Sure, Mr. Tarantino is getting all sorts of credit for his lively reinvention of the western with "Django Unchained," but a few years ago Kim made a western just as explosively experimental. "The Good, The Bad, The Weird," as the title suggests, is heavily indebted to the films of Sergio Leone, pitting three cowboys – The Good (Jung Woo-sung), The Bad (Lee Byung-hun with the most anachronistic haircut in any western ever) and The Weird (Song Kang-ho) in a race to locate and unearth hidden treasure in the deserts of Manchuria. (This loot also attracts the attention of Japanese and Russian governments, adding to the levels of danger and intrigue.) From a fairly straightforward premise (it's literally a mad dash for a treasure map), Jee-Woon piles on the embellishments and embroidery, staging action sequences that are relentlessly and utterly real, beginning with the opening train heist sequence and including a number of jaw-dropping gunfights that feature more swinging than the last three "Spider-Man" movies combined. The movie climaxes with the ultimate reveal of what the treasure is (which makes perfect sense, if you only stop to think about it), one of the best twists in recent memory. "The Good, The Bad, The Weird" is a movie that is so wildly over-the-top, so crazily Kim Jee-woon-ian that a remake would be almost impossible. [B+]
Comparable to "A Bittersweet Life," in tone and artistic execution (though it's a spin on the serial killer movie rather than the gangster genre), "I Saw the Devil," in scope and scale and sheer beauty, is an absolute, balls-to-the-walls, blood-drenched masterpiece. The tale of Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), a school bus driver who likes to hack up women in his spare time, and the secret agent (Lee Byung-hun) who he crosses when he murders the agent's pregnant wife, it plays out as a relentless cat-and-mouse game, with the agent picking up the killer, fucking with him, and then letting him go free. Of course, every time the bad guy gets let loose again, he kills a bunch of people (and one of the movie's best jokes is that one out of every three characters seems to be an active serial killer), which doesn't exactly make the agent a completely "good" character either. When we got the screening invite to "I Saw the Devil" a couple of years ago, there was a warning about the movie's explicit violence, which we had never seen before (or since). And yes, "I Saw the Devil" is drenched in the sticky red stuff, but it never takes away from the emotional journey you go on with the conflicted agent and the set pieces, including one where our bad guy shacks up with a cannibal, are truly virtuoso. This is Kim unleashed – definitely not for the faint of heart, but utterly rewarding for those who are willing to go on the soot-black journey. [A-]
For some reason, "Doomsday Book," an uncanny South Korean science fiction anthology that made the domestic film festival rounds over the last year (it last screened, to an appropriately uproarious audience response at Austin's Fantastic Fest), never gained much attention outside the circuit despite being pretty awesome. Two of the segments were helmed by Yim Pil-sung, who previously directly the agreeably oddball fable "Hansel & Gretel," and while Yim's sections ("Brave New World" and "Happy Birthday") are pretty fun and handsomely shot, the section that really leaves an impression is Kim Jee-woon's "Heavenly Creature." The tale of a service robot, stationed at a monastery for Buddhist monks, who believes that it has reached spiritual transcendence much to the chagrin of the robot company (and a very confused repairman), it is witty and hilarious, thought-provoking and totally engaging. What makes this even more impressive is that, aside from the robot (which looks uncomfortably similar to the already derivative droids from "I, Robot"), it's beautifully rendered but mostly free of science fiction-y zip, with a climax that consists of a lengthy, laser gun-free spiritual debate about the nature of humanity and soulfulness; this was maybe our thirty favorite minutes in all of cinema last year. [A]
"The Last Stand" (2013)
Kim Jee-woon, along with Chan Wook-park (whose "Stoker" opens this spring), makes his English language debut in 2013 with "The Last Stand," a kind of arch splatter-western that pits a gruff small town sheriff (played, winningly, by Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first lead role since 2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines") against a ruthless drug kingpin (Eduardo Noreiga). Simplistic and hugely entertaining, it's sometimes hard to pick out the Kim flourishes amongst the typical action movie clangor (Johnny Knoxville is essentially playing The Weird and there are flashes of explosive violence), although there are moments that feel like the director is making a pointed critique of American gun culture (something we're all keenly sensitive to, especially now). There's also a climactic car chase that takes place through cornfields that borders on the hallucinogenic, that feels totally in line with his previous movies. What really bums us out is that Kim Jee-woon felt like a filmmaker whose aesthetic and thematic concerns were so firmly rooted that it would have been nearly impossible to upend, even in a flashy American production. Apparently we were wrong. While there's nothing "bad" about "The Last Stand," we just wish it had been a whole lot more Kim Jee-woon-y. (There's a reason he's headed back to Korea for his next movie.) [C+]
What We Didn't Include: Kim Jee-woon made a pair of movies in 2000. The first was "The Foul King," a comedy that starred Kim regular Song Kang-ho as an out-of-work bank clerk who takes up professional wrestling, donning a Mexican wrestling mask and calling himself "The Foul King." The other was a 45-minute short film called "Coming Out," a sort of experimental, found-footage movie that professes to be the confession of a young girl who is also a vampire. Unfortunately, we couldn't get our hands on them for deadline. However, those with region-free DVD players can watch "Coming Out" on the British special edition of "The Quiet Family."