The Good, The Bad and The Weird

Fri, Feb 6, 2009, 00:00

YES, THAT’S right. Some bright spark has had the idea of taking Sergio Leone’s best bits and restaging them in a surprising location during an unlikely era.

Sound familiar? If your thoughts are grimly turning to Robert Rodriguez’ tiresome Once Upon a Time in Mexico, then think again. Kim Jee-woon, director of the magnificent Korean horror A Tale of Two Sisters, has unleashed Leone’s tropes on Manchuria of the 1930s, and the results are barmily entertaining.

It is true to say that, like Rodriguez, Kim references the playfulness in the Italian’s work, but fails to rediscover any of that odd master’s operatic seriousness. Unlike Robert, he does persuade the material to discard its baggage and settle comfortably into a new environment. Even if you’ve never seen a Leone film, you should still enjoy this energetic Eastern.

The plot is close to that of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. A vain, strutting hitman (Bad), a scruffy, cheeky thief (Weird) and a flawed, but decent bounty hunter (Good) traverse the wilderness of Manchuria in their search for what appears to be a treasure map. Along the way, they encounter the Japanese army and get drawn into the struggle for Korean independence.

Leone fanatics will have fun spotting stylistic and narrative nods towards their hero. The film begins with a version of the train scene from Once Upon a Time in the West, goes on to take in vehicles from Duck, You Suckerand (this can hardly be a spoiler) ends with a take on the final showdown in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

At times, the picture does feel like an overly referential post- modern gag, but Kim injects such unique chaos into proceedings (one fine, hugely long take catapults us through a desert hamlet) and draws such agreeably odd performances from his cast that the film eventually starts to breathe its own air.

Leone, who drew so many plots from Kurosawa, owed a great deal to Asian cinema. Repayment of that debt continues.