Grilled Pork Bulgogi Tacos w/Korean Slaw & Asian Pear/Cucumber Relish
Okay, here we are at part two of the "Good/Bad" double bill. Korean director Kim Jee-woon was inspired by Sergio Leone's classic The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (aka the part one of the double bill) to make his film.
I remember when I first saw this movie. It was during Fantastic Fest a few years ago. I sat down, the lights went down and within the first ten minutes I remember thinking, "Oh my god. This movie is amazing." But then a sudden feeling of dread came over me. "What if this is it? What if these ten minutes is all there is and the movie just goes downhill from here? There's no way it can sustain this awesomeness, can they?" But I comforted myself in the thought that at least these first ten minutes just rocked my world. But the movie completely did me in. It never went downhill and it sustained the aweseomeness throughout. As director Kim Jee-woon notes below, so many of the movies he loved growing up inform this, and apparently he and I have enjoyed a lot of the same movies. It's so rare these days to be able to just sit and let a movie not only wash over you but also carry you along on a great adventure. And while some critics panned it as too derivative or whatever, screw 'em. They tend to like movies than make your squirm or hate yourself or the world at the end - not that I don't like such things at times, but this is one of those "strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride" kind of movie. On repeated viewings it holds up and leaves me feeling like a happy 12 year old boy.
Meanwhile, while the east coast is being dumped on by another bout of winter, here in Austin it's already springtime. (And as I write that I have a sneezing fit, thanks to the springtime allergens). And, of course, springtime means one other thing here, time to get ready for South by Southwest. Hopefully, I will discover some great new films and new bands, but mostly it's an opportunity to spend time with out-of-town friends.
Other than that, not much to report. I was just laid up for a week with a pinched nerve in my back. That was pretty crappy, but as Bette Davis noted, this getting old stuff ain't for sissies. I'll be back in 10 days with the class post for Once. There are stil a few tickets available, so you might want to jump on that (see link above for details).
The Good, The Bad, The Weird is available for streaming @ Netflix and is available to stream and purchase @ Amazon.
"People must know that they're all going to die someday, yet they live as though they never will.... Funny."
Now before I go any further, you have to know there are two versions of this movie floating around. One we'll call the Korean version and the other, the International version. As you might expect, the former was released in Korea and the latter everywhere else. There are two major differences between the two versions (if you want to know all the differences, this website goes into über-detail). The first important difference is that the Korean version has an extended ending - which, imho, is overkill and deflates the shorter ending you get in the International version. But as co-writer and director Kim Jee-woon has noted, "Actually there are 4-5 alternative endings that exist. I prefer the International version as it is the simplest." The other difference is that, as Kim added, "explains more about the character histories." Having seen both, I wish I had the Korean version until the last reel, then switch to the International version. My understanding is that this 2-disc version comes with both versions, plus lots of supplement material.
Our story begins, as Kim explained (PDF): "After finishing A Bittersweet Life, I traveled to the vast lands of the Manchurian region of the past. I stood watching the endless horizon, which made me think about the Korean people who made their way there before Korea was divided and cut off from the inland. To the people who went to Manchuria during the Japanese occupation period, this was a land of opportunity and hope.... In the 1930's, Manchuria was an arena of struggle among conflicting factions. Not only did many cultures clash, but it was a place of anarchy and chaos — a lawless world where strength and power ruled." In another interview, he continued, "At that time Manchuria was conquered by Japanese soldiers, who set up a puppet government, so the people in the film are a mixture of Manchurian, Chinese, Japanese and Russian, a multicultural and multinational era which is very rich visually." (More on this in the Background & Context section below.)
And in another interview, he added, "Manchuria was very attractive cinematically in that it was this lawless world. All these factors helped my imagination. Such a postmodern space I thought would make critics look at this film not as simple homage to spaghetti Westerns, but as a Western version of Star Wars or Blade Runner."
