Today: February 21, 2024
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The Yellow Sea

When Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs opened to great furore at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, the film was cruelly dubbed by a small number of unimpressed critics as “the most violent film ever made”. This was a label that Tarantino vehemently opposed and responded that he “didn’t make the most violent film ever made” but “one day” he might. Had The Yellow Sea opened at Sundance in 1992, its extensive and graphic portrayal of violence would have sent those same dissenting critics into complete meltdown.

When Quentin
Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs opened to
great furore at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, the film was cruelly dubbed by
a small number of unimpressed critics as “the most violent film ever made”.
This was a label that Tarantino vehemently opposed and responded that he
“didn’t make the most violent film ever made” but “one day” he might. Had The
Yellow Sea opened at Sundance in
1992, its extensive and graphic portrayal of violence would have sent those
same dissenting critics into complete meltdown.

Initially set in a crime-ridden region of China, a down-on-his-luck
taxi driver accepts a dangerous, yet profitable, proposition from an underworld
crime boss. A proposition that if successful could ease his current suffering.

Gu-Nam is a prototypical ‘down and out’ anti-hero, whose
mission to perform a brutal assassination launches him on an action-packed
series of run-ins with the police and rival gangs. The Yellow Sea does have its subtle moments however
that elevate it from being an out and out action-thriller. Gu-Nam is a
pocket-less backstreet gambler with large debts, whose wife has left for South
Korea to search for work but subsequently goes missing. Thus, for Gu-Nam, the
murderous proposition is not just a financial one; it is also an opportunity to
find out what has become of his wife.

One of the films great strengths is director Na Hong-jin and
cinematographer Lee Sung-Je’s
creation of the utterly grim world which Gu-Nam inhabits. Even grimmer is
Gu-Nam’s smuggled journey across the Yellow Sea into South Korea. In the end, The
Yellow Sea is a film that you can
almost smell partly due to the rancid design of the sets and costumes but also
because of the cold realism with which it is shot. Needless to say, the
assassination of a seemingly innocent man becomes a forgotten matter as
Gu-Nam’s suffering becomes almost unbearable.

Naturally, like most thrillers, nothing goes as planned and
Gu-Nam is framed for a murder, that in the end, he didn’t commit. From this
point the film loses its central focus and turns into a man-on-the-run flick.
Disappointingly, it felt as if Hong-jin
lost faith in the central story of Gu-Nam as the narrative branches out into a
multi-stranded chase drama. This would have been increasingly tedious and
frustrating had the last hour of the film simply not been as much fun as it
was.

To even attempt to try and explain the subsequent plot of
gang rivalries and police investigations would be futile, as none of it adds up
to much more than a series of extremely violent, but also extremely fun, action
scenes. Much of the talked about violence is of a style that typifies the films
that have emerged under a new age of Korean filmmakers over the past decade. It
is strange therefore to report that the film is almost completely devoid of
gunfire – to my recollection there is only one instance of gunfire in the
entire film. Hong-jin instead leans towards a more vicious and imaginative
variety of weapons with which to arm characters. The result is a melee of
thrusting, stabbing, crushing, and slashing scenes of flesh-bursting brutality.

Somewhere within The Yellow Sea was a taut, sweaty thriller about a planned murder. What you get
is a film that settles for the popular balance of extreme violence and dark
comedy that has come to popularise Korean Cinema. Had Hong-jin kept faith with
in the first half of the film and resisted the temptation to include a variety
of other characters, The Yellow Sea could
have been one of the greats of the modern Korean film movement. As it is there
are fantastic moments of Greengrass-esque
car chases and Tarantino-filched
scenes of mutilation but, on the whole, the film fails to hang together
succinctly.

Yet, despite the sprawling narrative, you’d have to be a
staunch cynic to deny the characters that lead actors Jung-woo Ha and Yun-seok Kim
play are dull or uninteresting. It may take some understanding of the genre in
order to grasp the dark mixture of tones in this film, but if Tarantino still
dreams of one day making “the most violent film ever made,” maybe he shouldn’t
see The Yellow Sea.

Check out the film at the Korean Film Festival!

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