The Yellow Sea – bringing a knife to a knife fight

October sees the much-awaited release of The Yellow Sea, highly rated director Na Hong-Jin’s follow-up to his incredibly popular thirller The Chaser. Paul Martinovic caught a preview and provided us with this review…

You may have seen an article recently by professional Hollywood shit-stirrer Joe Queenan regarding the pernicious influence of technology on movie thrillers, with his theory being that the advent of mobile phones and email are denying us all sorts of good yarns, purely because they would have stopped the plots of some classic movies – Jaws, Psycho, I Spit on Your Grave – dead in their tracks.

It’s a bit of a specious argument to say the least, but it got me thinking about other technology that has influenced film narratives over the years, for better or worse, that we don’t even notice any more because we’ve become so accustomed to them. My conclusion was this: technology doesn’t ruin films. Guns ruin films.

Think about it. How many films introduce a gun or guns as a tried-and-trusted way of injecting a bit of drama into proceedings? This is particularly egregious in British gangster movies – in a country where gun laws are extremely strict and their availability is till highly regulated limited, as soon as any real shit goes down everyone still gets tooled up like they’re about to take down a helicopter in Grand Theft Auto. It’s kind of insulting.

And are guns really that exciting? Sure, if you’re Michael Mann, Sam Peckinpah or John Woo you can make gunplay brutal, beautiful and exciting, but the vast majority of gun action in films is closer in execution to the clutch-over-then-keel-over-bloodlessly style found in old westerns, i.e. not particularly enthralling. Didn’t Indiana Jones indirectly prove that when he wearily took out that swordsman all those years ago? Guns are more practical than they are visually interesting. Imagine how much more exciting modern films would be if the crutch of automatic weaponry was kicked out from under it.

Which is an extremely roundabout way of saying there are very few guns in Korean action thriller The Yellow Sea, and this slavish devotion to non-shooty action is exactly what elevates it from an average if well-executed thriller to something that’s thoroughly, shamefully enjoyable.
The Yellow Sea is the follow-up to the well-received serial killer flick The Chaser from prodigious South Korean talent Na Hong-Jin, and after watching both films I think it may be possible that, in homage to Park Chan-Wook’s vengeance trilogy, he may be subtly putting a loose trilogy centred around melee weapons. I suppose The Chaser would represent blunt instruments, with a hammer being put to wince-inducingly effective use on a number of occasions, while The Yellow Sea is all about knives. Lots of sharp, pointy knives. Put simply, you’d have to watch a month’s worth of 80s slasher movies before you approached the level of hatchet and kitchen knife based carnage found on display here.
In between the stabbings there’s a story that manages to play out, however: Gu-nam (Ha Jung-Woo, The Chaser) is a cab driver living in the largely Korean-populated Chinese city of Yanji. A gambling addict, he loses what little money he has away in mah-jong games, all the while tormented by images of his wife, who he suspects of having an affair – she left for Korea six months previously with promises of sending money back to him, and he has yet to hear from her.

Submerged by his underworld debt, he is approached by serpentine mobster Myun-ga (Kim Yun-Seok, also of The Chaser) with a job: cross the titular Yellow Sea to Seoul to murder a man. Seeing the opportunity to both pay off his debt and re-unite with his wife, he accepts. However, when the time of the hit arrives, there is an unexpected complication, which leads to Gu-nam becoming the most wanted man in Korea, with not only the cops to contend with, but also respective might of the Chinese and Korean mafias…

The Yellow Sea is paced almost glacially (the ‘hit’ that sparks the chaos doesn’t take place until nearly an hour until the film, and the shorter, international cut still runs a lumbar-threatening 140 minutes), but the film is rarely anything other than riveting. This is partly down to the performances – Jung-Woo and Yun-Seok reverse their good-guy/bad-guy roles from The Chaser, yet are both just as convincing as in their previous collaboration, giving a pair of strong, nuanced performances, with Yun-Seok in particular gleefully terrifying as the psychotic Myun-Ga.

Mainly though, it’s on a technical level that The Yellow Sea most impresses – Hong-Jin proves a fantastic director of both action and suspense, which seems to be a relatively rare combination in modern cinema. The aforementioned first third is relatively action-free, yet still manages to be compelling thanks to Hong-Jin’s strong sense of composition and timing, wringing the maximum amount of tension out of his premise before the shoe finally drops an hour in.

The Yellow Sea is also beautifully photographed, with a bleached out colour palette that’s an excellent accompaniment to the tough, neo-noir storyline and becomes increasingly scuzzy as they characters descend into hell. I think that one of the reasons that Korean film-making has become so popular with Western audiences is that it imbues its adult dramas/thrillers with the kind of high-end, meticulous production values that Hollywood only applies now to comic book and children’s movies. The Yellow Sea also features one of the best ever uses of a particular bugbear of mine, the ‘shaky –cam’, using it in an atypically coherent fashion to conjure some of the best action sequences since Paul Greengrass’s Bourne movies.

And that’s essentially what The Yellow Sea is – a Grand Guignol Bourne movie. Hong-Jin is magnificent at constructing chase sequences (cf. The Chaser, natch), and there are a few brilliant ones here, including one that culminates in the best piece of lorry-centred action since The Dark Knight.

But it’s the blood-spattered knife-fights that stay with you. Not to mention the hatchet fights. At one point someone is thrashed to death with an enormous thigh bone. Many times a scene ends with a room literally showered with gore, and there’s an exhilarating aspect to the kinetic hyper-realistic style utilised by Hong-Jin in these scenes that is undeniably, if not a little guiltily, enjoyable.

Where Hong-Jin has a failing however is in plotting – while his films are technically masterful he’s yet to make a film that is wholly satisfying on a purely narrative level. The second half is packed with way too many twists, and some of the more emotional beats involving Gu-nam’s wife seem a little forced and trite compared to the ones found in The Chaser, which was genuinely gut-wrenching in its climactic moments. The Yellow Sea clearly wants to be a great crime film, like the ones produced by Hollywood in the Seventies: The French Connection, The Driver, The Yakuza etc. In this sense it doesn’t quite work. There isn’t much that will resonate from The Yellow Sea –the characters are a shade too thin, and the storyline too convoluted to leave any lasting impression. The impact of the film is ultimately almost entirely visceral.

But what an impact! Despite (or more likely, due to) barely a gun being fired during its ample running time, The Yellow Sea is a superior action movie, and one of the best thrillers to come out of South Korea or anywhere this year. Fingers crossed for the third part of the trilogy, Mace Island*, to be released sometime in 2014.

*wishful thinking

The Yellow Sea is released on October 21st in the UK in selected cinemas.

Paul Martinovic is on Twitter at @paulmartinovic – he also occasionally maintains a blog here.
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