An affectionate homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti / paella Westerns of the 1960’s, this Korean riff on horse operas is set in Manchuria in the 1930’s when that region had been taken over by Japan forcibly from an unstable China for its mineral wealth. The Korean peninsula had already been chafing under Japanese rule for nearly three decades so many individual Koreans, Japanese and Chinese alike were escaping to Manchuria, Japan’s Wild West, to make their fortunes. A steam train whooshing along a new rail line in that territory is carrying many such hopefuls and one passenger in particular is a Japanese official with a Russian map in his possession. His journey would be relaxing and uneventful were it not for a lone bandit, one Yoon Taegu (Song Kangho), who insists on taking the map for himself. While Taegu is shaking down the official (I’ll refer to the main characters by their personal names, not their surnames for obvious reasons), a group of ruffians led by debonair hitman Park Changyi (Lee Byunghun) arrives and derails the train; Changyi is also after the map on behalf of someone. While Changyi and his men rampage through the train carriages, a bounty hunter, Park Dowon (Jung Woosung), arrives on the scene searching for Changyi. In the ensuing bullet-zinging match, Taegu manages to get away on foot and scoots across the desert to where his pal Mangil is waiting on a motorbike. The two comrades race away from the train, observed by a second bunch of rogues led by Byungchun (Yoon Jemoon) on a distant hill.
This is but the prelude to an extended series of chases in which Changyi and Byungchun pursue Taegu for the map which Taegu believes will lead him to hidden Chinese treasures located somewhere deep in the interior Manchurian badlands. Along the way we have punch-ups and shoot-outs in a bar, an old lady’s home and through the alley-ways of a dusty town (over which Dowon, hanging onto a pulley with one hand and brandishing a gun in the other, swings above buildings and scaffolding Tarzan-style and picks off Changyi’s men in an inspired episode) and divers other locales. Everything culminates in a race across the desert, Taegu on the motorbike hightailing it for the mountains where the treasure is buried, with Changyi and Byunchun and their men in hot pursuit on horseback, eagerly followed by units of the Japanese Imperial Army. Dowon also turns up on his trusty steed, working his way through the soldiers and decimating them; being the good guy, of course he can take on hundreds of disposable soldiers and bandits and kill them all while remaining unscathed. Eventually Taegu, Changyi and Dowon converge on the place that corresponds to the spot marked “X” on the Russian map and find themselves in a three-way Mexican stand-off. Changyi reveals a secret and we viewers realise Changyi’s been pursuing Taegu for a personal reason as well; the dynamic between Dowon and Taegu, hitherto allies of convenience, changes drastically. This means more hot lead gets wasted – and who of the three also gets wasted? And does any of them actually find the treasure that’s thought to be buried in the ground?
The film is brisk and fast-paced with hardly any let-up: no sooner does one episode of bullet-fuelled mayhem end than another episode of frantic violence begins or has its roots. Short scenes of exposition link the action episodes and provide just enough information about the three main characters so we know something of their motives and why they’re chasing each other and the treasure. Clean-cut, plain-looking bounty hunter Dowon just wants to bring Changyi to justice and Changyi is an all-out psychotic villain with a certain Johnny Depp / Captain Jack Sparrow flamboyance in his hair-cut, make-up, clothes and ear jewellery. Most complex of the three is Taegu, the stocky and mostly clownish bandit who gets out of scrapes in the most comic of ways – though Western viewers will find his treatment of two antagonists in an out-of-town brothel a literal pain in the arse – and generally presents as a lovable if not too bright or morally upright chap until near the end when Changyi drops his clanger about a notorious bandit called Finger Chopper. Song who is already familiar to Western audiences in South Korean arthouse flicks “The Host” and “Thirst” does a sterling job giving substance and humanity to an otherwise stock cardboard comic character so that by the end you really can believe Taegu was once a hard-boiled criminal. The two Parks (the good one and the bad one) are rather more stereotyped, the good guy Dowon in particular not much more than a do-gooder, efficient robot with not much screen-time to show he may have motives other than the bounty money to want to chase down Changyi.
Some breath-taking desert and mountain landscapes feature in the film and the frontier towns with their wooden scaffolding, sturdy if slightly ramshackle buildings and surprisingly clean streets and alleys have an air of expectant excitement as though gunfights are a daily occurrence with regular set times, durations and body counts. Unusual filming techniques such as rotating the camera to get a panoramic view or following a character very closely through the train or the street add to the fast pace and give an edge to the already deranged plot and the crazy people populating it. The music deserves an honourable mention: true, it’s not a patch on Ennio Morricone’s score for the Sergio Leone flick whose title inspired this Korean film’s title but its mix of steel-tinged guitar melody, acid psychedelic synth tones and stern ghostly chanting is original and off-beat and suits the daft and goofy spirit of the film.
The film is very over-the-top and there are in-jokes, spoofs of horse opera genre conventions and sly digs at Korean, Japanese and Chinese nationality stereotypes that will go completely over a lot of people’s heads due to the frantic pace. I’m not sure that many people will be able to remember what they’ve seen after the film finishes as there is so much happening in a 2-hour span. There is a sketchy message about nursing past hurts, knowing when to let go, allowing bygones to be bygones and giving people the chance to make a new beginning for themselves. With regard to this message, director Kim had done an alternative ending for Korean audiences in which two characters survive the three-way gunfight but then one starts chasing the other in a never-ending futile cat-and-mouse game. Even the treasure itself turns out to be something other than what Taegu and everybody else had imagined so the whole chase itself, escapist and fun though it’s been, has been in vain.