Besides those two films, other ones that strongly influenced Kim in creating The Good, The Bad, The Weird (henceforth "GBW") which he's cited in interviews include Ben Hur, John Ford's Stagecoach, and Mad Max. "I really love Mad Max: The Road Warrior," Kim said. "Before we started making this movie, I showed some clips from Mad Max to members of my film crew, including the stuntmen, and said: 'Let’s make a film that’s even more faster, exciting and action packed than this!'" I'll also toss in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which strangely is never mentioned in any interviews, but I'll put good money on that it was on Kim's mind as well.
But obviously, the biggest influence on GBW is the grandmaster of Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone.
"I loved the traditional American Western films, such as High Noon, Rio Bravo and Gunfight At The OK Corral," noted Kim. "But they always adhered to too many American values and ideology. So, when I saw Sergio Leone’s films for the first time I was amazed at how unconventional they were and it gave me a fresh perspective. That’s what I wanted to try and give The Good, The Bad, The Weird... that unconventional feeling. I also liked the facial expressions of Leone’s characters. Another thing that’s fresh about Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy was that everyone was a bad guy – even the main character. For me, it was so much more realistic."
"I enjoyed not only Leone's films but Italian Westerns from that period in general, such as Sergio Corbucci films and My Name is Nobody and even the Trinity series starring Terence Hill," he continued elsewhere. "I was also influenced by the violent action scenes in Sam Peckinpah's American Westerns. The plot and the combination of the characters were influenced by the early 1970s Korean action film Break the Chain, which I would also categorize as a sort of Western. All the films mentioned above were ones I watched in my childhood. It's not a simple homage to a specific film or a certain film-maker. I wanted to make a film that respected all the cinema that has thrilled me. The cool and cruel, heartless characters in Leone's Westerns are different from American Western characters who are refined and handsome gentlemen. I adored his extreme close-ups, breathtaking tension and dry scenery. I always yearned to make a film based on such elements."
"I think the western travels in a universal way," Kim stated, "there are some elements that are the same even though the formation of the western and the execution is different in the American, Japanese and Korean western. American westerns reflect ideology about the myth of the birth of the continent of America and the pioneering period and Japanese samurai films such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo also reflect something about myths in Japan. If you look at Yojimbo or another Japanese Western, every country has a way to execute the Western. The element that is common is that Westerns have original patterns of stories about manly victories and constant revenge among men so even though the setting is different we can still make it anywhere in the world. This is a core element. That is why, even though the formation is different, it can travel well in a different way. It’s also possible to transform and mix genres. For example with Seven Samurai, it was remade in Hollywood as The Magnificent Seven and Yojimbo was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars."
There were Korean Westerns made in the past. Some were made in the early 1960's, and then a bunch made after the international success of the Sergio Leone movies, such as Lee Man-hui's Break the Chain in 1971, which Kim mentioned above. (For more about Korean Westerns, check out this article.)
At first, The Good, the Bad, The Weird was just the working title. Other titles he considered were The Tale of Three Wicked Men and Three Wicked Men in the Wilderness. “But they were lame,” Kim said.
But why did he rename "The Ugly" (from Leone's The Good, The Bad & The Ugly) to "The Weird?"
"Because," Kim explained, "when you call a character ‘Ugly’ it’s very limiting. But when you call a character ‘Weird’ it triggers your imagination, it makes you excited and it makes you expect more."
"Initially they’re all good, bad and weird in their own way," he continued. "Do-won is good, Chang-yi is bad and Tae-goo is weird, but to make things more complicated, I gave a different mission to all the characters. I told The Good that his mission was to do super-spectacular action, I told The Bad to express emotions and sensibility, and I asked The Weird to lead the story and the pace of the film.
"The Tae-goo character is closer to human nature. You can identify with him. The Good and The Bad are very conventional characters, so without The Weird this film would only be entertainment. That’s why I wanted The Weird to lead the whole story, so human life was reflected through his character – it’s about how it can get complicated and how things can go wrong."
