I don’t know why I sat down with a Korean spaghetti-western-influenced comic action flick from the director of A Tale of Two Sisters after the disappointment of Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django, but I’m glad I did. This was a hot pile of fun, more true in spirit to its source material than the Miike but plenty contemporary in its staging of action. Some of the most exciting (fast-cut yet spatially-coherent) editing I’ve seen in a while, certainly better than in Star Trek or Fist of Legend and great characters (the prototype super-cool good guy and super-evil bad guy are here, but the hero is an amoral thief, the comic-relief character) excuse the failure of the story to ever come together.
Action takes place in Manchuria (so truly in “the west” from Korea). Unlike Sukiyaki but like the Leone flicks, there are practically no women. A prostitute here, someone’s aged aunt there, but the wild west is a man’s world. And wild it is – ruthless and brutal, killing hundreds without hesitation, but maybe in reference to the old westerns it avoids lingering on dead bodies or showing grievous wounds, so it’s ultraviolent but more in the Sam Peckinpah body-count manner than in modern Tokyo Gore Police fashion.
Kang-ho Song, star of The Host, is our thief, and it’s great to see him playing a more lively soul than the dimwitted Host hero. The “Good” bounty hunter, fastest draw in the west, is secretly out for revenge on the goth-haired bad guy (Byung-hun Lee, star of Chan-wook Park’s segment of Three Extremes and soon to play Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe). A couple older guys and their men are tracking these three, but I never figured out who they are exactly, following after a mythical treasure map in the thief’s possession, and everyone is being followed by the Japanese army (Japan occupied Korea from pre-WWI through WWII). Everybody seems to be in a different underground independence movement, and the map has political ramifications that I didn’t puzzle out.
The bad guy dies in the end, as he would have to, in a brutal shootout with the good guy… but not before the movie strangely decides to reveal our comic thief’s past life as a finger-snatching serial killer. So the chase continues in epilogue with the bounty hunter after him. Strange choice, like at the end of For a Few Dollars More suddenly declaring Clint Eastwood is a wanted criminal in another state, Lee Van Cleef chasing him into the sunset with guns blazing.
Like any Leone movie it has its slow drawn-out character parts, but the movie seems well aware of what it’s doing with pacing and editing, if not story – and maybe I’ll figure that out when I see it again. Jimmy, we should’ve watched this one instead.