Reviews: The Films of Kim Jee-woon

This post will cover Jee-Woon’s three most recent films, being that they are the ones I have seen as well as the ones which fit most nicely into my admittedly arbitrary cut-off date for reviews of “newish” films posted without some sort of larger organizing theme.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird

And here is where we go off the rails, and right from the beginning no less. Kim Jee-woon has always been messier than his fellow South Korean mad scientists Bong Joon-ho and Chan Wook-park, a point he makes no bones about hiding. His films are also messy with less of a pinpoint purpose and to much less subversive results – if Joon-ho and Wook-park are madman auteurs, Jee-Woon is a mad craftsman. If the former is a bit more satisfying in the end, both are lacking in today’s world (perhaps the latter even more than the former), and they’re both entirely welcome.

For his part, Jee-woon never made something as fully and unapologetically beside itself with filmic chaos and wide-eyed cotton-candy aplomb than The Good, the Bad, the Weird, his genre DJ version of a Western, an adventure serial, a gallows comedy, and an old school martial arts film that happens to lack traditional martial arts in any capacity. The film has no real meaningful narrative except “hey remember that great old school Western masterpiece with that name that sounds pretty similar to this film’s? Well here you go…” Really, this is a mere shoe-string for Jee-woon to have as much fun as he possibly can while he’s busy stringing us along from set-piece to loopy set-piece. He takes a kitchen sink approach to filmmaking and is far more interested in having fun than making sense. To this extent, his 2008 film is an easy one to argue against, and one really needs to not particularly care about narrative coherence to get much out of the finished work

But, for those willing to put their all into it, the film boasts unexpected rewards aplenty. Most immediately apparent: the film is gorgeous, re-reading decades upon decades of grandiose, wide-open Western vistas for blinding pop-art with opulent colors pushed to the brink and dueling for our attention. Secondly, the film is a rather curious dead-pan comedy that does not so much broadly parody the goofball non-logic of Spaghetti Westerns as lovingly exaggerate them for effect. Jee-woon has studied the genre well, and he knows how to milk it – that the film’s best shootout is so dexterous and flighty it almost resembles wuxia martial arts with guns is but one example.

A better, and more pinpoint, one: the film’s ending, which lightly pokes at the operatic finale of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Leone’s loving over-eager desire to drag on his climaxes for as long as humanly possible. Jee-woon’s version goes on and on and quite literally has one of the three main characters fall as if dead in the showdown before rising again as if propelled by one last dying hurrah. It lacks any sense of the pinpoint tersity and menace of Leone’s ending (which explodes and concludes in less than a second after nigh-on six minutes of masterful editing and framing). Instead, it builds up the suspense for a climactic showdown and then has the characters pump so much lead into each other that each bullet ceases to have any meaning. As a self-conscious piss-taking of the propensity of the modern blockbuster to sacrifice nuance for hellish, deadening “more and more”, it’s just about perfect.

Still, the film really does lose some of its steam toward the end – one of the downsides of the self-indulgent filmmaking that constructs the film’s identity is that it tends to leave the director with no understanding of when to say when. This, plus the fact that the whole thing doesn’t so much ebb and flow as sort of just happens for about two hours , keeps it from greatness, even as the very same sense of free-flowing, non-caring self-indulgence keeps it within arm’s reach of the same. This is is not a film for everyone, but for those who are willing to let it have them, it’s a damn good time at the movies, if a never quite revelatory one.

Score: 8/10

I Saw the Devil

Kim Jee-woon accomplishes a lot in I Saw the Devil. He gives us horror, atmosphere, humor of the darkest variety, a touching story, and he tops it all off with a thoughtful examination of man’s propensity for violence and the way vengeance transforms someone into that which they seek revenge against. This is a horrific film, the kind whose penchant for blood and guts may put off viewers. It’s garish and oppressive filmmaking, the kind that hides its subtle dread and mounting paranoia in brutal slayings that approach an almost operatic level of grisly detail. This is not a film for the imagination – it takes too much joy in rendering its brash, bold violence on the screen for us, and rubbing our faces in it. But it’s blood with purpose and curdling impact, meant to drive home the nature of the consequences of our obsessions, our actions, and our drive for vengeance.