"I had no intention of having any one character wholly represent a certain trait," Kim added elsewhere. "The three characters change according to the situation. Enemies and friends constantly change. The three characters all have the elements of the good, the bad, and the weird."
"Tae-goo is The Weird [character], but when I first read the script, I didn’t realize who The Weird one really was. All three of the main characters are bad with elements of weird and good," agreed (PDF) Song Kang-ho, who played the role. "Tae-goo’s character is like a weed. He does all kinds of things by fair means or foul in order to survive in the vast, desolate Manchurian plains in the chaotic times. But he is not bleak in human nature. He has his own unique feelings and attachments to people but lives like a die-hard weed in order to survive. He appears comedic but he is the most desperate character out of the three. His actions are different from Do-won’s and Chang-yi’s, not typical of the western genre."
Besides Song, whom he had worked with on The Host, Kim also brought in Lee Byung-hun to play The Bad, whom he had worked with on A Bittersweet Life. And to play The Good, Jung Woo-sung. It was a nearly impossible task to bring the three top Korean actors together for one movie, but, as Kim stated, "I think the best thing I ever did was bring the three actors together. Being able to show the top three actors in one film, it's probably my biggest achievement, and the part that makes me feel the most proud. The three actors put forth their own unique appeals and the end result is a perfect harmony or ensemble."
Kim considered several locations to shoot the film - Canada, "because Canada often doubles for the old west;" Australia, because he liked the idea of shooting in "the same places Mad Max was filmed;" and China, which won out. "I sent the location manager to collect all the data, and he thought China was the most suitable. We ended up on the west side of China, on the Silk Road. But it's a desert, and we filmed in August and September, the hottest time of year. It was 40C [104*F] every day. And as you can see, all the characters wear thick leather, so they really had to fight the heat."
Kim is being a bit misleading though when he notes they filmed in August and September, because the film, in total, took nine months to shoot, and it is either the most or second most expensive film ever made in Korea to date. (Compare that to the 13 weeks it took to shoot The Good, The Bad & The Ugly!)
“China is a land that can be a difficult challenge beyond what you have ever expected but can give you visuals beyond what you can ever imagine," Kim said (PDF). But besides the heat, there were sandstorms to contend with....
"We thought a human should not be here. Sometimes you couldn’t breathe because of the sandstorms, and everything was so awkward and uncomfortable," remembered Lee.
"I've never experienced so many changes in nature before," Jung said. "We had to stop filming in sand storms and wait for them to pass. We saw the kind of sandstorms that you'd see in films like The Mummy, and be trapped inside it," adding "Surviving the hardships was the driving force behind this film's perfection."
Add to all that, Kim had to manage a cast of hundreds and a crew of 400. There were over 500 costumes made, over 200 guns were used, 80 horses, and a mess of other animals including chickens, dogs, and elephants.
"Most of the stunts were performed by the actors themselves. Looking back, I now think it was a very reckless thing for them to do it themselves!" Kim admitted (hindsight is always 20/20, they say!) and that there was almost no CGI used in the action sequences. "The dangerous scenes were all done in live action. Maybe The Good, The Bad, The Weird will be recorded as the Korean film with the longest medical treatment list! There were so many injuries, we should have thanked the heavens for not having a big accident. On the DVD commentary of Mad Max 2, someone says: 'Many stunt men have paid for realism.' Looking at injured actors and stunt men on our shoot, we also talked the same way. We did pay for realism."
"Actually riding horses was the most dangerous, because there were a lot of explosions as you saw and they’re not a machine," recalled Lee, who had never ridden a horse before preparing for the film. "You don’t know how they are going to react after the explosions or gunshots and that made me, and everyone else, nervous. We were riding so fast and then when the explosions went off they’d move away from them. That was the most dangerous for me.”
"After making this film," Kim stated, "I promised myself I'd never make a film with horses, again. And that I'll never shoot on location in China."
