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Good, bad or weird? A look at Kim Jee-woon’s classic western

Now the festival is over, perhaps it’s time to set down some thoughts on the lead film, Kim Ji-woon’s Manchurian western. This was one of the most hotly anticipated films in recent years, on a par with Lady Vengeance and Secret Sunshine. Kim Ji-woon has built up an enviable track record with his past films. Did his latest measure up to expectations?

The answer is, yes and no. Nom Nom Nom is a riotous frolic of a film, with non-stop action and a fair amount of comedy. It might be tightly plotted, but for many viewers (myself included) the scenes fly by so fast that you might miss what’s happening. Not that it matters particularly.

Jung Woo-sung: the Good
Jung Woo-sung: the Good

And be prepared to suspend your disbelief. What, precisely, is Jung Woo Sung swinging from when he launches himself in a wide arc across the rooftops on a rope, picking off the bad guys with his rifle? What, precisely, is a very well-appointed and well-frequented brothel doing slap bang in the middle of the desert? What, precisely, happened to the three young girls who were in Song Kang-ho’s sidecar one minute, gone the next? How many bullets does it take to kill a lead actor? Who cares? It’s all a bit of fun, and these are the sorts of questions which arise in any action film.

What’s enjoyable are the camera-work (particularly the opening scene when Song Kang-ho is followed down the train as he sells snacks before reaching the first class carriage), the spectacle of the desert chase scenes (the influences of Mad Max and Ben Hur are clear) and of course the shoot-’em-up action scenes. Director Kim certainly achieved his objective of making a film that’s bigger and faster than these and other predecessors.

Lee Byung-hun: the Bad
Lee Byung-hun: the Bad

Yet is the film’s achievement more than the sum of its undoubtedly enjoyable parts? Is it a film to which one will return in order to savour it anew or to uncover new subtleties? Possibly not, at least not as much as one might with some of his previous works (particularly Foul King and Tale of Two Sisters).

Characterisation-wise, Jung Woo-sung probably has the worst time, with nothing much in the script to give him interest. Why his character is Good is not clear. Lee Byung-hun as the Bad has an abundance of coolness, while Song Kang-ho as the Weird continues his series of roles as the lovable buffoon who always seems to pull through in the end.

Which brings us to the ending, which is perhaps the least satisfactory aspect of the film, and I don’t think that’s a statement about western preferences for a conclusive resolution. As the three lead actors have their final inevitable confrontation, to which the film has been leading for the past two hours, what are we supposed to conclude about the elusive treasure they have been chasing? Is Kim making a political statement about the nature of that treasure, over which so much blood has been shed? Or is this just another question that should not be asked?

Song Kang-ho: the Weird
Song Kang-ho: the Weird

Whatever, it’s a highly entertaining film to watch on the big screen. Like the latest Bond film though, just don’t ask too many questions.

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