Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Wild East: The Good, the Bad, the Weird

It is the land of wide open spaces, where men live and die by the gun. Welcome to Manchuria—the wild East. By the 1930’s, the Japanese occupation of Korea was well into its fourth decade. With limited opportunities in their homeland, three Korean expatriates seek fortune and glory (particularly the former) in Kim Jee-woon’s genre defying adventure extravaganza, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, an official selection of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, which opens this Friday in New York.

Fittingly, GBW starts with a double cross. A wealthy Korean collaborator has sold a treasure map to the Japanese. Being greedy and deceitful, he hires the notorious outlaw Chang-yi to steal it back. Unfortunately, Tae-goo, a rival bandit who personifies the adage “it is better to be lucky than good,” robs the train before Chang-yi can. As his gang arrives late on the scene, bounty hunter Do-won also appears. Though he has a name, he is definitely a gunslinger in the nameless Eastwood tradition. The ensuing three-way crossfire sets the tempo for the bigger-than-life action sequences to follow, borrowing as much from Raiders of the Lost Ark as from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

While GBW might inspire comparison to Takashi Miike’s Eastern spaghetti western mash-up, Sukiyaki Western Django, Kim’s take boasts at least twice the inspired lunacy with a fraction of the on-screen cruelty. Still, do not misunderstand. Life is already cheap in Manchuria as the film opens, and Chang-yi is about to hold a fire sale.

would be a great starter film for action fans looking to expand their horizons into Asian cinema. With plenty of backstabbing and guns blazing, it careens along at a breakneck pace. Yet, many of the action scenes are remarkably well staged, nearly epic in scope. Indeed, the sight of Tae-go weaving in and out of Japanese artillery fire on his motorcycle while chased by two opposing gangs on horseback is definitely big, adrenaline-charged filmmaking that puts to shame many of Hollywood’s recent tent-poles.

Cinematographer Lee Mogae makes all the madness look great, and the period design is surprisingly well crafted. As the star of breakout art-house hits, like Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, Song Kang-ho might be the most recognizable contemporary Korean actor to American audiences. He is perfectly cast here as the oddball but still dangerous Tae-goo. Likewise, Lee Byung-hun chews the scenery will appropriate zest as the villainous Chang-yi while Jung Woo-sung does the strong, silent thing well enough for the relatively “good” Do-won.

ith its sweeping vistas and intricately choreographed gun fights, GBW is just plain cool. Kim deftly navigates potential pitfalls, preventing the eccentric humor from descending into slapstick territory and never overselling the film’s amusing late revelations. A great time at the movies, the highly recommended GBW opens in New York at the IFC Center this Friday (4/23).