East meets West meets East again, with palate-tingling results, in “The Good the Bad the Weird,” a kimchi Western that draws shamelessly on its spaghetti forebears but remains utterly, bracingly Korean. More than two years in production, and at a reported $17 million the most expensive South Korean movie to date, fifth feature by genre-bending helmer Kim Jee-woon (“The Quiet Family,” “A Bittersweet Life”), centered on a trio of treasure-seekers in 1930s Japanese-occupied Manchuria, looks headed for through-the-roof local biz, hunky returns throughout Asia and piquant specialized B.O. in the West, in the right hands.
Pic’s post-production went down to the wire for its late-on, out-of-competition screening in Cannes, where it showed in a hi-def transfer still awaiting CGI tweaks and final color correction. (Result looked almost faultless on the bigscreen.) Reportedly, Kim will still make some adjustments for the version skedded to preem locally in July.
Though the movie raises the bar yet again for South Korean tech expertise and ambition, as well as launching the K-oater subgenre, it’s not the first “oriental Western” (as it bills itself on closing credits). Last year, Takashi Miike’s “Sukiyaki Western Django” pioneered a fusion-style J-Western, and Chinese fifth-generation director He Ping already had two cracks at a C-Western with “Swordsman in Double-Flag Town” (1991) and “Sun Valley” (1996). And the original spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s were partly inspired by Japanese samurai movies, anyway.
In the first of many references to Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” central trio is introduced one at a time, though without onscreen captions to ID them. First up is “the Bad,” black-suited, spiky-haired bandit leader Chang-yi (Lee Byeong-heon, “A Bittersweet Life”), who’s hired by a pro-Japanese Korean businessman (Song Yeong-chang) to retrieve a valuable treasure map from a train.
Also on the train, alas, is “the Weird,” seemingly doofus-y train robber Tae-gu (Song Kang-ho, “The Host”), who, with sidekick Man-gil (Ryu Seung-su), makes off with the map in the resulting chaos. Also in the frame is “the Good,” bounty hunter Do-weon (Jeong Woo-seong, “Musa”), a lithe loner and crack shot who’s on the trail of scarred psycho Chang-yi.
In true Leone fashion, the movie boils down to a succession of setpieces with some mildly character-forming intervals en route to a final faceoff among the three protags. However, at just over two hours, pic is almost an hour shorter than Leone’s 1966 classic, and lacks its epic breadth, variations in landscape and the sheer scale of its Civil War background.
Largely shooting in barren, endlessly flat landscapes, d.p. Lee Mo-gae (Kim’s psycho-horror “A Tale of Two Sisters”) serves up comparably striking widescreen visuals — actually lensed in western China, adjacent to the Gobi Desert, rather than one-time Manchuria. But emotionally and physically, pic is a much more intense, visceral, full-contact experience than Leone’s — and, as such, 100% Korean, paralleling the industry’s mass of gangster sagas but under much larger skies.
From the initial train holdup through a shantytown gun battle to a 15-minute desert flatlands chase that’s a jaw-dropper, pic maintains an ironic grin that leavens the heavy discharges of ordnance and continuous roundelay of faceoffs. Kim’s previous bullet ballet, “A Bittersweet Life,” first showed his smarts as an action choreographer but was humor-free; this time around, there’s an insouciance that keeps the action fresh.
Script would have benefited from more social and political backgrounding (fraught Japanese-Korean relations are only briefly referenced), and there’s a slight dramatic dip around the hour mark. But overall pacing is OK.
Chemistry among three of South Korea’s most expensive thesps is just fine. Song, evoking Eli Wallach’s wily Tuco but with a peasant bluster, motors the movie; Lee, mirroring Lee Van Cleef’s icy Angel Eyes but with a Korean psycho-gangster mentality, is also commanding. Least developed of the three, but with a graceful athleticism, is Jeong, with the pure bounty-hunter code of Clint Eastwood’s Blondie. Impressively, all three handle the vast majority of their own stunts.
Other roles are no more than bits, with Son Byeong-ho, as a louche opium dealer who meets a proctologically painful end, making the strongest impression. Distaffers hardly get a look-in.
Wild music score, riffing on Latino rhythms and brass orchestration, along with motoric Asian-style percussion, thankfully makes only passing references to Ennio Morricone. Editing by Nam Na-yeong is trim but always clear, and CG effects are discreet.