If you're thinking that sounds a bit like Sergio Leone's The Good The Bad The Ugly, you'd be right. This is the Korean version and it's a blast, being both a Western and a modern action movie. It's also the most expensive film to date in South Korean cinema history.
The story's set in Manchuria in the 1930s. The Japanese Imperial Army's in charge of the country and the Koreans are a dispossessed people. "Why buy land when your country's been stolen?" That's just backdrop, though, since our, um, heroes are the most badass bunch of killers you've seen in a long time. Even when the Japanese finally wheel out their army towards the end of the film, complete with artillery bombardments, the results aren't what you might expect. The Bad is Byung-hun Lee (A Bittersweet Life, Hero, GI Joe) and he's handsome and cool, dressed up throughout like a Korean James Bond, but also the kind of guy who'll gun down a woman for screaming without even bothering to look her way while he's doing it. The Weird is Kang-ho Song (The Host, Joint Security Area
, The Foul King, Secret Sunshine) and he's just as casual and efficient about killing people, but he's also a chubby goofball.
In contrast the Good (Woo-sung Jung) is comparatively enigmatic. You can't miss the Bad and the Weird, whatever they're doing, but we tend to see the Good more from a distance as he leaves holes the size of dinner plates in the scenery and his opponents. He's a less colourful role than the other two, especially the Weird, but he's certainly impressive. He gets the most flamboyant action moves, anyway.
The story is unimportant. There's a map. People want the map. You've seen Sergio Leone, haven't you? It's like that, but bigger. It's all about the characters and who they're currently trying to kill, which is quite likely to be each other. I'm not normally a big fan of action movies, but this one is so huge, mad and violent that it carried me along like a charm. Ji-woon Kim's gunfights are genuinely dangerous, which is refreshing, and he's got a way of shooting action that's completely different to the standard Michael Bay stuff we tend to get these days. Hollywood action movies keep trying to get more intimate. An action beat will be from the hero's point of view, a trend which when taken to extremes has given us shakycam and its cousin vomitcam. Ji-woon Kim on the other hand is doing big flamboyant pieces that give us a much clearer picture of the action and often deliberately forewarn us when something nasty's about to happen. This works really, really well.
The music's a huge part of that, by the way. They don't have an iconic tune like a film like Where Eagles Dare, but instead they've got what sounds like a stomping Oriental folk band with accordion, lots of brass, a banjo and at one point men going "hai hai!" Seriously. I'm in awe. It's pulse-pounding stuff and one of the best action movie scores I've ever heard.
If nothing else, you've got to admire Ji-woon Kim's balls in deliberately inviting comparisons with Sergio Leone. That's a challenge to squash 99% of movie-makers, but these Korean loons not only meet the challenge but in their own way surpass the master. I don't know if I'd call this a western, you know. Westerns to me are more brooding. This thing's more about mayhem, although it does know how to slow down for an old-fashioned showdown too. The finale is pretty much the same as Leone's, except that this film could be said to have an edge in not having Clint Eastwood. I adore Eastwood, but he's a cinematic icon and having him as the protagonist of your film gives rise to audience expectations as to who's likely to walk away at the end. Here, you won't have a clue. The three anti-heroes are all so unstoppable in the audience's eyes that any combination of them could live or die.
In the end, maybe even the director wasn't sure. This film has an international ending and a Korean ending for the domestic audience, one of which has more fatality than the other. Fortunately they're both on the DVD.
I don't remember noticing any subtext, although there is a certain amount of musing on the fact that the fate of all men is to die. (This is demonstrated by example.) However the three leads do get a certain amount of character work, to their own varying degrees.. The Bad is a little bit mad underneath his coolness, but the clear winner for charisma is the Weird. "Close your eyes, kids." He made me laugh, he goofs off and he's at once an idiot and a stone-cold badass with a moment near the end that's downright chilling. I've been hearing good things about Kang-ho Song.
Until this film, Kim Jee-woon apparently had a reputation for films about fascinating, sympathetic characters. The Foul King and A Tale of Two Sisters were telling stories you cared about. This on the other hand is macho nonsense. It just happens to be really good macho nonsense that's managing to go that final extra distance and create something new out of its familiar ingredients. Yes, it's borrowing from other films left, right and centre. That doesn't matter. It's all part of the alchemy.. You also needn't worry about it being crazy-ass Asian weirdness that's only fit for freaks (like me), because you just know Hollywood's going to be trying to synthesise Kim Jee-woon's formula here and churn out copies for years to come.
The only question is what to call it. What's the Korean equivalent of a Spaghetti Western? A Kimchee Western? The closing credits suggest Oriental Western, but wouldn't that simply make it an Eastern?