The Good, the Bad, the Weird: escapist and fun spoof homage to Sergio Leone spaghetti / paella Westerns

Kim Jiwoon, “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” (2010)

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.

Mother (by Bong Joonho): force of nature that can’t be pigeon-holed

Bong Joonho, “Mother” (2008)

There aren’t many good movies these days where the central character is a middle-aged woman. Of course she’s a mother – most women her age are mothers after all – but never was there a mother like the unnamed Mother (played by Kim Hyeja) whose protective instincts for her son Dojoon (Won Bin) and sense of justice combine to make her an unstoppable force of nature, resulting in her finding out things she really doesn’t want or need to know, getting into dangerous situations and behaving in ways she’ll later regret. Right from the start, you know Mother is no ordinary woman: the film’s opening scenes set her standing or walking alone in a vast sea of wild greenery, looking as if she’s communing with the spirits of the trees, the earth and the sky; later we see her in her herbal shop, cutting up some strange dried roots and an inspector comes by to chide her for practising acupuncture without a licence. The suggestion that Mother is a throwback to Korea’s shamanic tradition, usually passed down from mother to daughter, is strong. We see Mother going about her business and learn that she has an adult son who might be mentally retarded and is easily led astray by his friend Jintae (Jin Gu). An early scene hints that Mother and Do-joon may have an incestuous relationship though perhaps the simplest explanation is that Mother has always had Dojoon in her bed since the day he was born.

Dojoon is accused of beating a teenage schoolgirl to death and is forced to sign a confession by the police. Mother simply cannot believe her son is capable of murder so she enlists the help of police and a lawyer to help clear his name, only to be frustrated at their apathy or incompetence so she resorts to playing detective herself. This investigation leads her into a near-confrontation with gang violence and some seedy information about the teenage victim among other things.

One thing about this movie is that it never settles into one thing or one stereotype about people. Is the film a crime film, a social commentary or a character study thriller? It’s a bit of everything: “Mother” sweeps from one genre to another as Mother impulsively dives into one perilous situation and then another, oblivious to her own safety until actually threatened, at which point she may scuttle somewhere, hide or just lash out instinctively without thought for the consequences. You kind of sense that director Bong himself lost control of the plot at times and allowed his star Kim to drag him and the film crew into wild rural locations which, though beautiful on the screen, were also uncomfortable: in later scenes, Mother treks through mud and marsh just to reach a lone eccentric in his shack and the film crew has to follow. Kim Hyeja gives everything she has to her role as Mother and holds the whole film together despite her unassuming manner.

In the end (OK, spoiler alert here), the police find the culprit but in a way that suggests that, nasty enough fellow though he is, he has also been tortured into making a confession. By this time, Mother herself has become a changed woman. Her investigations have come to naught but has she learnt something about herself and the people around her? Will Mother be more conforming, more considerate of others, more thoughtful about her actions and their impact on others? Will she be a less attractive character as a result?

As for the other characters, Won as Dojoon gives a good impression as the son who can be amazingly lucid at times yet is clearly immature and needs the kind of guidance that Mother and Jintae aren’t able to give. Something about him hints that he may indeed be capable of murder. In short, like Mother he just can’t be pinned down to a good-guy or bad-guy stereotype. Everyone else serves as a means of highlighting the system that victimises Mother and Dojoon as outsiders and leads Mother to commit desperate acts; so folks may appear to be one thing in one situation and then something else again in another. Generally what we see here through “Mother” is Bong’s exploration of a society that is rigid, self-controlled and self-censoring, treating people as things to push around when it wants and demanding much out of them. To survive in such a society, people end up being two-faced: the lawyer is initially officious and demands a hefty fee, then becomes a drunken womaniser; the police are lazy yet quick to punish; teenagers may be good kids at school and at home and still get involved in trading sexual favours.

No wonder that Mother is only really at peace when she is in contact with Nature which becomes an essential character in the movie: there are many scenes with rural or semi-rural backgrounds, all lovingly filmed in a lingering way, so beautiful and so appealing to the eye. If movies could be travelogues for countries, then “Mother” could be one for provincial South Korea, just for the countryside and the picturesque houses alone; as for the people who populate the place, I’m not so sure … Even so, Nature is a pretty hard partner to manage and Mother’s own nature, operating on emotion and intuition, leads her into situations and actions that can be horrific.

There are some really very powerful issues within this movie about the nature of Korean society and the oppression that people like Mother and Dojoon suffer under it, and how it affects the way they think and act and must cope with the consequences of their behaviour.