There’s mood and atmosphere to spare here, as well as gallows humor, and real pathos – like all of Jee-woon’s film, it’s a complete mess that tries to do more than any director of sense would even consider. But Jee-woon’s strength isn’t his sense or his head – it’s his guts, and he takes true delight in throwing them at us here. When we open its contents, we find a lot of bile that we’d rather not have had the pleasure meeting, but kernels of kinetic, depraved wonder ring out like fluorescent blood in a coal-black pit of despair.

Best of all, the film at least dances around and often approximates true emotional cognitive dissonance, critiquing us for feeling sympathy for the protagonist of the film – as it moves along, we become more scared of him than sympathetic. And at achieving this goal, Jee-woon doesn’t blow his load early. He slowly, steadily subverts his main character’s victim-less, blameless personality and gives us something darker; the transition is druggy and dragged out, and it’s all the more affecting because of it. Among its many strengths, it turns the violent, messy, over-indulgent escapism of The Good, the Bad, the Weird on its head by being a violent, messy, over-indulgent critique of violent, messy, over-indulgent escapist revenge.

If that’s a mouth-full, and leaves you unsure of what to do with a film that tries to succeed at two irreconcilable goals, reveling in and critiquing violence, this tension only reveals the messy truth of the film further. If its messiness keeps it from greatness, it also allows it to be fascinatingly less-than-great. If only it had not been a 100-minute B-movie in the overstuffed, gluttonous body of a 144 minute pseudo-epic, and if only it didn’t sometimes more closely approximate meat-and-potatoes thriller when it ought to pursue psychological depth and underline it in angry, depraved red strokes, it could have been an all-timer.

Score: 7.5/10

The Last Stand

It’s a minor shame that The Last Stand is Kim Jee-woon’s first English language feature, much more than it is a shame that it is Ahnuld Schwarzenegger’s return to headlining feature-length film productions. Jee-woon is a true talent, and seeing him siphoned off with action movie leftovers says a lot about how America treats foreign directors. At the same time, Jee-woon is almost totally responsible for the film’s success that Ahnuld really ought to do his bidding for a few months or so and move on to other things. The base-line of the film really is so insubstantial it’s quite stunning. The narrative plays like a joke on Rio Bravo, notable more than anything else for finally connecting Arnold Schwarzenegger to John Wayne in some mildly sensible way. Ahnuld is a sheriff (as he says in the film’s somewhat mocking bid at a classic Ahnuld line, a line here which seems to realize it’s not even a good bad retort). Some big ol’ baddies come to the town he happens to sheriff, and they want to do vaguely bad things to it. Ahnuld, along with some buds of his, stop them. But there’s Jee-woon there holding everything together with a fluid, punchy eye for staging and action framing, timing his edits to maximize raw impact. In other words, it’s not a good story, but it’s well told.

At the same time, the other best thing about the film (besides Jee-woon giving it his all behind the camera) is its lightness of touch, its insistence at being really nothing more than a B-movie – that its lame, simple story is nothing of substance works because the film is content to just be a lame, simple story without trying to ironically critique itself for the fact. Not only does this barely-there film stand in stark contrast to Jee-woon’s previous films, which preferred to insist with glorious aplomb and kinetic human energy. It also, rather tellingly, positions it much closer to Rio Bravo, which took an idea that played on paper like a taut-beyond-belief stripped-bare descent into raw suspense and turned it into a lackadaisical comedy piece that simply couldn’t be bothered to get up and do something with itself (and I say this as someone who adores Rio Bravo). It’s not a meaningful connection, but it’s nice to see an action film in the modern era that’s just content to exist for a while and do little else.

Unlike that film, The Last Stand is not a particularly well-disciplined or inventive film, or even a particularly good one, but it never tries to be. The most it can muster in terms of true craftsmanship is Jee-woon’s direction which, in all honesty, is pretty damn terrific (it’s not particularly compelling conceptually, but the film’s last 40% is taken up almost entirely by an extremely well-filmed dynamite showcase of camera angles and intricate staging). Make no mistake, the film is silly, but it’s aware of its dumbness in a way that doesn’t come-off as lazy or, worse, smug. More than anything, it’s a throwback in the best sense of the word – a B-film just content to be itself and nothing more. This, more than anything, allows it to succeed in its (admittedly only somewhat fulfilling) off-the-cuff way.

Score: 6.5/10

 

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