Since the days of the New Korean Wave of the late 80s and early 90s men in Korean cinema have frequently found themselves on the road in search of answers, a home and their identity. In contemporary Korean cinema male characters are for the most part much more comfortably settled within the progressive society of modern Korea and yet their philosophical dilemmas still simmer under the surface, refusing to go away.
Four years ago, Na Hong-jin burst onto the scene with one of the most remarkable debuts in modern times. The Chaser was an under-the-radar genre effort from a rookie director with two mid-level stars, and yet it became one of the highest grossing films of the year and along with The Good, the Bad and the Weird was also one of Korea’s most popular exports. Today, in the spring of 2012, Na and his two stars Kim Yun-seok and Ha Jung-woo are among the heavyweights of the Korean film industry. Kim’s last five films have all attracted well over 2 million admissions; in fact most of them have soared over the 5 million mark (The Chaser; Woochi, 2009; Punch, 2011), a enormous benchmark in the Korean industry that few films have reached. The charismatic Ha is now one of the country’s top leading men, indeed two of his films topped the box office last month alone (Nameless Gangster, Love Fiction).
For Na’s sophomore feature, the gang got back together again and delivered another worldwide hit in The Yellow Sea, originally released in Korea in December 2010 and presented internationally at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2011. Just like his first film, Na’s follow up is firmly rooted in genre but disassembles and reconstructs it to further his own ends. Beginning as an ominous rumble in the distance, the film accelerates to the point that it becomes a heart-pumping descent into despair.
Ha Jung-woo plays Goo-nam, a down on his luck cab driver in the Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture of Northeast China who loses at mahjong every night as he hopelessly tries to earn enough money to pay off the loan sharks who funded his wife’s passage to Korea. He’s offered a job to clear his debt by Jeong-hak (Kim Yun-seok), which sees him smuggled into Seoul in order to kill a man. He has a week to carry out the contract and while on the peninsula will try to track down his wife whom he hasn’t heard from since she left.
Na’s mise-en-scene is downbeat, gritty and very evocative. We follow Goo-nam around Yanji, a dirty city full of forgotten souls. It operates like a lawless border town, steeped in vice and hopelessness. The film is split into a few chapters which each up the stakes over the last. Goo-nam’s debasement is the key narrative point for much of the film and more than anything, what defines this is his fractured identity.
Throughout most of The Yellow Sea he find himself in transit or on the run. He is preyed upon and taken advantage of from the outset; his lack of clear national identity is also the source of his lack of confidence. There is an early scene which features stray dogs and it quickly becomes clear that this is what he is. He only fights back through the basest instincts of survival. Much of the action takes place in boats, buses, cars, ports and roads and Goo-nam is always in danger. Like the emasculated males that found themselves wandering the roads of earlier Korean cinema, he seeks his identity through lines of transportation but in modern Korea, a country that often seeks to forget about its past, he is not welcome. He is a visible and painful reminder of an oppressive and traumatic recent history. Whether jumping off a boat, apprehended on a bus, chased on the street or crashed into while driving a car, he is forced into the wild, away from civilization. Conversely it is only in these scenes, high up in the mountains, that the threat dissipates. Despite the looming danger, he is safe in the untouched and austere calm of the outdoors.
The Yellow Sea begins as a gritty drama and thriller, and then turns into a suspense film for its second chapter but then becomes an unapologetic and propulsive action film for the significant remainder of the running time which, though 140 minutes long, is breathless. It’s an exhausting and sometimes morbid experience to be sure, but the pure energy and raw vitality of the set pieces are exceptionally effective. Much of the pulsating back half of the film had me short of breath.
Just like in The Chaser, Ha and Kim are exceptional. Though their roles as protagonist and antagonist are reversed, they are remarkably engaging. Ha truly embodies Goo-nam’s despair while Kim, despite his dead eyes and listless mumble is one of the most ferocious and animalistic cinema villains of recent times.
I will say that The Yellow Sea is best enjoyed as a genre effort as held under close dramatic scrutiny, it may turn up some unsatisfying conclusions. A small price to pay in my eyes for what was one of the most invigorating cinematic experiences of the last few years. While Korean cinema may have a lot more to offer than its thrillers, when a film like this comes along, it’s easy to see what all the fuss is about.
The Yellow Sea is out on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK on March 26th, from Eureka Entertainment.
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