Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Cast: Kang-ho Song, Byung-hun Lee, Woo-sung Jung
Director: Kim Ji-woon
Runtime: 136 min.
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean, Mandarin, Japanese
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Genre: Action, Western
Grand spectacular action has long fled modern movies, and all we seem to have been left with are CGI stunts to which I have never been really drawn to. The action film is one genre where even the slightest hint of artifice can spoil the whole experience. It gets better when it is real, and especially when it seems to confirm to the various laws of motion physics hands out to us. There’s a reason why T2 is an unparalleled achievement, and its genius lay in the astonishing manner in which James Cameron embeds his CGI figure into the real world and asks of him to confirm to good old-fashioned action stunts, and then amplifies him. An action sequence should never be smooth, should never feel polished, and even as much as the revving of an engine can send us into frenzy when done properly. It isn’t about outrageous stunts, but about feeling the punch, feeling the rush of the chase, and being drenched in the sheer spectacle of that world. The actual chase is just about as important as the place it is set in, and the time of the day it is happening at. The greatest of action films contain action set pieces that do not feel personal, that do not present a subjective view, but instead provide the smashing feel of the objective.
So, when I say Kim Ji-woon’s The Good the Bad the Weird is the action film, or the film I’ve been waiting for since Terminator 2 and The Road Warrior, I mean every word of it. With great impudence I declare there has not been a film quite like The Good the Bad the Weird since God knows when. It is entertainment of the highest order, a movie which exhibits flamboyant style and superb fascinating and rich characters at the same time. A movie which captivates us, and leaves us mouth agape by the sheer size of it. It is epic, and when I say epic, it means every promise that word makes to us. It is awesome, and when I say awesome, it feels as if the very word was born to describe this film. An experience if there was one. And while I’m at it, let me get done with the biggest praise anybody can ever confer on the film. I feel immense joy while I’m saying this, and, let me hold my breath here for a moment. Yes. Fine. In Ji-woon’s The Good the Bad the Weird, Sergio Leone’s The Good the Bad and the Ugly couldn’t have asked for a worthier heir. And for the record I have worshipped that masterpiece all my life.
To me, a large part of my appreciation of the art of cinema owes to Sergio Leone, one of its unquestionable masters, and one of the few who understood that the medium was infinitely more than mere narration. A man gifted with an unparalleled imagination and audacity. I learn from many quarters that Korean cinema of today is the most original and exciting place in all of the film world. I have seen only a few of theirs, and if Mr. Ji-woon’s film is any indication, I would say that is an understatement. For that matter even a word like extravaganza might sound like a whimper if its services were employed here. You ask me why I love movies. Watch this film, and you’ll have an answer.
The plot is little, very little, and so deliberately little it isn’t allowed to stand in the way of us and the film. The time is the 1930s, the place is the Manchurian desert, and the Japanese and Koreans and Chinese are fighting to gain control of it all. The only ones missing are the Russians, and if you seek history I advice you to look elsewhere. What you ought to seek instead, and what is being sought by everyone here is a map to a buried Manchurian treasure. And amidst all of that are three men after the fortune. The Bad is Park Chang-yi (Mr. Lee) who is the best there is at whatever he does, and has been hired to steal the map from a man escorted by Japanese forces on a train. The Weird is Yoon Tae-goo (Mr. Song), and he is a good old fashioned train robber, a man who apparently might seem like a buffoon because he is supposed to (Tuco), but a man who is less about talking and flamboyance and more about being resourceful and practical. In this world of heightened arrogance he seems to be the outsider, never to shy from backing away. The Good is Park Do-won (Mr. Jung), a bounty hunter who has been asked to get rid of Chang-yi and get hold of the map. He isn’t Blondie, and anybody who has lived The Good the Bad and the Ugly will tell you that is an impossibility. The film knows that too, and audaciously takes on the challenge, and wins it just about as handsomely as anyone can. Mr. Ji-woon understands, and so does Mr. Sung that the character is all about subtlety, all about silence, all about understatement and all about composure. Unlike most who have tried to emulate Leone’s Blondie, they know character has always been about focusing on the action first, and the aura and the coolness would follow later on its own. Here a weird thought comes to mind. Jacques Kallis and Steve Waugh would have made great Blondies.
