For any young Koreans learning the national history in Korea, Goguryeo holds a special place. The northern country (modern day North Korea and parts of Manchuria) of the Three Kingdoms period in ancient Korean history (from around first to seventh century), is one of the few dynasties modern day Koreans have positive impression on. To begin with, the other two kingdoms of the same era, Baekje and Silla, were both smaller and met a rather disastrous end. Silla, the kingdom that would come to unite the three kingdoms at the end, did so with Tang Dynasty of China, and in the process lost much of the land in the north, most notably Manchuria. Since then, Manchuria, especially Liaodong peninsula, has been the target of Korean military expansion; the peoples (most notably Jurchens) who lived in Manchuria became the barbaroi from Korea’s perspective. For nationalist historians and Koreans who grew up learning that specific historiography, Goguryeo, and Manchuria as well, represents a lost golden age that stands out from history of military defeat, submission and loss: a nostalgia of the bygone era when Korean military actually expanded territory.
This is not a piece about Korean national history, but it’s important to note the historical significance of Manchuria in contemporary Korean understanding of its national history before delving deeper into Korean Westerns. The vast majority of Korean Westerns, or Manchu Westerns, take place in a specific time and place (just like the mythologized depiction of the West in nineteenth-century America) and that’s not a coincidence: the setting of Manchuria is more than a mere substitution for the American West.
Western has always been associated with colonial imagery ever since Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It was a way to adapt the short history of America into a popular mythology for mass appeal, and the frontier became a space of fantasy where these public imaginations ran wild—often influenced by the prevailing colonial worldview that dominated much of the theatre-going white public of America at the time. Since then, westerns have become one of the most coded, both in narrative and form, film genres along with gangster films.
But what about Westerns from countries that do not share that similar history? Where do we situate films such as The Good, the Bad, the Weird in our retrospective understanding of the rigidly coded genre system of westerns? This is where Manchuria of early twentieth century comes in. Geographically, Manchuria is the only location viable for any kind of story set in a vast wasteland or desert near Korea. But more importantly, it was the site of colonial movement of people, livestock, machines, and military, often bringing with them violent political changes and reactions. Of all the Japanese colonial territories, Manchuria was the only place where one could compare to the settler colonialism of the American West.
Kim Ji-Woon’s epic The Good, the Bad, the Weird is one of the two relatively successful releases of the short-lived renaissance of Manchu Westerns in 2008 (the other being Ryoo Seung-Wan’s parody western film, Dachimawa Lee). A master of genre films, Kim could be considered Korea’s Howard Hawks, having excelled at horror, thriller, espionage and comedy in his oeuvre, and The Good, the Bad, the Weird was praised by foreign critics as one of the most refreshing neo-westerns in recent memory. It catapulted the international recognition of Lee Byung-Hyun, who would later continue to work in Hollywood, while it was really this film that paved the way for Kim’s (failed) shot at Hollywood a few years later. It adopts the three-way dynamic of self-serving gunslingers in Sergio Leone’s classic, where three protagonists, each with their own ambition, try to find the treasure marked on a map that the Weird (Song Kang-ho) stumbles upon.
The world-building of Old Westerns relied on the rigid system of binary that would put two opposite concepts at each other: settlers vs. railway official, farmers vs. gunslingers, sheriff vs. outlaws, civilization vs. wilderness, colonizers vs. natives, interior vs. exterior, women vs. men. A gunslinger would simply not stay within the confines of a town permanently, for he is a man of violence; both Shane and Ethan Edwards fail to integrate and fade away into the wild at the end. But The Good, the Bad, the Weird works in different ways. It’s not that the protagonists cross boundaries constantly, but it is more like the boundaries simply don’t exist. Manchuria, as an imaginary colonial space in Manchu Westerns, is far from a stable place that can be binarized in twenty-first century Korea.
Who are the natives? Who are the settlers? As Leone’s mold strips the characters of their morality and alignment, the fantastical land of Manchuria in twentieth century deprives every actor in the story the sense of belonging. There are historical reasons as to why Koreans are there (many Koreans left to settle in Manchuria either to evade Japanese oppression or were encouraged by the Japanese to settle), but for contemporary Koreans, it is a strange feeling. They occupy the space they have so long wanted in their history, yet under colonial conditions. And now, the three protagonists that not only are free of political affiliations, but seem to have transcended colonial bindings entirely, venture the land at their whim, like the heroes portrayed by Clint Eastwood.
The ancient history of Korea, the nostalgia of Manchuria as the lost space of Koreans haunt us again. These Manchu Westerns, first popularized in 60s and 70s, are postcolonial imagery of Korea’s colonial past, fused with the nationalist desire (partially fueled by the military dictatorship) for their own Manchuria. The year of The Good, the Bad, the Weird’s release marks the height of the hallyu, when Korea has finally achieved both economic and cultural influence in other countries. The desire to mythologize their colonial history produces an interesting effect where the film satiates the Korean nationalist desire of both the destructive fantasy of the oppressor and the moral victimization of the oppressed. Manchuria, historically the location where Korean Liberation Army operated, is a place to colonize as well as a place to fight colonizers. This creates a confusion, a deep political irony of which becomes the part of the nationalist sentiments that constitute the foundation of Manchu Westerns.
It is that sense of constant movement, that nobody can truly call the place home, which serves as the stylistic backbone of the film. The largest settlement in the film looks like a hidden place of outlaws, a pirate’s cove rather than a settlement. Outside of the three protagonists, three larger factions also pursue the treasure as well: the Imperial Japanese Military (Kwantung Army), the Korean freedom fighters, and the multinational horse bandits with a Chinese leader. Needless to say, none of them have any fixed place to settle, a place they can call home. Everyone moves, not just because they need the treasure, but also because they have to.
It is fitting then that the film’s climactic battle happens entirely as a massive chase scene across a barren field. The soldiers and bandits on horseback and on automobiles, they gallop/accelerate towards the far side that the camera does not reveal. The action happens during the high-speed movement, an example of master action filmmaking, but it’s also reflective of the highly unstable, constantly shifting nationalist sentiments of postcolonial and neocolonialist Korea.
The movement stops until they finally discover what they have been looking for: an oil well, the fuel of colonial expansions, only to be blown up by an unaware gunslinger. Was it all worth it? In the end, the Japanese may have lost, but the Koreans don’t get to win either. Maybe it’s time we go back to the real world.
p.s. This piece recognizes that it does not engage with the actual Chinese people who were living in Manchuria at the time. It is because the purpose of the piece was to reflect on the postcolonial and neocolonialist imagery that contemporary Koreans have of Manchuria as a mythologized place in Manchu Westerns. In that sense, it is revealing that the film is very light on the presence of the Chinese population.
p.p.s. The international version of the film was re-edited to downplay the role of the Korean Liberation Army.
p.p.s. The film’s primary shooting location was actually not in Manchuria, but Dunhuang in Western China, which also reveals how much of a fantasized place Manchuria has become in these films.