjoy their 60’s horror with a strong sense of fun, camp, and bewildering “what the hell was the purpose of that sequence?” head-scratching. Forgotten art? Maybe not, unless we apply a “trash” to the front- at the same time, Tenney was a truly solid shooter. Several sequences in each film stand out and make you say: “Wow, that is one good looking bad movie”.

In “Curse” Tenney gives us a classic “old dark house” tale of “murder and madness” as the venal, selfish (and loutish) family of a recently deceased man callously ignore his final wishes- hillariously, since the lawyer keeps reminding them that they are ignoring what is in the will. A baby-faced Roy Scheider and Candace Hilligoss (of Carnival Of Souls fame) stand out… though Robert Milli is obviously relishing being a cad so much that Annika and I kept hollering “Cad!” at him whenever he did something else thoughtless, selfish, and cruel. There is a bit of a mystery in “Curse”, but it isn’t very mysterious- the movie is just a fun little Agatha Christie type plodder, with a “supernatural” twist promised… but will it deliver?

Horror Of Party Beach though, THAT sucka is a cult classic in the making. Yeah, the acting is pretty generally bad- the best (or at least most interesting) performer is also the first to go- but the house band (The Del-Aires!) rock and stomp and the cheesy monster suit illicits guffaws (though not as much as the truly gob-smacking monster creation sequence)… but with bikers and a Beach Party and some truly funny (intentionally!) writing, the movie stands out… too bad all the good stuff is in the filler sequences, and the main “plot” is hung on a a hilariously overly-serious lead, a female lead that apparently can’t wake up to deliver her lines, and a sassy black maid that turns equality around and slaps it hard on the ass (she bugs out her eyes and talks about Voodoo a lot)… but “Horror” is one of those rare gems that you tune into because it looks so bad it has to be good… and it is

The Good, The Bad, The Weird: review

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.