Now this is a ruse to have the three men on the train. More importantly it is a ruse to kick off things with a most spectacular opening action sequence. And on that train is where I feel it is best to leave describing the plot. No worries anyway because the plot is an excuse to show off the most audaciously enthusiastic filmmaking I remember having seen in a very, very long time. In the middle of the most epic chase sequence there has been in living memory, Mr. Ji-woon summons all the creativity and all of that infectious love he seems to have for making movies, and pushes his filmmaking to a million miles beyond its limits. It is a sequence of awe, of beauty, of delight, of power, of spectacle, of thrill, of laughter and of every emotion we have ever felt in cinema this size. There’s the joy of Raiders of the Lost Ark, there’s the excitement of Stagecoach and there’s the bold originality of The Road Warrior. Everybody is chasing everybody, and while the camera is running along in the chase, Mr. Ji-woon out of nowhere decides to hell with who’s chasing whom and frames the action with a staccato run from upfront just to exhibit what a film he is delivering to us. And we applaud. If it were a theatre I was watching the film in, I would have committed myself to a standing ovation. I regret that is not how it is, but that fantasy of mine to be something like Clare of Theodore Roszak’s Flicker – rent a place, procure the print of it in whichever way and show it to one and all – might have received just the shot of zeal it needed to be realized. Relishing this awesome film on the big screen, and applauding every moment of it is kind of like the dream I wish I could have in my sleep tonight. Just to stand below it and applaud. Applaud every single frame that is such a marvel, with such ambitious flourish to it all.
The film is a western, and much like most eastern westerns, it seeks inspiration from the more known and more enjoyed spaghetti form of the genre. It then lends to the proceedings the kind of high kinetic treatment that feels so native. It is a kung fu film, but without no kung fu. Maybe a Leone film at the pace of a kung fu film might be a better approximation of the energy that we experience here. Sergio Leone, in the rarest of feats, employed a style in The Good the Bad and the Ugly that called attention to itself without ever pulling us out of its universe. Roger Ebert, in one of his most insightful essays on any film, captures the essence of that style when he says –
Leone cares not at all about the practical or the plausible, and builds his great film on the rubbish of Western movie clichés, using style to elevate dreck into art……It may be entirely an exercise in style, a deliberate manipulation by the director, intended to draw attention to itself. If you savor the boldness with which Leone flirts with parody, you understand his method. This is not a story, but a celebration of bold gestures.
Indeed they’re, and much of what Mr. Ji-woon attempts doesn’t seem calibrated, but one which is tremendously ambitious and ecstatic in its boundless courage. Mr. Ji-woon doesn’t venture anywhere near the conventional, and doesn’t try to build a masterpiece, or a work of perfection. What he seems to be striving for is a magnificence lent to its every moment, where every bit of it is epic. It is remarkable, and I say remarkable because that is the secret to the great joy this film is overflowing with. Not concerned about anything other than the bliss of the moment. It is so fantastic with its actors, framing most of their individual moments so perfectly that you almost feel like labeling them epic shots. A guy hires Chang-yi and tells him he is the best in the whole of Manchuria. The film seizes the moment, frames him up close, and captures every bit of awesomeness there is as he asks – Just Manchuria?
The performances in such a film are always a pleasure, because the actors can always sense a generous filmmaker. So generous that even the guy who makes an appearance for barely a minute is etched into your memory. Mr. Lee as the bad guy cheerfully chews scenery, but does it with utmost grace. But the movie belongs to Mr. Song, in what is a superb comedic performance of many layers of a man who feels like a buffoon out of choice. I wouldn’t say much in fear of spoiling the film, but would choose to point out it is one of the great performances of the year.
This is South Korea’s biggest movie ever in terms of its budget, and from the reports I read, it has had a phenomenal run at the box-office, breaking quite a lot of admission records. In many ways the film might be the savior the Korean film industry has been searching for with all of its dwindling business of late. If it does that is because it doubledares. And if you think trying to emulate Eastwood’s Blondie finds the film at its most daring, you might be wrong. There’s that most famous ending of all time, one which Tarantino hailed as the greatest sequence in all of film history, and Mr. Ji-woon doesn’t shy away. And in a remarkable feat, he puts an altogether different spin and pulls off something that might not be as operatic but just as beautiful and just as awesome. That film stretched its every moment that preceded the actual shooting; this one stretches its every moment of shooting. It is amazing how much of the film is about pulling it off, something not only astonished about, but to be studied over a period of time just to realize how influential it might end up being.
Now, to all those The Dark Knight questions bothering you, all I can say is it is to The Good the Bad the Weird what Terminator 2: Judgment Day is to The Good the Bad and the Ugly. I know, I’m talking in absolute crescendos here, but that is how the geek in me sounds when a film blows him away. And I hope you realize here that this is the kind of film that will make you sound like one. Mr. Ji-woon has created a film that is just about as big, if not bigger and more spectacular than what Nolan unleashed upon us. That they have both come to us in the same year is a matter of great jubilation, and a cause for celebration. I have long complained, but I no longer will. To make a film as The Good the Bad and The Ugly or The Good the Bad the Weird is to understand to the greatest depths why movies work, and then create something that is just about perfect on all counts. To promise us the time of our lives and then deliver on it tenfold, and some to spare. If you love movies and cherish the experience of movie-going, this is a film you just should not miss. Its every moment will seem like your dreams coming true. And if you don’t bother much about films, and have somehow ended up here reading these words, this is a fantastic film to start the journey.
Note: If you consider my The Dark Knight – Terminator 2 analogy far-fetched here’s something for your consideration. Batman-Harvey Dent-Joker. T101-John Connor-T1000. And don’t even get me started on the ending, where T101self terminates.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 2:16 AM