It’s not every day that a world class Korean director visits a Southeast Asian city like Bangkok. So when I learned that Kim Jee Woon, an award-winning director whom I recognize through his horror film “A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)” will be screening his film “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird ( 좋은놈, 나쁜놈, 이상한놈, 2008)” at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center in Thailand, I saved the date in my calendar pronto. And here are my notes.
“The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008)” is an oldie but goodie. It’s a gem of a film because it’s a Korean film done Western cowboy style. It pays tribute to Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)”, but Director Kim Jee-Woon’s version adds a Korean flavor by setting it in the 1930s, a time when Korea fell under Japanese Imperialism and a lot of Koreans consequently flocked to Manchuria. In this place, a lot of Koreans survived as bandits.
Chang-Yi (The Bad) is a hitman tasked to steal a treasure map from the Japanese army train. The thief Tae-Gu (The Weird), however, deftly steals this treasure map even before Chang-Yi and his gang could lay claim to it. This sparks a wild chase between Tae-Gu and Chang-Yi. And to make matters more complicated (read: exciting), Do-Won (The Good) joins the chase as a bounty hunter going after Tae-Gu.
This storyline in itself is engaging and filled with both funny and heart-stopping scenes. The idea of a Korean western movie is a feast for the eyes, too, with Asian characters dressed in cowboy ensembles instead of hanbok, and with Asian characters shooting guns instead of slaying with swords. The lush Korean mountains and elegant palaces we often see in period films have been replaced with a dry, sunny desert. This is creative storytelling at its best.
But for a Korean Studies geek like me, this movie is very rich with meaning. It also strikes me as a very refreshing re-telling of Korean history during the colonial period. By adopting the Western cowboy style to tell the story of Korea’s quest for independence during that time, the story of the colonial period, told many times before, is given new life in this film. Here we see what happened to some Koreans who pursued a life away from Korea (and into Manchuria) – scattered, individualistic, and prone to a pursuit of self-interest.
While watching the film, it made me think of a novel by Chae Man-Sik called “Peace under Heaven” wherein Korea’s colonial period was characterized by people’s relentless chase for things motivated by self-interest: money, power, and prestige.
Likewise, Kim’s film showed Korean bandits and cowboys chasing after treasures and rewards for themselves. This, like Chae’s novel, shows how colonization has affected Korea in a negative way. It seems the idea is similar, but what’s amazing about Kim’s film is that the storytelling is fresh and highly stylized that it’s also very visually and intellectually engaging.
Although “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird” is sort of an old film already, what makes this particular Bangkok screening interesting is the presence of director Kim Jee-Woon. Because he was there, I was able to learn more about the film straight from the director’s mouth.
According to him, he made an Asian cowboy film like this to prove that cowboy films don’t necessarily have to be Western, or have the United States as the setting. He thinks cowboy films can be done in a uniquely Asian style, too.
In this case, he chose Manchuria as the setting. A place that has relationships with countries such as Japan, China, Mongolia, and of course, Korea, the setting is perfect for illustrating the hardships that Korea experienced during its colonial period. Moreover, Manchuria as the film’s setting, coupled with the cowboy theme of the movie, is the perfect blend of East and West for Director Kim.
As for “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” being the inspiration for this film, a key similarity between the two films, according to Kim, is that both are character-driven. However, characters in the 1960s version were depicted as either villains or good guys. The Korean version, however, depicts more complex characters that are a combination of good traits and bad. Thus, “The Ugly” turned into “The Weird” because when Kim developed he character, it became more comedic rather than ugly. This explains the funny yet unsettling characteristic of The Weird.
Director Kim is no stranger to working with other Asian directors. In 2002, he collaborated with directors Peter Chan from China and Nonzee Nimibutr from Thailand in the horror trilogy “3 Extremes II”. When asked during his talk if he’d be willing to collaborate with Southeast Asian directors again, particularly a Thai director, Director Kim said he is open to the idea.
As an Asian (Philippines!) film buff who’s interested in both Korean films and Southeast Asian films (and film in general), this is exciting news. Although nothing was set in stone during the interview, the thought of an ASEAN-Korea connection through film is enough to tickle my imagination. I wonder how intricate characterizations, beautiful sceneries, and seemingly simple but actually complex stories—hallmarks of films from both sides—can be creatively combined to produce another gem of an Asian film.