Life is about chasing and being chased.
—The Good (Woo-sung Jung)
The Good, The Bad, The Weird does not hide its influences. Or rather, its influence: Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the 1966 film that epitomized “spaghetti Western” and whose simple, two-note theme (by Ennio Morricone) became synonymous with deserts, tumbleweeds, and pistol duels. Director Ji-woon Kim says he set out to make a “kimchi Western,” replacing American gunslingers with Koreans, and shifting the action from the American West to 1940s Manchuria. The film pays homage without being merely derivative; like a fine jazz riff, it makes a familiar tune fresh and vibrant.
Again, three men are chasing one another through the desert in search of buried treasure. This time, the Good (Woo-sung Jung) and the Bad (Byung-hun Lee) are both hired by rival gangs to steal a map. Everyone involved—from Manchurian independence fighters to the Japanese army to assorted rogues, thugs, and bandits—believes it’s a treasure map, though everyone describes the treasure differently. In the film’s opening action sequences, the Good and the Bad storm a train, only to be pre-empted by the Weird (Kang-ho Song). After robbing the train’s luxury car, he finds himself with the map, motorcycling across miles of beautifully desolate desert chased by two ruthless gunslingers.
Though always in motion, the three men retain their archetypal simplicity; like the plot, they’re distilled to pure essences. Good, a cloaked bounty hunter, conveys a stoic calm without saying a word. He’s a hired gun, but, per formula, he lives by a code. He lacks the flamboyance of his opposite number, Bad, who sports an asymmetric emo-style haircut and black, open-collared suit. (In one scene he throws a dagger across the room, impaling a huge centipede. He then shoots the dagger, driving the blade in deeper.) Bad’s face is scarred; he’s filled with rage and the desire for revenge. He makes his money by killing, but takes a perverse joy in torturing his victims.
Good and Bad will never change, and the film encourages viewers to recognize the dead-end aspect of their stories. Weird, apropos his name, is the only mutable character. For him, the treasure is not an end in itself, and he has little interest in proving his honor to the other gunslingers. Instead, he wants to leave the desolate blankness of Manchuria’s desert and return home, to raise livestock on a South Korean farm. Unlike the other two, he has a family, including a grandmother who helps hide the treasure map. He believes the treasure will allow him to buy a new kind of life, one less haunted by death.
Such possibilities are especially visible in the desert, vivid and sun-bleached, filmed by Mo-gae Lee and Seung-Chul Oh. Even the inevitable CGI-shots, including a swooping eagle in the opening sequence, have a fitting otherworldliness about them. Much as the plot evokes The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly without seeming unoriginal, the film’s look echoes classic Western iconography without seeming artificial or worse, campy.
Even the inevitable showdown succeeds on dramatic terms; the cliché still holds suspense. Like the rest of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the scene of three men in the desert, guns drawn, succeeds at being both familiar and fresh. The homage finds new life within conventions, lively, unexplored places on the map.