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Non-Review Review: The Yellow Sea

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

The Yellow Sea is a strange little Korean neo-noir that manages to seem impressively intimate and epicly vast, often at the very same time. Written and directed by Hong-jin Na, the movie follows a cab driver in the borderlands between North Korea, China and Russia. Severely indebted to a local crime lord, Ku-Nam finds himself assigned to assassinate a South Korean businessman. At the same time, he tries to track down his wife, who disappeared into South Korea after he paid for a rather expensive visa. The movie occasionally has a bit of bother balancing the personal side of the story with the wider crime-based elements, but it is darkly fascinating viewing, driven by Hong-jin Na’s wonderful eye for kinetic action sequences.

Myung-Ga wonders how good his insurance police is...

The film is structured into four acts, and there’s a weird tonal dissonance between the first act and the rest of the film. We’re skilfully introduced to our protagonist and the world that he inhabits, learning how he ended up in so much debt and how he is refusing to dig himself out of it. The first act has this strangely intimate sort of feeling to it, investing us in Ku-Nam as he weighs his option. However, the next act ends up expanding the movie’s world to a ridiculously degree. What had been a story featuring Ku-Nam suddenly opens out into an underworld crime saga about vengeance and obligation, as characters are introduced thick and fast. Indeed, the sense of scale of everything – with Ku-Nam ending up as a federal fugitive in South Korea – is somewhat disorienting, although it does add to the heavy noir-ish atmosphere.

Hong-jin Na has written a pretty deft script, one very much in the tradition of neo-noir. It’s not too difficult to imagine Michael Mann directing a film like this, layered with the same sort of personal betrayals and double-crosses, mistakes and tactical errors. In fact, during the film’s centre piece chase sequence, it almost seems like composers Young-kyu Jang and Byung-hoon Lee are writing an affectionate homage to those sorts of grim eighties dramas. And, naturally, the script dovetails smoothly back from this large-scale drama into more intimate trials and tribulations. It’s quite fascinating to think that all the chaos in the film stemmed from the most personal and intimate of betrayals.

Handy man...

Still, despite these interesting thematic aspects, the screenplay can’t help but seem a little muddled at times. For example, the entire movie seems to be based on the principle that the South Korean police force are criminally inept, with various gangland figures escaping situations that they really shouldn’t. Witnessing a failed attempt to apprehend our protagonist, one mobsters remarks, “@#$!ing idiots.” He’s not far wrong. I know that an ineffective police force is one of the staples of this type of story (and that the movie would be relatively short if the law enforcement officers were in any way competent), but some of the near-misses and lucky escapes defy belief.

That said, it’s not that hard to suspend your disbelief. Hong-jin Na is arguably a stronger director than a writer. Even if the car chase sequences do suffer a bit from rapidly cutting back and forth, with too much shaking and too many quick cuts, they are something to behold. The police chase that forms the centrepiece of the film, as Ku-Nam’s situation goes terribly (yet inevitably) askew, is something to behold. It’s not the only sequence.

Getting out of this alive? I wouldn't bet on it...

While the violence is typically short (and incredibly brutal), the film carries off its action with an aplomb. The scenes are more effective because we know that they aren’t going to unfold over the space of minutes – we know that every second in a given clash could be the last, and that the film isn’t afraid to resolve these conflicts in a swift and brutal fashion. There’s an abundance of blood on display, but it adds to the atmosphere – this is, after all, the story of one very messy assignment.

Jung-woo Ha is solid as our lead, adding a bit of depth to his more personal scenes that help carry us through the bigger sequences. However, the movie belongs to Yun-seok Kim as the gangland chief who decides to forgive the cab driver’s debt in return for a small favour. As the godfather figure, he’s brilliant. Seemingly normal and social when introduced, it becomes gradually clear that the man has absolutely no fear. He doesn’t even seem to get outwardly angry. He seems wonderfully aloof to the carnage that unfolds around him, prone to brilliantly erratic behaviour delivered in the most simple and straight-forward manner possible. He is almost a bit of a twist on the conventional gangster archetype, genuinely happy to be a man of his word and to forgive past transgressions in the interest of doing business again – of course, he is also an unstoppable killing machine if provoked.

Cool and the gang...

The Yellow Sea is a bit all over the place, but it’s an ambitious and well-handled neo-noir. It feels like those sorts of shady eighties adventures, rife with ambiguity and all sorts of darkness.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

2 Responses

  1. Saw this a while ago and I really liked it. The fact that he is untrained for his assignment it feels pretty realistic how he plans to handle it. Once the chases started it becomes a big more generic, but overall it was very enjoyable.

    • I agree, actually. I liked the first of the four acts the most, and it almost felt like it was stuck onto the middle and end of another film. However, the direction was (generally) quite solid and it tossed and turned enough to keep interest during its runtime.

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