The results of all their hard work is certainly up there on the screen. The film was hugely successful in Asia and has garnered a cult following here in the US. Its success certainly helped Kim get his shot making his first Hollywood film, the new Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner, The Last Stand, which is currently in theaters.
BACKGROUND & CONTEXT:
So now for a little history lesson....
But first, let us note that above I quoted Kim who said that the film takes place in the "1930's-40's," and indeed it's sort of hard to pinpoint the exact year when GBW takes place. Though there is the line in the film regarding "the treasure" - "It's Japan's last source of funds to finance the war," which could suggest it takes place near the end of the war, or maybe not.
Okay. So.... In 1931, a section of the South Manchurian Railway is blown up. For those of you who are a bit geographic-deficient, here's a map - the green area is Manchuria.
And why did the Japanese care about a railway in Manchuria, which was part of China? Well, the railway was originally built by the Russians but the Japanese got control of most of it after the Russo-Japanese War in 1906. The Japanese had spent the years since, expanding their control over Manchuria, and with the help of cheap (and often forced) labor set up factories using the area's natural resources. In fact, the Railway (known as Mantestu) also owned many of the factories built there, like steelworks, chemical plants, glass manufacturers, and even sugar and flour mills. And, of course let's not forget - oil and munitions. According to Wikipedia: "Mantetsu was by far the largest corporation in Japan.... During the 1920s, Mantetsu provided for over a quarter of the Japanese government's tax revenues."
So to retaliate for this perhaps sabotage of their locomotive lifeline, the Japanese Army decides to takeover the Chinese city of Shengyang (see map), which was already one of the main strongholds of the Japanese expansion. The Chinese ran to the League of Nations for help, who then debated for a year, then agreed with Chinese and ordered the Japanese to lay down their weapons. But because the United States was not a party to the League of Nations and refused to go along with the League's threat of a trade embargo with Japan, the League's declaration amounted to nothing more than finger wagging. And thus, the Japanese pressed forward and set up a puppet government in Manchuria, now renamed Manchukuo, and took over complete control of the railway to further expansion.
In 1938, filled with an overwhelming sense of self-determination, the Japanese decided to pick a fight with the Russkies in Khasan, which is where the Russia-Korea (now North Korea) border lies (see map). And while the Japanese got the crap kicked out of them by Uncle Joe Stalin and his boys, a year later, Hitler invaded Poland which forced the Russians to sign a treaty with the Japanese and walk away because they weren't keen on fighting wars on two fronts at the time.
Skipping to June of 1941, the Japanese have continued their march and move in on southern Indochina. This finally prompts the US to freeze Japan's US assets in July. In late November, the US put their foot down and demanded Japan to back out China and Indochina. The Japanese responded by bombing Pearl Harbor.
And it was during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the 1930's-40's, when GBW is set, that according to the Web Chronology Project website: "Koreans worked in factories and mines in Manchuria, northern Korea and Japan. About 4,000,000 Koreans and Chinese were displaced from their homes and shipped to these factories so that they would be productive in Japan's war efforts."
I hope that answers your question.
So yeah, it was pretty obvious that I'd go with either some kind of "Korean-Spaghetti" or "Western-Korean" dish, now wasn't it? And while I hate to be obvious, I did want to try my hand at this dish. Plus, I wanted to match a pork dish since I made one for The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, part one of the "Good/Bad" double bill.
Now the word "bulgogi," literally means "fire meat" in Korean ("bul"=fire, "gogi"=meat) and is one of those dishes that first appeared about 2000 years ago. Now just to keep this in some kind of perspective, the first tortillas go back at least 10,000 years ago.
An article in the Wall Street Journal states, "Back in the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C., the early inhabitants of southern Korea, called the Maek, used to skewer meat on a stick, cover it with a sauce and cook it over a fire."
As for these Maek people, according to the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, & Tourism, "The ancestors of the Korean people appear to have been nomads from Central Asia who gradually migrated eastwards to settle in Northeast Asia and the Korean peninsula. In China they became known as the Eastern Barbarians of Maek. It is probably because they were nomads that they enjoyed a diet centering on the meat of their livestock."
