Film review – The Yellow Sea (2010)

8 December 2011

NOTE: This is a review of the 140-minute International Cut (aka Director’s Cut) version of the film.

The Yellow Sea: Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo)

Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo)

Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is resilient. He may be hopelessly in debt, has been left by his wife, can’t take care of his daughter and has problems with gambling and controlling his temper, but he still persists. Fuelled by the mix of love and loathing that comes with sexual jealousy and a muted sense of regret and sadness over having to allow his mother to raise his daughter, Gu-nam needs a way out of his predicament. He therefore doesn’t need too much convincing when crime boss Myung-Ga (Yun-Seok Kim) offers him a large sum of money in return for killing a man. The mission involves getting smuggled out of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China to South Korea, which also happens to be where Gu-nam’s wife has gone.

The Yellow Sea is divided into four parts with each part given a title that reflects how Gu-nam is perceived by himself and the other characters. The first segment is simply ‘Taxi Driver’, named after Gu-nam’s job in Yanji City in Yanbian. He is so overwhelmingly in debt that his monotonous and subservient job is all that he is. This first segment has something of a social-realist feel. While the film maintains a gritty aesthetic, filmed with handheld camera and shot in the bleakest parts of the various Chinese and Korean cities and towns where the action takes place, the emphasis at the start of the film is the hopelessness of Gu-nam’s situation.

The Yellow Sea: Myung-Ga (Yun-Seok Kim)

Myung-Ga (Yun-Seok Kim)

Gu-nam has similarities to Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Not only do they both share a profession, but they are both loners in a hostile environment who become increasingly violent. There is a brief shot in The Yellow Sea where Gu-nam is walking down a small street, looking pensive with his hands thrust into his army jacket, which bears a remarkable visual similarity to the shot of Robert De Niro as Bickle used on many of the Taxi Driver promotional posters. While Bickle’s act of murder is the climax of Taxi Driver, Gu-nam’s act occurs at the climax of the The Yellow Sea’s second chapter, titled ‘Killer’. This whole chapter functions as a tense thriller with Gu-nam attempting to find his wife while planning the assassination he has been sent to perform. He really is God’s lonely man in this section; a man whose future has become defined by how successfully he performs his hit.

The third chapter is a combination of action, fugitive and gangster film, titled ‘Joseonjok’, one of the names used to describe people like Gu-nam who are Chinese of Korean descent. While the urgent and bleak style of the film becomes increasingly used to facilitate extraordinarily choreographed action set pieces, the film also makes an interesting commentary on Joseonjok identity. On the run from both Chinese and Korean gangs, The Yellow Sea writer/director Na Hong-jin seems to be using Gu-nam’s story to suggest that Joseonjok people are outsiders who aren’t fully embraced by either culture.

The Yellow SeaThe final chapter expands the scope beyond Gu-nam’s story to focus on the rival Chinese and Korean gangs. This section is appropriately titled ‘The Yellow Sea’ after the large body of water between mainland China and the west coast of Korea. It is also the sea that Gu-nam is initially taken across, by smugglers who have little regard for the lives of their Joseonjok passengers. The action reaches a fever pitch in this final chapter as the Koreans and Chinese butcher each other. Na Hong-jin alternates between scenes shot in open spaces where adversities come from all sides making escape look impossible, and tightly filmed sequences in confined spaces that are rapidly edited to convey disorientation and panic.

While it does provide a commentary on the geopolitical relations between China and Korea, the shift away from Gu-nam during the final sections does lose some of the film’s intense focus. In particular, there is one too many scenes of Myung-Ga being indestructible and unstoppable as if he is some kind of Terminator. Nevertheless, The Yellow Sea is still an exhilarating film with action that is breathtakingly kinetic and visceral. The traumas inflicted on the human body by knives, axes and even a large bone (there are very few guns in the film) leave visible and pronounced marks that don’t heal between shots. For a film this slickly structured and ultimately over-the-top, it maintains a grim realism.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Housemaid (2010)

24 October 2010
The Housemaid: Euny (Jeon Do-yeon)

Euny (Jeon Do-yeon)

The Housemaid is an erotic thriller about a maid working for an extremely wealthy family. Her subservience to the family, which includes willingly making herself sexually available to the husband, is overtly used by director Im Sang-soo to savagely critique the massive gap between the excessively wealthy and the working-class in contemporary Korea. A loose remake of a 1960 film of the same name, The Housemaid is typical of recent South Korean cinema with its kinetic style, play on generic conventions and social commentary.

