Film Of The Week – The Yellow Sea (South Korea, 2010)

Once a week we choose an Asian film available on Australian streaming services to quash your lockdown boredom!

In light of the recent – and frankly unprecedented – global annihilation of Parasite, Korean cinema seems to have finally strode into the spotlight, and deservedly so. But the irreverent genre-mashing, idiosyncratic humour and crowd pleasing exuberance of Bong Joon-Ho’s work is certainly not indicative of the industry as a whole.

A notable fixture of modern Korean film, now mostly antiquated in Hollywood (with the exception of auteur-driven prestige pictures come Oscar time), is the gangster film. In what can only be seen as reflection of a socio-political malaise, Korean gangster films are often sordid and ugly fare devoid of glamourisation, marked by dimly lit cinematography, gruelling violence and the absence of a moral centre. Na Hong-Jin’s 2010 film The Yellow Sea commands these elements with aplomb. 

Gu-Nam (Ha Jung-Woo) is an impetuous, embittered taxi driver whose wife has abandoned him and consequently ridden him with her debt. He lives in Yanji, the capital of an autonomous prefecture sharing a border with both Korea and China; an opening title informs us that the city is impoverished and dominated by organised crime.  Gu-Nam is coaxed into a contract to murder a man in Seoul by local mob boss Myun, who promises to settle his debts. If he fails, however, consequences could be dire.

Being completely ignorant of the Korean political sphere, the concept of an autonomous prefecture filled with impoverished, marginalised Koreans was utterly revelatory to me. The people Gu-Nam encounters in Seoul all seem to recognise that he is a “Joseonjok” (the moniker used liberally in the film for those who originate from this community) on the basis of just his appearance. In this way, the film is profoundly empathetic as a chronicle of illegal immigration. Jung-Woo, who you may recognise as the suave Count Fujiwara from Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden, dominates almost every scene, elucidating Gu-Nam’s brusque, yet broken, spirit.

For those hoping for a cinematic travelogue of Seoul, this is not the film for you; Na Hong-Jin, who later directed the stunning horror epic The Wailing, succeeds in bringing to life the menace, grime and squalour of the city’s underbelly. But, rather than just depress the viewer, the setting facilitates some ferociously effective tension; an extended sequence midway through the film involving an apartment block is nail-biting enough to warrant inclusion in a David Fincher thriller. The latter parts of the film, while showcasing a plethora of admittedly thrilling (and gratuitously violent) action set-pieces, can’t help but undermine the powerful socio-realist aesthetic established in its first half, though by the film’s satisfying conclusion, you can’t help but be convinced of The Yellow Sea’s bruising power.