The Housemaid (dir. Im Sang-soo) delivers high-gloss soap opera entertainment

Im Sang-soo “The Housemaid” (2010)

How do you remake an old film regarded as a classic and made by a director who’s not only influenced you but also most of your fellow directors? That must surely have been the question hanging over Im Sang-soo when he took on Kim Ki-young’s 1960 film “The Housemaid”. I’ve never seen the original movie but from what I’ve been able to read about it, it must have been pretty mind-blowing at the time. A woman employed by a family rising on the social mobility escalator has an affair with her employer but is forced to abort her baby so she swears vengeance on the family and the resulting murder-suicide is not a pretty sight to behold. Doesn’t sound like much but the real attraction of the film was in its melodramatic and expressionistic direction, the way in which characters’ demented actions reflected something of their dire circumstances and the crazy society they lived in. I guess the answer to the question is to turn the original film’s premise on its head while otherwise being faithful to the plot and some of its themes, superficially at least: whereas in the original, the maid tormented the family, in the remake it’s now the family’s turn to torment the maid and in that, reflect something of the circumstances and the current crazy society in which the protagonist and antagonists live.

Im ends up delivering a glossy film that probably has little of the thrill of the original movie. A young woman Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn) is employed as housemaid and nanny by a wealthy couple in their palatial mansion. From the outset, the odds are stacked against the housemaid: the housekeeper Mrs Cho (Yoon Yeo-jeong) blows hot and cold in her loyalty to the family, let alone in her attitude towards the maid; the lady of the house Hae-ra (Seo Woo) is a heavily pregnant self-centred spoilt trophy wife; and her husband Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) is a self-assured princeling of an unnamed powerful business dynasty who’s used to taking what he wants. Only little daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyun) shows Eun-yi any affection and sympathy for the work she does. Even the house itself is a formidable character: much of it is huge empty space and its surfaces are polished marble, reflecting the emptiness of the family’s emotional life together and the gloss they wear figuratively as well as literally in their clothes and accessories. The family follows a hyper-Western lifestyle, collecting abstract art, playing and listening to classical music, employing personal trainers and requiring their domestic staff to wear starched Western uniforms and prepare Western meals of the nouvelle cuisine kind.

Perhaps Hoon watches a lot of sexy Western arthouse movies too for he quickly warms to Eun-yi and before you know it, they’re bonking away like rabbits, Eun-yi blissfully happy at the attention Hoon pays to her (and probably blissfully unaware that he might have done the same thing to the last housemaid). The inevitable happens and Mrs Cho passes the news to Hae-ra’s mother Mi-hee (Park Ji-young) who goes straight into bitch-mother mode, causing Eun-yi to have an accident that lands her in hospital where the staff confirm the pregnancy. When Hae-ra is convinced of her husband’s infidelity, she and Mi-hee plot to force Eun-yi into having a miscarriage and then an abortion – the film suggests both – and Eun-yi, learning from Mrs Cho what the two women have done, plans her revenge.

The movie moves just too fast for the seduction scene and Eun-yi’s apparent joy at being seduced to be credible; it’s as if Im assumes everyone watching the film already knows the original movie so he’ll just cut straight to the chase and show how bitchy rich women can be when a poor woman threatens to usurp their position by getting pregnant to the master. Nearly everyone in the film lapses into a character stereotype: Eun-yi as poor, put-upon housemaid who’s a bit thick in the head; Hoon as the smarmy rich chauvinist ruling the roost; Hae-ra as the high-maintenance wife and Mi-hee as Supreme Bitch Queen. The only really interesting character is housekeeper Mrs Cho, taken for granted by the family: starting off as a bitter slave, jealous and contemptuous enough of Eun-yi that she tittle-tattles on her to Mi-hee, setting off the tragic train of events, Mrs Cho becomes Eun-yi’s potential saviour, offering the younger woman freedom at various points in the movie and summoning the bravery to quit her job and walk out. In-between the more momentous parts, Mrs Cho provides light comic relief by parodying her employers’ actions when no-one’s looking: scoffing meal leftovers, getting tipsy from the hooch and lounging on the furniture.

On the whole the movie’s too busy speeding towards the showdown between Eun-yi and the family to pay attention to character development. If Im intended this movie as an allegory on the nature of class relationships in modern South Korean society, he’s done a good job here: poor people can protest as much as they want at the injustices pissed on them by the rich but their actions end up backfiring on themselves. The rich may be shocked and apologetic but this state is temporary. The nature of Eun-yi’s revenge and the coda that follows suggest as much: Eun-yi creates havoc which makes for incredible melodrama but it ends up consuming her. One has no real sense of the depth of her suffering and the revenge comes across as selfish and futile, not as a cry for justice. The family continues on without Eun-yi and Mrs Cho. Apart from the social-political message, the film isn’t more than a tarted-up soap opera with stock characters and a grotesque conclusion.

Let’s be fair to Im though: how many other directors in South Korea and elsewhere, given the opportunity to remake Kim Ki-young’s movie, could have done it justice? There is a reason he and the original “The Housemaid” are so famous: Kim must have been one of a kind, willing to investigate conditions in Korean society in 1960 at the time, how they affected people and women in particular, and interpret them in a way that resonated with the public and captured its imagination.