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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MIFF 2011 Plato’s Cave special 2

2 August 2011

During our second Melbourne International Film Festival special we discuss Surviving Life, The Unjust, Give Up Tomorrow, The Yellow Sea, Guilty of Romance, Outrage, Under the Hawthorn Tree, Oki’s Movie, Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard, Boxing Gym, Ruhr, Into Eternity, Fire in Babylon, How to Die in Oregon, She Monkey, The Kid with a Bike, Toomelah and Polisse.

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Plato’s Cave also has a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

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MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 3

24 July 2011
Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

One of the most popular versions of the fairy tale that Beauty and the Beast was adapted from, was used to instruct young women in how to leave behind the authority of the father to succumb to the authority of her husband, even if it is through an arranged marriage to a much older, undesirable and frightening man. Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film does little to challenge this reading, but the gorgeous production design and magical special effects go a long way in making it palatable. In fact, this film is such a visual delight that I gave up worrying about ideological considerations and just embraced its beautiful and influential dreamlike imagery. Plus, there’s lot of coy sexually suggestive dialogue and symbolism to enjoy. And not a single teapot sings.

Alex Gibney has become one of my favourite documentary filmmakers, especially with Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008). In Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place I really liked his approach of simply editing together footage from Kesey’s famous ‘Merry Pranksters’ bus trip across America, overlaid by commentary-style narration from the people of the journey. It reveals more about Beat legend Neal Cassady than it does about Kesey, although a highlight is the sequence where we hear the original recordings of Kesey that were made by the CIA during their notorious LSD trials. It’s a fun film but I wasn’t as fully engaged with its meandering style and don’t feel like I really gained any insight into Kesey and company. However, that may have had a lot to do with my own circumstances during the screening (see MIFFhaps below!)

I Am Eleven

I Am Eleven

Within five minutes into I Am Eleven I was choking back tears and this feeling returned again and again during Genevieve Bailey’s film, which consists of interviews with 11-year-old children from all over the world. I think it was the purity of the film that moved me so deeply. Kids at that age are so articulate, but they still have this  amazing sincerity when talking about their hopes, curiosity, concerns and wonder. Topics the participants discuss include bullying, racism, family, love, religion and the environment. Some of their insights are simply brilliant. I didn’t want this film to end (and I believe many of the stories will continue over at Bailey has created something on par with the Up series.

I suspect this is not going to be a common reaction and I’ve already encountered one friend who is annoyed at me for feeling this way, but I found Submarine a tedious and derivative indi coming-of-age film that felt like every second quirky film about teenagers that has come out since Rushmore in 1998. I liked all the cast, especially the supporting cast, and recognised the presence of the jokes, but I hardly laughed at all. Maybe if you haven’t seen so many films like this already then you’ll get something out of it.

The Yellow Sea

The Yellow Sea

I finished my day on a high with the enthralling South Korean action/thriller The Yellow Sea. A cab driver (aren’t they always?) who desperately needs money agrees to do a hit for a local gangster that involves being illegally smuggled into South Korea. After a lengthy and tense build up, the film explodes into a series of chase and action sequences as our cab driver gets on the wrong side of the police and two rival gangs. I get so depressed about how easily impressed many audiences are today when it comes to the bland action and spectacle so frequently offered up by Hollywood (looking at you strange, angry Transformers fans). In The Yellow Sea you have excellent plotting and characterisation to give meaning to the carnage. The visceral cinematography, editing and sound design engage with what is happening. Many of the sequences involving our leading character have him vastly outnumbered, but the film’s gritty style makes all the action completely convincing. Hardly any guns feature either, so the weapons of choice are knives and axes. That means there’s a lot of stabbing, cutting and slicing, and the blood does flow. Yeah!

[EDIT 8/12/2011: Read a full review of The Yellow Sea]

While watching Magic Trip I was concocting a piece about how I couldn’t focus on the first 30 minutes because the guy next to me seemed more preoccupied eating from two bottomless packets of foodstuff (which he continually alternated between for that continuous rustling sound) and then what seemed like the world’s largest and crispest apple. I did eventually ask him to stop eating and then felt like crap for the next 30 minutes for being such a grump and making him feel bad about something he thought was harmless.

Anyway, something even worse happened. During the final stages of the film when they start to inevitably talk about the downside of LSD and their social experiment, I was overcome with an intense feeling of nausea, cold sweats and dizziness. I was worried I was about to pass out so I somehow got my stuff together and staggered out, missing the end of the film and the Q&A with Alex Gibney. In all likelihood, this was probably the result of eating a very questionable sausage roll the night before and the cinema being unbearably stuffy. However, a part of me wondered if Kesey’s misadventures had triggered something of a flashback inside of me. There was that one night of heavy celebrating after I handed in my thesis…

Show us your MIFF
Considering our long friendship and tendancy to see a lot of films together, it was inevitable that I’d be spending a lot of time at MIFF with film critic, lecturer and filmmaker Josh Nelson. Josh has been coming to MIFF since 1998, is going for around 50 films this year and is most looking forward to Melancholia. Although the festival is in its early days yet, Josh lists The King of Comedy as his highlight so far. Considering Josh’s passion and expertise for the films of Martin Scorsese, this is no huge surprise nor is the fact that Taxi Driver is his all time favourite film, which we both discussed at length on the latest episode of the Triple R film critisticim podcast Plato’s Cave. Josh recommends mixing up the films you are seeing so there are some lighter ones scheduled inbetween the dark and serious ones. His biggest MIFFhap was two years ago seeing the 1971 Japanese documentary Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of War when the sound loss and infrequent subtitles hilariously resulted in frequent walkouts. His best MIFF experience was in 2001 experiencing the visual and aural assault of Ishii Sogo’s speaker-busting Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts. Check out Josh’s recent writing at Philmology.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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