Brief impression: “황해” aka “Hwang hae” or “The Yellow Sea”

October 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

For someone increasingly stumped by the improbability of seeing a rushing stream of brilliant films of widely varied styles coming out of a particular country, “The Yellow Sea” comes as a very sobering reaffirmation of the likelihood that every river can in fact run dry or that every river at least has a bank, not least for the fact that this film is considered a legitimate example of the general excellence of South Korean ‘art’ or ‘auteur’ cinema, especially of the successful fusion of mainstream and arthouse sensibilities that seems to be a hallmark of sorts of the best that that national cinema has to offer. In fact, Thierry Fremaux, when announcing the inclusion of “The Yellow Sea” in the Un Certain Regard slate of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, called it a ‘beautiful film.’ But the most egregious part of Fremaux’s proclamation is not the fact that Na Hong-Jin’s follow-up to his very fine debut “The Chaser” is not categorically beautiful, but that the Cannes festival director felt it necessary to highlight the film’s beauty, whether visual or otherwise, in light of an official selection that featured films like “The Tree of Life”, “House of Tolerance”, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”, “Oslo, 31 August” and “The Kid with a Bike” to name a few – even “Melancholia” and “Drive” – all of these films whose own particular brands of beauty will be remembered long after “The Yellow Sea” is all but forgotten; modern-day masterpieces to be sure, far more exquisitely photographed and deeply assured in their artistry. Of course, the fact that he made special mention of the film in question is not necessarily proof that he holds it in any higher esteem than its festival contemporaries, but it is a striking assessment if only for the fact that “The Yellow Sea,” which starts not terribly, becomes progressively and alarmingly more mediocre as its runtime clocks along.

For anyone familiar with “The Chaser,” seeing the establishing five or ten minutes of its successor makes it clear that Na Hong-Jin is deviating from the somewhat clean, relatively steady approach he adopted with his first picture, a crime thriller/chase picture – like “The Yellow Sea” – about a pimp who realises that he may have uncovered the identity of a serial killer. The critical success of that first film – not to mention the way it ran away with the local box-office – may be due in part to Hong-Jin’s display of his ability to expertly combine the perversely offbeat sensibility that seems to dominate Korean art-house cinema with a less opaque approach to narrative and mood, not dissimilar to the mainstream-art-house balance that countryman Bong Joon-Ho achieves with utter mastery, only, “The Chaser”  swings just a touch closer to the mainstream or at least does so more frequently, which is not a bad thing. The point is, where that film managed to be narratively and formally straightforward while retaining a level of unhealthy fascination with its already morbid subject matter, this new movie is not at all a nice, even mixture, like whole blood as it exists in arteries and veins, but a spun-down product with cells at the bottom and plasma floating on top after it’s been centrifuged. Of course, plasma and red blood cells are utilised individually as transfusible products, but for whole blood to be of functional value, the various components need to blend into a cohesive whole, which is sadly not the case with ‘The Yellow Sea’ (the blood analogy is apt seeing as there is so much of it splattered all over this picture.)

Perhaps it was a very conscious desire on the filmmaker’s part to create a more visceral aesthetic with his second picture, the kind that nauseates and oppresses in service of a specific overall effect. Despite “The Chaser’s” horrific content, there is a certain ‘fictional’ sheen to the visuals that would allow for a viewer to easily distance oneself, at least on a deeply emotional level. It’s very much a movie, “The Chaser.” As for “The Yellow Sea,” right from the get-go there is an acid yellow hue to the shadowy, high contrast images which are themselves shot handheld, shaking ever so slightly all the time, hovering right within characters’ personal space, perhaps in hope of baring a bit of their souls or documenting every telling wave of emotion that passes across their faces. It’s the kind of overbearing grungy “realism” that won’t rest until the viewer realises how goddam dire things are for the protagonist, the protagonist in this case being Gu-nam (played by Ha Jung-woo), a Joseonjok, or ethnic Korean living in China, and one not living very well at that, struggling to meet his growing gambling debts as a taxi driver while his wife, who has travelled to South Korean for work and has apparently forgotten him, continues to not make contact, which in turn convinces Gu-nam that she is being unfaithful to him. Luckily, Gu-nam finds himself hired to travel to Seoul in order to carry out a contract kill for a fellow Joseonjok gangster, in exchange for a decent sum of money (and the chance for Gu-nam to hunt down his wife and her presumed lover.) Now, a brilliant director like Andrea Arnold who also adopts this kind of dirty realism aesthetic and almost obnoxiously so – which is why her films can have a polarising effect – does it with commitment, and with a certain discipline. She also doesn’t pepper her rough-hewn, tough-minded films with incongruous elements like washed-out fantasised/remembered sex sequences. Why not? Because this would render her realist aesthetic disingenuous, unless she thought deep and hard about the inclusion of the aforementioned sex scenes and developed an approach which would effectively facilitate their inclusion in the final cut of the film. Hong-Jin does the former, peppering “The Yellow Sea” with images that are presumably meant to represent Gu-nam’s painful romantic nostalgia/murderous melancholy, but the director simply slips this kind of expressionistic element into a film which is not only arthouse-shaky, but will quickly become mainstream Hollywood action-shaky, without any evident awareness of the aesthetic incongruence at play. It becomes a Tony Scott film, but whereas a picture by the late director and brother of Ridley (whose greatest personal achievement – Tony’s that is – may be his executive producer role in “The Good Wife”) would whole-heartedly adopt the hyperkinetic approach, “The Yellow Sea,” or rather Hong-Jin, seems attracted to the idea of being both down, dirty and quiet and sleek, fast and loud. Hell, there’s no reason why these two aesthetics can’t somehow find a way to tango: case in point, Johnnie To’s marvellous 2013 crime flick “Drug War.” And let’s not forget Jacques Audiard’s even more brilliant “The Beat that my Heart Skipped” from a few years back. These films know how to scrap with agility and some sort of grace.

So as not to imply that ‘The Yellow Sea’ is a failure from beginning to end, the chapter of the film – yes, it is broken up into a few chapters – that depicts Gu-nam’s attempt at killing the Korean businessman he has been contracted to whack, is evidence that Na Hong-Jin has a decent store of directorial talent and that Ha Jung-woo is one hell of a performer. Spanning roughly twenty, thirty minutes, this narrative block displays mordant humour and observational patience in both the shooting and the editing, allowing Ha Jung-woo to expertly embody a man submerged in a bog of desperation and survivalist amorality. It shows in his hesitancy, but also in his jumpy, bird-like persistence. This period marks the movie’s high point but also its descent – almost without warning – into a depressingly rote gangland thriller complete with frequent, overly-terse phone calls servicing half-baked exposition, wildly photographed scenes of violent mayhem which would have been far more horrifying if approached with some restraint, and car chases cut together so frantically yet so half-heartedly that they begin to feel artless. And to top it all off? Silly little art-house flourishes every so often. At the end, what is left is a glass of unshaken orange juice which, when consumed, is at one point unsubstantially thin and at another, an unpleasant mouthful of pulp. How disappointing.

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