After the intelligent psychological horror movie A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and the noir-inflected A Bittersweet Life (2005), Kim Jee-woon returns with an Asian take on the Western. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is an uproarious action-packed romp with more than a nod to Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), from the gunslingers’ supremely cool attitude in the face of death to the nonchalant whistling on the Ennio Morricone-inspired soundtrack.
Virginie Sélavy talked to the director during the London Korean Film Festival in October 2008.
Virginie Sélavy: You seem to tackle a new genre every time you make a film: you did comedy horror in The Quiet Family (1998), horror in A Tale of Two Sisters, film noir in A Bittersweet Life and now you’re taking on the Western. Is this deliberate?
Kim Jee-woon: I don’t know yet which genre I’m best at so I have to try lots of different ones! I don’t want to repeat a genre that I’ve already done because working with a variety of styles inspires me and gives me more cinematic energy. The genre I choose for each film is directly related to the theme. For example, when I chose horror, the theme of the film was the fear of things that you can and cannot see. Action films are about violence. With film noir it’s about the point at which people will break. And with a Western, the theme is revenge; it’s about strong male characters competing about who’s the best; and it’s about chasing and being chased. So when I choose a genre I choose a theme.
VS: In the credits, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is labelled an ‘oriental Western’. In what way is it different from a traditional Western?
KJW: Traditional Westerns have a low-key construction, a slow pace and simple action. I wanted to appeal to a more modern audience by making the action more powerful, by speeding up the pace and by having multi-dimensional characters, rather than just good and bad characters. Rather than just say ‘oriental Western’ I prefer to say that it’s a ‘kimchi Western’. Kimchi is a Korean dish of fermented cabbage, it’s very spicy and very hot. I like to call it that because the film reflects Korean people, who are very dynamic and spicy, just like kimchi.
VS: The Good, The Bad, The Weird was clearly very strongly influenced by Sergio Leone. Do you see your film as a homage, a parody or a re-invention?
KJW: All of them (laughs)! It started as a homage, but I tried to make it fun, with lots of humour, and I believe that there is some re-invention. It’s all of them.
VS: Why replace ‘The Ugly’ with ‘The Weird’?
KJW: Because when you call a character ‘Ugly’ it’s very limiting. But when you call a character ‘Weird’ it triggers your imagination, it makes you excited and it makes you expect more.
VS: The character of Tae-goo/The Weird, played by Song Kang-ho, seems to be the most different from the characters in both Leone’s films and in spaghetti Westerns in general. He seems closer to the type of character that Song Kang-ho also plays in The Host (2006) and in Memories of Murder (2003). At first, he seems to be a fool, but in the end he is revealed to be the most complex character in the film. Was he the character that you found most interesting?
KJW: The Tae-goo character is closer to human nature. You can identify with him. The Good and The Bad are very conventional characters, so without The Weird this film would only be entertainment. That’s why I wanted The Weird to lead the whole story, so human life was reflected through his character – it’s about how it can get complicated and how things can go wrong.
VS: You’ve said before that no one is meant to be just The Good, just The Bad or just The Weird, but Do-won seems to be the one with more good in him, Chang-yi with more bad in him and Tae-goo with more weird in him.
KJW: Initially they’re all good, bad and weird in their own way. Do-won is good, Chang-yi is bad and Tae-goo is weird, but to make things more complicated, I gave a different mission to all the characters. I told The Good that his mission was to do super-spectacular action, I told The Bad to express emotions and sensibility and I asked The Weird to lead the story and the pace of the film.
VS: There are many references to the Koreans no longer having their own country in the film. How important is the historical background to the story?
KJW: I chose that period and that place because that’s probably the most suitable time for a Western, so it’s the other way around – the story came first. But because the historical issues were very heavy during that period, whether I intended it or not, people always say there are political issues in the film.
VS: Why do you feel that this was the best period for a Western?
KJW: First of all, to make a Western it’s very important to have a place where you can ride a horse, and as you can see in the film, the endless landscape in Manchuria is perfect. There were all those countries, China, Japan, Russia, fighting for control of Manchuria at that time, so there’s this atmosphere of lawlessness that is very suitable. It also means that there are lots of different people there for different reasons and I was interested in showing this multicultural situation. And then, there are a lot of bandits, which was also perfect for a Western and I wanted to show that very rough, wild time.
VS: You say that political issues are not important, but the idea that the three main characters are free but don’t have a country comes back several times. Is the film about Korean identity in some way?
KJW: The scene where Do-won and Tae-goo talk under the moonlight is about identity and for that reason probably appeals more to Korean audiences than to Western audiences. It’s about a certain Korean sensibility.
VS: There is also a very spectacular scene in which Do-won single-handedly inflicts some serious losses on the Japanese army. It’s a great action scene but I was wondering if it was also a way of expressing some kind of anger at Japan in a humorous way?
KJW: I guess you’re right (laughs). Er… (more laughs). Yes, but it is only in a humorous way, it’s not a political statement.