The Yellow Sea 황해 (2010) – S. Korea
Gu-nam, a tired, down-on-his-luck, scavenger of a man, needs to repay his debts, some 60,000 yuans to gangsters in Yanbian, a prefecture between China & Russia, also a northern point to North Korea. A father and a husband, he knows he will have to dig out an escape route or pay it all back, but his place is low and bare, seemingly without hope.Attempting quick moves to beat his bad hand at loans and protect his young daughter, he hustles to make end’s meet; his alternatives for a climb out of financial trouble: gambling in mahjong, sending his wife away to Seoul, South Korea for better work- her money to be sent back, slowly tearing down their debt wall- and taxicab fares, him a not so great driver.
When the mafia\’s patience thins, another gangster, Myun, a leader of no one knows, comes to make him an offer, one that will reward a push for his loan obligations and a promise toward family safety. It’s silly, Gu-nam thinks, to have such a ridiculous, assumedly dangerous offer come from someone unknown, but maybe it’s his only way. He nods, okay. The objective: kill a wealthy man in Seoul-of which he doesn’t know-and bring Myun the severed finger as proof of accomplishment within a span of 10 days. Enter The Yellow Sea.
Biting Down & Breaking Out
Mixing stylistic elements, the shades of scarlet and maroon- salty results from blood & guts violence-, figurative and literal back-stabbing, dark, cyan exposures, and the preferring of knives than guns, this South Korean thriller/drama written and directed by Hong-jin Na (The Chaser), proves to be gritty and pleasurable, enough to tantalize fetishist cinephiles. All of it, the steadier approach at Jason Bourne espionage camera shakiness, sexual perversions overlapping ones of mafia power, and chase after endless chase build toward an uber climactic finish that is sure to upset many and captivate all in its winding crawl to see who survives the dangers.
The narrative, from start to finish, remains tight and interesting, opening with enough change of pace to motivate your focusing on details and dates, places and memories, and there’s some neat history to keep you learning of that low place, of which is not quite China or exactly Korea. Like a Guy Ritchie film, the characters are varied. Goonish gangsters take one side, and the clever, calculating thugs to the other. The police, ones of which become a third party, are a concern. Gu-nam\’s making progress through trappings and obstacles grabs their attention, and the rest of the leads, (baddies) not far behind, hate him more for his involving them.
There’s cat & mouse chasings over a grab bag of treasures too, and it leads the main narrative into sideways detours and neat little breaks of attention, elaborate knife combat and breaking of skulls. Just wait to observe what one can do with a pork bone in a later scene.
What\’s most remarkable and memorable of this tale is the imagery & references of men as dogs. The behavior of men, Gu-nam sees, is false showing, an act of baring teeth in a rabid way. Myun tells him this too when he pitches his assassination schemes, some ravenous German Shepherds with foam at their snouts barking and biting at his side, desperate. “You don’t wanna end up like them, do you?” Gu-nam, along with us, thinks of his daughter. No. He does not.
Performances build the selling of immersion, especially the clipped nature of dialogue written by Hong-jin Na, left to fade off or be interrupted, a secondary hint or interpretation, as most of the messages are well received enough with body language, set design and editing from Sun-min Kim; his sleight of hand with frames quick and concentrated.
Yun-seok Kim, who plays Myun, also known for his performances in Punch (2011) & The Thieves (2012), adds a visceral savagery to his leading character here, leaving your observations behind Gu-nam and trust of others hard to pin. Of Jung-woo Ha, who played in Ki-duk Kim’s Time (2006), provides the real meat though in his portrayal of Gu-nam. His acting marks scenes with pivotal dynamism, strong in one moment and torn down, completely beat in another.
There’s a one scene, in the woods, cops in pursuit, not too far off behind, and Jung’s Gu-nam has a bullet wound in one arm. He takes a moment to pause, tear off a sleeve, and form a tourniquet of fabric to slow the bleeding. In just a few seconds, following an intense fleet away and much action, he rips out his gritty exterior, the facade he was showing everyone through his perils. He reduces his armor. He suppresses the anger, and he cries. It’s a sensitive scene, one that proves he still has a soul. This wasn’t the life he wanted, not to end here. Of a pursuit. Of a spectacle. If he dies there, he would be the dog, a weaker kind, dead after the foaming of rabies. If only he can make it past this and the cops and the gangs, maybe he’ll see his daughter one last time. He hides behind a tree so no one important can see. But we see. And, we also cry as he tries to get back up and finish his story.
Of the imagery, elite gangsters wear their money with expensive suits, and the low-life players, including our Gu-nam lead, are shown to be unglamourous; their eating scenes showing of how bare bones and impoverished they really are. It’s grit vs. glam, the suits against shirts & parkas, and this contrast is a propellor for the action and design, scenes cold for the lowers and then warm and bright for the highers.
The music is a simple melody in loop, a kind of darker spin on notes from Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009), scored by Clint Mansell. Each new scene, having progressed, like the characters, from somewhere of light to dark, grim recesses; minor changes in tone and pace. The get slower and lower, not different from Gu-nam. I rather like that.
And, lastly, of Hong-jin Na’s directing, the piece is thoughtful and unique. Yes, it takes some charm and wit of other gangster dramas, but, the important thing, Na makes it whole, improving the plot with intricate character details and very deliberate camera choices. Like his The Chaser, we’re given a start that is jam packed with details we don’t believe we want, and then we don’t know where to follow our next clue. Because Hong-jin is so good at leading, we don’t mind following his narratives here.
See The Yellow Sea if you\’re a fan of crime films. See it for the action and violence, the characters, some crying and others dying. Watch it for laughs, some points funnier than others. And let me know what you make of the ending, the stinger revealing much but after, somewhere in the middle of the credits. It’s rather odd, no?