I’m not sure if the term originated from Kim Ji-woon himself or from some publicist trying to market the film to international and genre audiences, but “kimchi western” has become the unofficial genre designation for The Good, The Bad, The Weird. But what, exactly, is a “kimchi western”?
Well, if Kim’s film is any indication, then it’s the sort of western where the main villain, with his coiffure, mascara, piercings, and stylish black suit, looks more apt to be slinging guitars in The Killers than slinging guns at high noon; where the villain’s gang looks like a mix of Road Warrior extras and hip-hop gangstas; where folks kill bugs by throwing knives at them, and then shoot their knives; where shootouts occur as our hero careens through the air on zip lines and elaborate pulley systems; and where diving helmets are just as appropriate for headgear as “ten gallon” hats.
Or to put it another way, it’s the sort of western where the style is the substance — and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Frankly, it’s a relief for me to be able to say that, because for years, I’ve never really been able to bring myself to like Kim Ji-woon’s films (e.g., The Foul King, A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life). I’ve always appreciated and admired those films — Kim is nothing if not a consummate stylist, and a film like A Bittersweet Life is great to watch for its visuals, cinematography, etc. — but I’ve never really enjoyed them. Visuals aside, they’ve never struck a deeper chord with me.
Which is not to say that The Good, The Bad, The Weird is all that deep or thought-provoking (though it does have its moments, including a tragic little coda). First and foremost, it is a lot of spectacle pulled off with a lot of flair and panache — and a little genre-tweaking cheekiness — and at the end of the day, that’s plenty for me.
As you might guess from the title, the film begins as a riff on Sergio Leone’s masterpiece. “The Good” (Jung Woo-sung, who made a big impression on me in 2001’s stunning Musa) is a noble bounty hunter and sharpshooter chasing after “The Bad”. “The Bad” (heartthrob Lee Byung-hun) is a vicious psychopath who has been hired to steal a treasure map being sent to a Japanese official, and plans a stunning train heist — the film’s first big action sequence, and immediate proof that Kim is going for broke here — to do so.
“The Weird” (Song Kang-ho, who provides nearly all of the film’s best moments) is a seemingly bumbling thief who happens to hit the same train begin targeted by “The Bad”, and makes off with the map with both “Bad” and “Good” in hot pursuit. “Weird” believes the map will lead him to a secret cache of Qing Dynasty treasure, but the reality is a bit more complicated, especially when other factions send their forces after the map, too.
Throw in a bunch of Manchurian bandits, a senile grandmother, an opium dealer, and the Japanese army, and you’ve got a film spiced through and through with interesting and humorous characters. However, the focus remains squarely on the titular trio, and it’s to Kim’s credit that the film rarely becomes chaotic or sprawling no matter how many individuals fill up the screen.
Throw in Kim’s customary sense of style, some amazing desert cinematography, and some impressive set design — at the time of its release, this was the most expensive South Korean film of all time — and it’s a feast for the eyes. (Though if the action scenes in the last two Bourne films left you feeling a little queasy, you might want to brace yourself before heading into this one.)
And finally, throw in copious amounts of Santa Esmeralda’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (last heard in Kill Bill, Volume 1), Lee’s mugging and Song’s bumbling, and some stunning sequences (including a final chase across the Manchurian desert that grows larger and more ludicrous as it progresses), and you have a film that is a thrill to experience — a film where “style as substance” isn’t a disparagement, but rather an accurate summation in the very best sense possible.
Oh, and it’s a lot of fun, too.