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Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…

South Korea!

The plot to The Good The Bad The Weird couldn’t be simpler.  There’s a treasure map.  And everybody wants it.

Seriously, that’s it.  But I’ll elaborate a bit to increase my word count…  A treasure map is being delivered aboard a train chugging across 1930’s Manchuria.  Someone sends Chang-yi Park aka The Bad (Byung-hun Lee) to steal it.  Someone else sends Do-won Park aka The Good (Woo-sung Jung) to get it first.  Before either of those two can act however, Tae-goo Yoon aka The Weird (Kang-ho Song) unwittingly takes the map while robbing the luxury train car.  Tae-goo gets away with the other two in pursuit, and they’re soon joined by miscellaneous thugs and rapscallions, Korean independence fighters, and possibly an entire division of the Japanese army.  The remainder of the film is basically a mad, mad, mad, mad Korean western filled with fantastically elaborate gunfights, set pieces, and showdowns.  If that sounds like the film will leave you wanting for something more substantial I promise you that won’t be the case.  The action is fast, frequent, and often times extremely inventive, and it’s paired with a perfectly balanced sense of humor that at times is laugh out loud funny.

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The movie is laced with action but three main set pieces stand out for their elaborate and stunning construction.  While the opening train robbery and the closing ‘kitchen sink’ chase finale both wow with near perfect choreography and camera work it’s the shootout in the Ghost Market that should be remembered for years to come.  The three title characters converge on the den of thieves and engage in a gunfight both on the ground and in the air.  As Tae-goo navigates the bamboo maze below, Do-wan fights from the rooftops… and swings through the air on a complicated (but convenient) series of ropes and pulleys.  It’s highly improbable but incredibly entertaining.  The camera-work throughout the entire scene is kinetic, fluid, and immediate… you are in the fight and in the sky and it is awesome.

Co-writer/director Ji-woon Kim has made four previous films, including the beautifully creepy A Tale of Two Sisters and the hilarious and touching The Quiet Family (remade by Takashi Miike as the equally excellent The Happiness of the Katakuris), but he’s never before attempted anything so grand or bombastic.  He reportedly set out to make a film that fuses American and Italian westerns with Asian sensibilities and style, and he succeeds brilliantly.  Adding to the beautiful visuals is the score by Dalparan and Yeong-gyu Jang.  It’s vibrant, eclectic, and always a perfect fit for the images it accompanies.  From the signature Western sounds of a solitary guitar or lonely whistle to the rousing and playful Asian-tinged pieces that suffuse the action scenes with even more energy, the score is a character unto itself.

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All three leads do fine jobs here, although Woo-sung (Good) can’t help but be overshadowed but the more flamboyant Byung-hun (Bad) and more charismatic Kang-ho (Weird).  Byung-hun brings style and grace to an evil but insecure man in several scenes, but one standout involves the shot above where he hops out of bed, flings a knife across the room that impales a centipede to the wall, then proceeds to shoot the blade’s handle to pound the point further into the wood.  He’s making his Hollywood debut in this summer’s already much maligned G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, but at least he’s playing the coolest character… Storm Shadow.  Kang-ho is a familiar face to any fan of Korean cinema from his roles in The Host, Shiri, and Memories of Murder, and can next be seen in Chan-wook Park’s Thirst.  As usual he steals almost every scene he’s in the the sheer force of his personality.

The Good The Bad The Weird will never be mistaken for a film with a deep story.  It will never be confused with a character piece about people who grow and change from beginning to end.  It will never be considered high art.  (Although I actually might argue that last one.)  And while it never feels slow, it could possibly stand to lose some of it’s 136 minute running time.  (The cut reviewed is the Korean version… there is an international version that reportedly runs several minutes shorter.)  What this movie will do however is entertain the hell out of any fan of actions, westerns, and adventures, as well as anyone who loves to smile for two hours straight.  It’s pure K-pop entertainment that will leave you wide-eyed and grinning and hopefully rushing to add Ji-woon’s other films to your Netflix queue.

The Good The Bad The Weird is currently available on various import DVD’s, and should (hopefully) see a domestic release sometime this year.  Check out the trailer below.

Bottom Line: Pure cinematic fun.  One of the best Asian westerns ever (yes, much better than Miike’s disjointed Sukiyaki Western Django).  Funnier than many purported comedies.  Spectacular action meant to be viewed on a widescreen TV with the volume turned way up.

Grade: B+


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