For his third film, Kim has taken this literally, fashioning a film which corrals all the motifs of the spaghetti western – horses, pistols, train robberies, sweat and betrayal – and uproots them to early twentieth-century Manchuria.
It’s a rewarding strategy. As the title suggests, the film borrows liberally from Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, as the eponymous mismatched bandits attempt to outwit one another – not to mention the Japanese army and the bloodthirsty Ghost Market Gang – and gain possession of a legendary treasure map. Hardly the most groundbreaking setup, but it’s in fusing western cliché with Eastern style that Kim triumphs: this is a film where the cowboys wear silk-embroidered jackets and practice kung fu, where the soundtrack spins Morricone to an electro beat.
A certain superficiality is perhaps unavoidable: despite some nice character touches and a striking political denouement, Kim lacks Leone’s understanding and his sense of historical scale. But what he lacks in empathy Kim makes up for in cinematic sophistication, in fluid, dizzying camera moves and judicious CGI, ravishing set design and exhilarating action. This is filmmaking as rodeo ride: bruising and ultimately pointless, but thrilling as hell while it lasts.