Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Good, The Bad, The Weird: Grade A


The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

Kang-ho Song, Byung-hun Lee, Woo-sung Jung; Co-writer and Director Ji-woon Kim. (Korean, Japanese, and Chinese: subtitled).

This violent and bloody Korean action movie is also a comedy. There is an ancient treasure map that several parties want. There is no compelling evidence that it is a real treasure map, but it is the “McGuffin,” as Hitchcock would say, that motivates all the frenetic chasing about. Late in the movie, there is a hint at another layer of meaning when it is suggested that it is really a political map for use in organizing a rebellion against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (the movie is set in the 1930s). However, the political theme was either not developed or was edited out, leaving only a violent, bloody, yet madcap comedy. A shame, that.

Nevertheless, the humor, mostly visual, is effective, from broad farce to subtle parody. The acting is hard to evaluate because the characters and the story line are so offbeat that there are few standards to judge against, but in general, I would say it is quite above average.

However, what makes this movie a real standout is the fantastic cinematography. The pictures are stunning, and in many cases I wondered how they even got them. The narrative descriptive shots are best, for example very long dolly shots through narrow, twisting alleys that seem impossible. The sets and scenes are exquisite, and only enhance the fine camera work. I thought the action shots were less good, on the whole, because they were done with hand-helds, so the camera is jerking all around and the action is blurry, and the shots are in very close and the editing is so short that you can’t see anything, so you come away with only a sense of “action” that is not satisfying. There were some martial arts acrobatics that tried to capture the wit and grace of Jackie Chan’s work but fell short. And there were some wonderful surrealistic action shots reminiscent of Batman or maybe Matrix. It does say "weird" in the title.

The stunt work in this movie was phenomenal. Characterization was extremely creative. I especially liked the Johnny Depp-like evil killer in a pressed white collar. Many shots and the music too, harkened back to the spaghetti westerns, as the title clearly acknowledges. In fact this movie’s overall mood and tone is reminiscent of another weird Asian ersatz spaghetti, Sukiyaki Western Django (2008) which had the Tarantino imprimateur.

The silly, disjointed story line and the absence of offsetting character development are serious flaws, but because of creativity and sheer enthusiasm, I have to give this movie an A.

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