This is an enjoyable film that looks impressive, is technically accomplished and is suitably sexually charged. However, its social inequality message is very heavy-handed and rather than offering any serious insight, the film functions more as a heightened melodrama. Tonally the film is enjoyably playful but both the story and message are for the most part a little simplistic and obvious. However, its completely over-the-top final scene and then bizarre epilogue are so bewildering that you are ultimately left unsure what the point of the film was after all. Surreal flourishes can be very effective but in the case of The Housemaid it leaves you feeling slightly unsatisfied.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 365, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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DVD review – Mother (2009), Region 4, Madman

15 August 2010
Mother (Kim Hye-ja)

Mother (Kim Hye-ja)

From South Korea, Mother is a stylish and extremely impressive “wrong man” murder mystery. Do-joon (Won Bin) is a sweet natured, mentally handicapped young man who is accused of murder based on circumstantial evidence. Do-joon’s doting mother becomes fixated on finding the real killer to prove her son’s innocence so she starts her own investigation, unveiling all sorts of sordid details about their small town community.

Director Bong Joon-ho’s previous film was the monster movie The Host, which very playfully toyed with its generic conventions without becoming overly self-aware. Mother is more focused than The Host, operating as a strong genre film even though Bong skilfully undermines many of the murder mystery conventions. With its clever play on audience expectations and sympathies there are some completely unexpected twists and turns.

At the heart of Mother is Kim Hye-ja’s lead performance as Do-joon’s mother. Her incredible love and devotion for Do-joon is both touching and sad. Her singular drive to protect him is what drives this film resulting in a heavily ironic and clever examination of guilt and culpability. Beautifully shot and consistently entertaining, Mother is a film that you should not let slip under your radar.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 360, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008)

3 October 2009
Park Do-won, the Good (Jung Woo-sung), Yoon Tae-goo, the Weird (Song Kang-ho) and Park Chang-yi, the Bad (Lee Byung-hun)

Park Do-won, the Good (Jung Woo-sung), Yoon Tae-goo, the Weird (Song Kang-ho) and Park Chang-yi, the Bad (Lee Byung-hun)

The Italian director Sergio Leone, best known for ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ such as A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West, has inspired many directors to pay homage to his highly kinetic style of filmmaking. Some of these directors have included Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Sam Raimi, Shane Meadows and Tsui Hark. Now the South Korean director Kim Ji-woon (A Bittersweet Life, A Tale of Two Sisters) has paid tribute with The Good, the Bad, the Weird, a film that obviously derives it title from Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Kim’s film is one of the most successful films to capture the spirit of Leone’s cinema and it is also one of the most enjoyable.

As with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in The Good, the Bad, the Weird there are three protagonists all after the same goal – buried treasure hidden in the Manchurian desert. Set in the 1930s shortly after Manchuria was occupied by Japan, the trio not only have to contend with each other and their respective cohorts but there are also a gang of bandits and the Imperial Japanese Army who are after the treasure too.

Key Image_Gunman shooting from train_300dpiFrom the exhilarating train hijacking at the start of the film right through to the all out horse/motorbike/car chase across the desert before the final showdown, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a cinematic rush of adrenalin. Kim beautifully replicates Leone’s aesthetics of contrasting extreme close-ups with wide shots, depicting violence in a way that is both brutal and poetic, and establishing an overall tone that is frequently funny and self-conscious without ever being camp. As well as taking inspiration from various Leone films, Kim has also borrowed a few ideas here and there from Mad Max 2 and to a lesser degree Raiders of the Lost Arc. While contemporary action films are increasingly becoming a blur of quick edits, Kim has the confidence and logistical skills to set up complex action sequences and then film them in continuous shots. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a very technical and modern film but it is also a return to the old-school discipline of simply presenting movement on screen in the most exciting way possible.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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