Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Yellow Sea; Korean tourist board cries, quits en masse

If I worked for the South Korean Tourist Board, assuming that there is such a thing, I'd spend most of my time plotting to burn down the South Korean Film Board, and pretty much everyone else involved in the Korean film industry. Except, since I'd be Korean, I'd be plotting to butcher the ever-loving hell out of them with hatchets and gigantic meat bones, because … well, hell if I know.

Pretty much everything I know about modern Korea I know from watching Korean movies, which means that most of what I know is probably wrong, but that's me and pretty much the rest of the potential tourist market thinking that Korea is a great place to go if you're falling behind on your getting-beaten-to-death quotas. If this is actually a plan, then god help us all, because the Koreans are super good at doing stuff so messed up that you're going to be so busy muttering "Awww hell no…" in disbelief that they'll have you down to stumps before you even have time to get past the new - sixth - "what the hell did I just see?" stage of grieving.

The Yellow Sea is a stumper. It doesn't work, but it's hard to call it a bad movie. On the one hand, most of the time it's almost dull; things build up slowly. When it's not being dull, it's frenetic beyond belief. I don't think there was a single likeable character in the movie, but the performances are somehow compelling all the same; these are terrible people, but it's hard to take your eyes off them. So, horrible people doing horrible things sporadically. Hmm. In relentlessly grim environments; South Korea just looks horrible. But the violence is presumably balletic and elegant, I hear you say. Nope, the violence is pretty horrible, actually, thanks for asking. In The Yellow Sea, someone getting hatcheted to bits looks pretty much as horrible as I imagine it would if you had to watch it for real.

And finally, good luck making sense of what the hell's going on. There are built in problems in watching K-movies. It's hard to tell who the star is unless you watch a lot more of them than I do, and it's not that easy to tell Koreans apart without practice; people look a lot more alike than we realise they do, and a completely different complexion and face shape distracts the eye; the whole damn thing is different and you snag on that massive difference across the screen instead of the subtle differences among all the unfamiliar faces. Not knowing who the star is can be surprisingly subversive of the narrative; you don't know quite who you should be watching, nor who's supposed to be the real bad guy and who's the sort of bad guy who you should root for because he's only doing bad things for good reasons. I've said before that this actually makes the movies more interesting; stripped of the Hollywood assumptions and shorthand, you're looking at what's really happening and thinking about that. Finally, Korean narrative conventions are not always easy to follow. K-movies are perfectly ready to kill major characters who would get a miraculous break in Hollywood, and there seem to be certain cultural assumptions in Korea which make it possible to skip from one scene to another without any apparent logic. But, I imagine them saying, obviously he did this next. Well, yeah. Sure. Throw another dog on the grill while I think about that; not every country runs on the same voltage you're using.

The Yellow Sea was directed by Hong-jin Na, the brains behind the genuinely awesome The Chaser, a film which left me exhausted and drained and converted to the idea that Korean cinema was doing things no-one else had even thought of. Seriously, check it out. It's heavy going, but the last twenty minutes will leave you completely out of breath and you'll never look at a Hollywood serial killer movie the same way again. The Chaser felt utterly grounded in everyday life; nothing about it felt contrived or artificial. I figured that Hong-jin Na could only be getting better as he got more money and more experience, so i expected that The Yellow Sea would be even better. I was … not correct. The film was a huge hit in Korea, but….

Let's go back to The Closer for a second. Stripped to the essentials, it's a two hander; one hand is a serial killer who's picking off hookers in a disorganised way, the other hand is the ex-cop pimp who starts to suspect that something's not right when his girls stop returning his calls. There's a lot of other stuff, including a wrenching performance by the actress playing the latest victim of the serial killer. Fundamentally, The Yellow Sea is also a two hander; one hand is the deadbeat taxi driver who gets conned into going to Seoul to carry out a contract killing and the other hand is the gang boss who manipulates him into doing it. It's the same pair of actors in both movies, and they are good actors. The taxi driver role is particularly thankless, because not only is he kind of a dumb mess, he's almost mute through much of the movie, simply because his isolation in the leadup to the murder and afterwards leaves him with no-one to talk to; we have to develop our sense of what he's thinking through watching him, not through hearing him explain what he's feeling. The gang boss is played much more broadly (the same actor played the pimp in The Chaser and it was a much more subtle performance), with a mixture of superficial charm and the kind of stupid cunning which has to turn into violence because it's too dumb for logic to hold up in the long run.

There's an immense amount of subtext in The Yellow Sea which non-Koreans have almost no hope of grasping. Our two main characters are ethnic Koreans from China, part of a huge minority within China whose best option is to work illegally in Korea - illegally in all senses, since they're illegal immigrants and they wind up in the underworld almost as soon as they arrive. Looking at Korea's underclass through the eyes of this community has to be quite a tricky thing in local terms given Korea's historical baggage with China, Japan and the other bit of Korea; what is Korea, and what are Koreans are questions which can only be asked in very limited ways even now. But to an outsider, it's hard to know what meaning to draw from the things we're shown; all you can do is accept that a lot of it is going over your head.

The plot seems to be driven by a classic K-movie revenge double bind in which everyone is unintentionally settling someone else's score against someone else again while simultaneously sabotaging their own dreams and survival prospects. These plots, which are always driven by weird third act reveals, are usually a complete bitch to follow, but even by those standards The Yellow Sea is hard to figure out; too much is skipped over or elided or flat-out not explained. It's not like there wasn't time to get some sense into it; the first half is very slow as the taxi driver's options in China narrow to the point where he has to go to Korea to kill a guy, and then goes to Korea, slowly, and then scouts the kill, slowly, while trying to figure out where his wife might have got to. Then the killing goes down and he goes on the run, and everything kicks up a gear in terms of action and down about nine gears in terms of making any sense.

Once we get into action mode, the tone of the movie goes all over the place. Our taxi driver is now being hunted by Korean criminals, the gang leader who sent him, and the Korean police. Of those three, the Korean police are the least threat. If The Yellow Sea is depicting the Korean police accurately, they are as numerous as they are useless. Literally hundreds of them can't even catch the wrong guy, and their detectives are lugubrious sad sacks who are so many steps behind their quarries, they're in danger of being caught from behind on the second lap. Korean criminals, on the other hand, make up for their general lack of subtlety with their general lack of subtlety. Need to know where someone has got to? Grab people at random, wrap them in plastic and beat them with sticks until someone tells you something. Need to get anything else done? Try hatchets. The whole hatchety aspect of things is pretty hard to watch; the police work would be funny if you could be sure it was being played for laughs. 

It's … kind of a mess, really. I realised over time that The Chaser had worked because it had a comparatively simple plot, so you weren't trying to figure out what the hell anyone was playing at, just whether they would manage to get away with what they were trying to do (murder a bunch of people without  getting caught, not get murdered, find a hooker before she winds up murdered). That's enough to be getting on with, without having to keep track of tricksy motives.

Still, Korea looks just awful. I know people are critical of America for being awash with guns, but if The Yellow Sea is anything to go by, if guns are outlawed, outlaws will pull out knives, hatchets and the goddam haunch bones of large animals and wale each other to a pulp with them instead. If we can't give them guns, at the least we ought to give them these.

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