I love a good Western film.
After all, what’s not to like? Duels at high noon, sheriffs saving towns, grizzled outlaws riding off into the sunset and even subtle racism!
Well, maybe not that last one.
The point, however, still stands. I’m always down for a good Western, whether it’s of the domestic or the imported spaghetti variety.
For all its varieties, the Western genre is united by one thing: all the movies take place in the American West.
However, no one ever said it was necessary to have it actually be in our West. Instead of “cowboys and Indians,” why can’t it be “cowboys and occupying Japanese forces”?
The latter was suggested by the 2008 Korean Western film “The Good, the Bad, the Weird.”
Obviously, the film gets its name from the 1966 Sergio Leone classic, and is modeled similarly: two guys we root for, one guy we don’t, a treasure, and lots of dead bodies.
“The Good, the Bad, the Weird” takes place in Manchuria during the ‘30s, which is about as chaotic and “Western” a place as you can get.
For those unfamiliar with the area, allow me to give a little bit of historical background.
In 1931, the area known as Manchuria was seized by the Japanese and made into a puppet state named Manchukuo. The population of the area was predominantly Han Chinese, but the period saw a large surge in the Korean population, as well as Japanese, Mongolian and white Russian minorities.
The country is mostly flat, dry and generally lawless outside of large cities.What better place to base a Western?
The story begins with Park Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun), the pinstripe suit-wearing Bad, accepting a contract to steal a treasure map from a high-ranking Japanese official traveling by train. Yes, a train robbery. The staple of Western action.
Before Park can reach the train, Yoon Tae-goo (Sang Kang-ho), the Weird, shoots up the official and his entourage and steals the map. Needless to say, Park isn’t a happy camper by the time he reaches the official’s car.
To top it all off, bounty hunter Park Do-wan (Jung Woo-sun) shows up mid-robbery to bring Park in for the substantial bounty on his head.
Not only is the title and plot setup of the film similar to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” but the two movies’ main characters share many characteristics.
Chang-yi is big and bad and kills for fun like Angel Eyes, Do-wan is the same stoic semi-moral badass that Blondie is and Tae-goo is just as hilariously lethal as Tuco Ramirez.
While “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” has a similar story to and pays homage to “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” the film still manages to distinguish itself from its acclaimed predecessor.
Though the rural dustiness of the Manchurian wilderness doesn’t exactly make the film stand out from other Westerns, the more urban settlements liven things up.
Rather than shootouts in one-street townships scattered across the desert, many of the film’s fight scenes take place in the crowded urban “Ghost Market.”
I mean, they don’t even have to be fighting. The mere sight of a cowboy walking through a bazaar filled with Chinese, Indians, Russians and Africans selling all manner of illegal goods is a breath of fresh air.
The chaotic, fast-paced action of “The Good. the Bad, the Weird” gives it a much more modern feel than the slow-burning gunfights of yesteryear. While it’s mostly just a product of the director and the time, the quickness of the action works well, especially since the movie is significantly more comedy-centric than most Westerns.
But for all its action, the film doesn’t really do so well on the slower parts. We are afforded a few moments perfect for deep introspection by both Tae-goo and Do-wan, but they just never go anywhere. The only thing we still know about any of the three is that Tae-goo and Chang-yi have a history.
Of course, they weren’t the deepest characters to begin with, something I’m okay with given the genre. I’m here for the adventure and the guns, not to be some Korean outlaw’s therapist.
All things said, “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is quite a good time and much-needed break from Western norms, if not a little derivative in its concept and plot.
After all, Americans do enough cowboy-exporting that it would be good to get a little bit of that magic thrown our way for a change.