About halfway through The Yellow Sea (2010, directed by Hong-jin Na), I had the feeling that I was watching the best film ever made from a Richard Stark novel. True, there is no corresponding Stark novel, but the situation is one that would make a pretty kick-ass Parker yarn, at least until it turns bleak and noir-ish in the end. Up until then, it has a merciless ferocity and a willingness to paint the world red. In many ways, it's the fulfillment of the promise of director Hong-jin Na's first film, The Chaser, which had a propulsive forward momentum even if it was too clever for its own good. That film was bleak and nihilistic in calculated ways, but it was a light summer breeze compared to the sucking downdraft in The Yellow Sea. The Yellow Sea is a film that doesn't pull its punches.
The story in The Yellow Sea finds amiable but aimless cab driver Gu-Nam in the Chinese province of Yanbian, which has a large population of Koreans. Gu-nam is in debt to a couple of lowlifes who sold him a visa to send his wife to Korea. His wife, for her part, has ceased sending any of her earnings back to Yanbian to support their daughter (and pay back Gu-nam for the visa). Gu-nam is never going to make enough money to pay the debt honestly, and playing mahjong doesn't help him, either. One day, however, he's given an out. Gang boss Mr. Myun offers to pay off the debt if he'll go to Korea to kill a man. Gu-nam reluctantly agrees, and is told that his family is his collateral. He has ten days to do the job. He is smuggled across the Yellow Sea to Korea and is pointed at his target. The target, it seems, is a professor with deep ties to the underworld. He lives in a secured apartment. Gu-nam cases the place, trying to find a good way to get close to his victim. Meanwhile, he looks for his wife, who proves elusive. On the last day before his boat leaves, Gu-nam resolves to make his move. He has a plan, but it all goes awry when another couple of assassins step in to do the job, aided by the professor's own driver. None of them survive the encounter, and Gu-nam takes the professor's thumb as evidence that the deed has been done. Suddenly, he's on the run, chased first by the police who he eludes after a violent and desperate chase, then from the minions of Mr. Kim, a Korean gang boss, and ultimately from Mr. Myun himself. Complicating things further is the conflict that springs up between Mr. Myun and Mr. Kim. Soon enough, the knives come out (literally), and thing sweep downhill fast on a river--nay--a veritable cataract of blood...
I'm coming to the realization that shaky-cam is here to stay. I call this style of filming "run and gun," but I think the other name for it, "chaos cinema," probably suits it better. Some directors are good at it. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is the best example of chaos cinema that I know, because for all the splenetic camera work, there's still a clarity of expression and, importantly, geography. If The Yellow Sea has a flaw, it's that it's not in the same kind of league. Fortunately, the filmmakers seem aware of this and play around with it. Two of the film's best scenes elide their action scenes, omitting the action entirely while making a visual punch line of the aftermaths. If the movie didn't make good on the action throughout the rest of the movie, this might seem like a cheat, but this is a movie with a keen instinct for the jugular, and not all of it for the kinds of kinetic thrills in which action films usually trade. For an action film, it has the structure of an art film, complete with Kubrick-esque chapter titles. It has a sense, too, of a kind of existential crisis in Korean society, in which the lot of the Joeseonjok, immigrants illegal and otherwise from Yanbian, tests the Korean sense of self. It's also a film about the existential lot of the individual in a criminal economy. All of which sounds pretty weighty, but it never drags the film down. There's an antic sense of fun in many of its scenes, including Mr. Myun's gleeful capacity for violence and in the scenes of the police on the trail of Gu-nam. There's a sense of fun, too, in the way this film inverts the roles of The Chaser's co-stars, providing that movie's serial killer, Ha Jung-woo the plum role of the Hitchcockian anti-hero, and Kim Yun-seok, The Chaser's title character, with the opportunity to chew the scenery as the malevolent Mr. Myun. He gets the film's most primal image, too, in which he beats his enemies to death with a fucking hambone. That this scene isn't utterly ridiculous (it's only kind of ridiculous and in a way that serves the movie) is a testament to the film's vision.
The key sequence in this movie is the horrifying crossing of the The Yellow Sea itself, in which Gu-nam is just another human cargo. During the course of the trip, Gu-nam witnesses them throwing a woman who has either fallen unconscious or died in the passage over the side of the ship. Life, it seems, is cheap. That's why Gu-nam is in the bind he's in. He's disposable. Nobody cares about him. Only his own will keeps him alive. The movie is strikingly existential. Gu-nam asserts the meaning of his life merely by living through the horror. This is typical of Korean film. Coming face to face with unspeakable evils is at the core of the best Korean dramas from the last few years. This is another such film. It's ambitious, that's for sure. One need only look at its two and a half hour length to understand that this is an epic, and one only needs to make it to it's utterly black-hearted end to understand that it's about more than kinetic thrills.
But, as I said, I mistook it for a Parker-ish crime story. That's because it withholds the trappings of film noir until the last act, and those trappings come after a myriad of horrors, whether it's Mr. Myun's lethal facility with an ax and a knife or it's the intimations that Gu-nam's wife has been brutally murdered by her boss or that fatal crossing to Korea. It doesn't NEED the trappings of noir to communicate its horrors, but if you like noir, the ending provides the film with an exclamation point.
So, yeah. The Yellow Sea kicked my ass pretty hard in spite of it's shortcomings. As I say, the chaotic approach to action is distracting and isn't going to make anyone forget the clarity of violence in films by directors like Johnnie To or Park Chan-Wook, but this is the way of the future, I guess. The scale of the violence, too---particularly in the multiple car chases--shows a creeping influence of Hollywood blockbusters. But that's okay. Everything in this movie is outsized, so it's a minor miracle that the film is able to maintain its narrow focus on its everyman hero. And in the final analysis, there's a mean streak in this movie that carries a multi-megaton wallop once it hits home.
Note, I've included an Amazon link for anyone who doesn't want to screw around with all-region DVDs, but I don't recommend buying the Fox disc. If you have an all-region player, buy it from the UK instead, where the director's cut is available. Or, if you speak Korean, the un-subtitled Korean disc has the considerably longer version that was shown there. Caveat emptor.