However, about 1000 years ago, Buddhism took hold in Korea and eating meat was banned until the middle of the 13th Century, when the meat-loving Mongols invaded.
These days, bulgogi seems all the rage in the US. There's bulgogi burgers, bulgogi pizza, and even bulgogi cheesesteaks! You can make it with beef, pork, chicken, or there are even vegetarian and vegan alternatives.
Now the Korean taco thing has become so big that I bet Taco Bell will be offering them soon. Uh,oh... too late!
While someone may have made the first Korean taco before Los Angeles' hipster Kogi BBQ food trailer which opened in 2008, they are pretty responsible for its ubiquity.
According to Wikipedia: "Korean taco trucks later appeared in Portland, Oregon (the 'KOI Fusion' truck), Austin, Texas (the Chi'Lantro BBQ truck), and Seattle, Washington ('Marination Mobile, whose spicy pork Korean taco earned them Good Morning America's Best Food Truck in America). In San Francisco the dish was popularized in 2009 by Namu Restaurant's Happy Belly food cart in Golden Gate Park.... In April 2010, Food & Wine magazine named Roy Choi, the chef of the original Kogi's, one of its annual 'Best New Chefs' It was the first time a food truck chef had been nominated for the award." (Of course, Mr. Choi is not just some guy with a food truck, he is an alumnus of the Culinary Institute and worked in fancy restaurants in New York and Los Angeles.)
Sure there are several steps in making this, but let me just say that when I made these for a dinner party recently, one of my dinner guests remarked that it was like "an explosion of flavor." If that sounds like something you might want to try (and you is a fool if you don't), get to it....
As always.... cook, eat, watch & enjoy!
Grilled Pork Bulgogi Tacos w/Korean Slaw & Asian Pear/Cucumber Relish
Click Here for Printer-Friendly Version
1 1/2 pound pork butt/shoulder, very thinly sliced
For the Meat Marinade:
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons rice wine or cooking sherry
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 1/2 tablespoon gochujang (Korean chili paste)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons ginger, minced
1 1/2 ounces scallions, chopped
6 ounces Asian pear (or apple or kiwi), peeled and chopped
3 tablespoon palm sugar (or light brown sugar)
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
For the Asian Cole Slaw:
6 cups (about 12 ounces) napa or savoy cabbage, shredded
1/4-1/2 cup cilantro, minced
1/2 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons gochujang (see above)
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon Siracha sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
For the Pear/Cucumber Relish:
1 1/2 cups English cucumber, small dice
1 cup (about 5 ounces) Asian pear, peeled & small dice
1/2 cup radish (red or daikon), small dice
1/2 cup red onion, small dice
1-2 Thai bird chiles (or 1 Serrano pepper), seeded and diced
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
corn or flour tortillas
For the Meat:
Note: To get the pork easier to slice, freeze it for a couple of hours.
Blend all marinade ingredients in a blender or food processor. Pour either into a large sealable refrigerator plastic bag or non-reactive sealable bowl and marinate for at least 3 hours, but preferably overnight.
For the Slaw:
Combine all ingredients and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours before serving. Serve chilled.
For the Relish:
Combine all ingredients and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours before serving. Serve chilled.
Grill the meat on either a Hibachi grill outdoors or a grill pan indoors on the stove. (FYI - You can also stir fry the meat.)
Heat tortillas to make them more pliable.
Serve buffet style with meat in one plate, along with bowls of the slaw and relish. Let your guests build their own tacos.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird (UK) Official Site
The Good, The Bad, The Weird Official IFC Films site
Kim Jee-woon Interview @ LoveFilm.com
Lee Byung-hun Intervew @ Eastern Kicks
Comparison between Korean & International Versions @ Movie-Censorship.com
The Good, the Bad, the Weird DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming
The Good, The Bad, The Weird Film Posters