Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Bad with the Good

One of the reasons that I don't assign letter grades or stars or whatever to movies is because the experience of watching movies--for me anyway--is often unduly influenced by the circumstances of my life at the time of viewing. I don't trust myself to quantify my movie experience in those kinds of concrete terms. While I don't mind spinning a verbal impression of the experience, it may not have any bearing on the actual merits of the movie itself. This explains why I'm having such a hard time with Jee-Woon Kim's The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008). On the face of it, I should have had a great time. I love star Song Kang-Ho, who is one of the world's great movie stars right now. I've loved Kim's other films. Hell, the idea of a Korean quasi-remake of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly fills me with a kind of manic glee. It should have worked. I should have walked out of the film with a huge, goofy grin on my face.

But I didn't. I had a pretty bad time. I don't know that I can blame the film.

I went to this movie with my long-suffering partner. She sometimes has serious problems with violent movies. I'm not sure what triggers this, though I can make some guesses. Suffice it to say that it's pretty random. She has no problem with, say, John Carpenter's The Thing, but she can't take random kung-fu movies. Going to violent movies with her is like navigating a minefield. The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, unfortunately, was one of those movies that set off whatever internal trauma that haunts her. She had to leave the theater about two-thirds of the way into the film. She waited for me in the lobby. Needless to say, this colors my impression of the movie. I spent the remainder of the movie feeling like shit for bringing her to see it. This kind of makes it hard to enjoy what's on the screen.

The movie itself is a cartoon. It's a spaghetti western crossed with Looney Tunes and set in 1930s Manchuria. It starts with a chase, puts its foot on the gas, and presses "go" for the rest of the movie. The story follows three characters: the "good" is Park Do-Won , a disillusioned Korean freedom fighter who is drowning the loss of his country in his work as a bounty hunter. He cuts a fine figure as a cowboy.

The "bad" is Park Chang-Yi, a merciless assassin obsessed with his place as the most dangerous man in Asia. He's kind of a dandy, with hair always spiked just so, like a refugee from anime.

The "weird" is amiable thief Yoon Tae-goo, who is the object of the chase. He's the most open of the characters, but he's the one with the deepest secrets. He hides them behind a steampunk get-up that makes him seem like a clown.

Yoon Tae-goo has stolen a map that everyone in Manchuria wants. This includes black marketeers, a colorful menagerie of bandits, a spymaster in a house of love, and the Imperial Japanese army. The movie starts with a train chase, then escalates from there into increasingly complicated action set pieces in a teahouse, in the warrens of the black market, and finally in an elaborate cavalry battle in which all comers collide. As does its role model, it ends with a three-way stand-off above the treasure. It writes a slightly different ending, though, one that suggests that the violence of the entire movie has been one long exercise in futility. This isn't a new development for Jee-Woon Kim. His last film, A Bittersweet Life has a similar dialectic between the futility and the thrill of violence (and, truth be told style versus substance).

I think that last part is what turned off my companion. I think she was hip to the fact that none of the characters was worth rooting for (I don't necessarily agree) and that whatever their ultimate end, it just wasn't worth the trip. She may have a point, given that that's the conclusion reached by the filmmakers themselves, too.

Still and all, I can still watch action for action's sake, and some of the action in this movie is staged with amazing panache. The sequence where Yoon Tae-goo makes his escape from the ghost market inn over walls and roofs is a bravura piece of filmmaking and the one damned thing after another way it goes about escalating its situations has a certain droll comedy to it. The downside of ever escalating action sequences is that if they go on too long, they start to either drone or pummel. At well over two hours, this film is probably too long.

It sometimes seems like would-be horror auteur Brian Yuzna has been trying to be Stuart Gordon for all of his career. I mean, he worked with Gordon as a producer during Gordon's salad days, so you would think that Yuzna would have learned a thing or two from sheer proximity. Unfortunately, it seems like he still hasn't learned anything. 2005's Beneath Still Water, Yuzna's most recent film at this writing, finds the director taking a break from Re-Animator retreads in favor of ripping off Gordon's Dagon. Set in a sleepy little village in northern Spain nestled downstream from a dam that eradicated another town that had been full of depraved cultists, it finds whatever slumbers under the lake stirring on the eve of the dam's fortieth anniversary. In a related plot thread, the head of the cult has returned to wreak his vengeance on the granddaughter of his archenemy. The hero of the piece is a British photojournalist who is haunted by the death of his son. He finds himself drafted into the role after a disastrous dive in the sunken town delivers him into the middle of a boating "accident" investigation. It's all very convenient, and very stock.

While it may want to evoke Dagon, more often it evokes Piranha and Zombie 2 rather than anything Lovecraftian. At the very end it jumps the rails into one of those kinds of party scenes that Roger Corman used to like, only with a cast of European actors who have no qualms about getting naked and getting kinky. On balance, it has a pretty good underwater setting (and the special effects that create it are mostly convincing). It has an agreeable cast of faces familiar to anyone who follows recent Spanish horror movies. It walks an uncomfortable line by having everything in English, but that's the deal Yuzna made with the devil when he went to Spain, I guess. There are lots of gooey effects, too, courtesy of Fantasy Factory. What it lacks is mood and atmosphere, which drags things down considerably. On the whole, it's not horrible, but it all feels like the filmmakers are playing with somebody else's toys.


Jaye Schmus said...

I know I said on Facebook that I would watch this, but the words "Oriental Western" conjure up odd feelings in me, largely because of a little film I rented a while back entitled "Sukiyaki Western Django". It sounded like a lot of fun, but I couldn't watch the whole thing.

DeAnna said...

I was so excited when I heard about The Good, the Bad, and the Weird. And I even waited to rent it until I would have the time to devote to it, because it seemed like one of those movies that might need to be watched again and again and again. Well, it was a huge disappointment. Sadly, it's probably been a couple of years since I watched it, but all I took away from it was being hugely impressed by Kang-ho Song. I'd seen him in several films already, but here, I was impressed by his comic abilities. Seems I was mostly bored by it.

And Jaye, don't give up on Asian westerns. Thai westerns seriously rock. Check out Tears of the Black Tiger.