The Yellow Sea
Now this, THIS is South Korean cinema! (And that, THAT is the expression you should have whilst watching it.)
After two disappointing and disparate efforts during the festival the land of shock, South Korea, finally managed to put forward a picture that I could believe in; one that is not un-coincidentally dictated by what it is their industry does best, which is excess, excess, excess. The Yellow Sea, Na Hong-Jin’s follow up to the critical and commercial smash hit The Chaser is such a long film, such a slow film, such a violent film, such a hectic film, such a ridiculous film and such a ridiculously good film that one simply cannot help but to experience it slack jawed and wide eyed with a big grin on your face.
Structurally the film is very much a roller-coaster ride, but in a more literal way than the term is usually used. It is divided into multiple chapters; the first of which is a gritty, realist look into the life of a poor laborer in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous prefecture – a small semi-independent state smooshed between the borders of Korea, China and Russia that functions as a sort of arsehole for those much stronger nations. Our protagonist, Ku-Nam, works in the region as a taxi driver and through this job he finds himself out on the streets at all hours of the night, streets filled with all kinds of people, mainly the wrong kind, and so it isn’t long until he is swept up into their illicit activities. He wants to escape this place, they all do, and so he gambles away what little he earns at their tables until he has accumulated something of a debt. This is when things start to get interesting.
That chapter is the straight, when you’re just out of the docking gates and excited enough by the motion, looking forward to what is yet to come. The second chapter begins when Ku-Nam is sent to South Korea – where his wife was last seen – to perform a job for the head of Yanbian operations, a job that will wipe his slate clean; this is the first steady incline, when your skin starts to tingle and your hearts beats out of sync. This was my favourite of all the chapters as it is technically flawless film-making; the universe and its rules are so well established in the slow, steady, methodical build up of facts that we are really in the scene, we are planning alongside the protagonist and this is how it should always be, unfortunately though only one other creation really achieves this for me and that is Breaking Bad. The pacing and the placing of all the pieces here is very reminiscent of how that show handles its tension and when they start to fall it is as thrilling as One Minute.
As amazing as the climactic action of that chapter is – and it is really rather cleverly done – it is still all just a part of the set-up for those spastic scenes yet to come and once the film tips over that first edge it never again lets up, the chapters after this just getting wilder and wilder: steeper gradients, harsher angles and less restraint. It should be entirely unbelievable and yet this structure really grounds it, so that no matter how crazy things get – and they get crazy – we are still entirely immersed in the world of the story.
There is, however, an ever increasing sense of looseness to proceedings from chapter three onwards and though this is in some ways necessary to the style, it does also mean that the plot and character arcs are entirely lost by the time the ending hits; don’t ask me what the intentions of the police or second Mob were because I honestly have no clue. And that aforementioned ending is something of a let down, simply because there is nothing that could possibly feel climactic in comparison to the already off the charts action of the previous two and a half hours.
Really though you won’t notice any of these things while you are watching the movie and you wouldn’t be able to pay any attention to them if you did, so strong is its grip on your attention. You just need to sit down, strap in and let the film take you; which is as easy as could be given that these are the only things stopping you from having a ridiculously good time – normally there are some moral worries with South Korean cinema flicks like this but the violence here is always against men and always against those that chose to involve themselves in it, so it’s guilt free to boot. I can’t even write about it properly, so strong is the adrenaline evoked even now; this years I Saw The Devil.