25 December 2008

THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (Dir. Kim-Ji Woon, South Korea, 2008) - 'Such ingratitude after all the times I saved your life'


South Korean film maker, Kim-Ji Woon's eagerly awaited follow up to his 2006 noirish gangster flick, 'A Bittersweet Life', is nothing less than spellbinding, breathtaking and mesmerising cinema that succeeds in putting to shame the vast majority of pedestrian mainstream Hollywood cinema. Labelled by Kim-Ji Woon as an 'oriental western', 'The Good, The Bad, The Weird' finds an extraordinary degree of post modern pleasure in paying inventive homage to the cinematic influences of films like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and 'The Good, the bad and the ugly'.

It has become increasingly difficult for contemporary film makers to pay homage to favourite films and directorial influences without falling into the Tarantino inspired trap of appearing as if you are simply imitating rather than acknowledging the history of cinema. Each film Tarantino has directed or written a screenplay for have in some way been inspired by his own love of Hollywood cinema, but today's cine literate audience seem prepared to overlook such a superficial trait as Tarantino knows never to devalue the work of another film maker. Admittedly, Tarantino has tended to simply lift entire sequences and plot lines from the endless films he has seen, yet once again, his ear for dialogue remains one of his key strengths as a film maker and perhaps it is this element that has helped him transform the idea of homage into a much celebrated art form.

Tarantino is a film maker who is much loved in Europe especially France, but the recent breed of South Korean film makers like Park Chan Wook and Kim-Ji Woon share a set of similar sensibilities particularly when it comes to the representation of violence and masculinity. Tarantino's hugely successful 'Kill Bill' films drew influences and inspirations from everything to Sergio Leone and the Kung Fu cinema of South East Asia, and he undoubtedly made the cult films of Hong Kong fashionable again for film makers and audiences alike. With 'The Good, The Bad, The Weird', Kim-Ji Woon acknowledges the influence of American cinema, referencing the films of both Leone and Tarantino in excitedly, breathless bursts of stylish excess that underline the genre versatility of his oeuvre.

It is wrong to dismiss this film as merely a remake of Leone's definitive Dollars film, 'The Good, The Bad & The Ugly', but the obsessive search for lost treasure and the greedy nature of the central characters is firmly rooted in the iconographic details of the Spaghetti Western genre. Opening with a beautifully executed train heist, Kim-Ji Woon manages to convey an exceptionally high level of expertise and adventure with most of the set pieces, many of which have been meticulously storyboarded. Working on a budget of around $20 million (it is the most expensive South Korean film), it is hard to fathom how Kim-Ji Woon is able to construct such an epic canvas when faced with budgetary constraints, but he does so with such undying confidence, inadvertently ridiculing the severe economic excesses plaguing Hollywood productions and reiterating the need for a kind of 'moderate' cinema.

The intertextual link between Tarantino and Kim-Ji Woon is their use of the 1970s disco song, 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood', a song that features an enthralling instrumental interlude, which makes for the perfect musical complement to a rollicking chase sequence on the plains of ancient Manchuria. Another similarly impressive sequence occurs towards the middle of the film in which a hypnotic gun fight unfolds to the image of 'the good' swinging across the skyline of a Leone inspired rain drenched shanty town; its a fantastically insane moment yet it works because Kim-Ji Woon shoots the entire sequence with an infantile perspective. As this is the most expensive South Korean film to date, it only seems appropriate that it features three of the most recognisable and popular stars of the Korean new wave. Song Kang-ho is perhaps the strongest actor of his generation, receiving acclaim for his uncanny darkly comic performance style in films such as 'Memories of Murder', 'Sympathy for Mr Vengeance' and 'The Host'. Kang-ho is perfectly cast in the role of Yun Te-Gu/The Weird, a likable outlaw who is prepared to go to any lengths to disguise his past and seek out the lost treasure.

Unlike his contemporaries, Kim-Ji Woon is in no way a director who uses cinema to propagate his political views yet this may just be the first occasion at which we see clear evidence of some kind of shift in confronting South Korea's past and its dubious relationship with Japan; set in the 30s, the Japanese Army are depicted as a monolithic symbol of imperial domination. In terms of genre, Kim-Ji Woon relishes the final showdown and climatic gunfight, evoking the memory of not only the spirit of 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly', but also paying tribute to the resourcefulness of Clint Eastwood's 'The Man With No Name' figure.

The hunt for the treasure like the one in Leone's masterpiece is merely a Hitchcockian McGuffin used to sustain dramatic interest, yet even though the film does not need to do this, it seems as if Kim-Ji Woon finds it gratifying to conclude his oriental western in accordance to the traditions of the genre. However, the final moments of the film hint at the looming possibility of a sequel and second part in what may turn out to be South Korea's response to the Dollars trilogy.

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