Thursday, July 14, 2011
The Yellow Sea
It's refreshing to see stabbing making a comeback. Shootouts have lost their basic luster for me because I've seen too many and they've become too damn generic. And too permanent. When someone brings a gun to a fight, it tends to neuter the the drama and suspense. Stabbing, on the other hand, is a hit and miss affair, and that's what makes it cinematically vital. A missed slash of a knife can be a beautiful thing. Any dope can fire a gun and hit a target at close range, but it takes a skilled, focused individual to score points with a sharp knife. Stabbing has an intimacy to it that gun-to-gun combat lacks. If the stabber is lacking skills with a blade, it's still a rousing experience to watch him give the art the old college try.
The comeback of stabbing is most obvious in current Korean cinema. I Saw The Devil's stand-out scene is the film's villain stabbing two guys in a car. The camera circles the vehicle on velvet tracks as blood and arterial spray splatter windows, faces, and consoles. The stabbing doesn't stop until the screaming victims are reduced to inert bags of crimson meat. The scene is shocking for its intensity and raw intimacy.
In The Yellow Sea (Hwanghae, 2010), another reason to celebrate contemporary Korean cinema, there is a heavy emphasis on the knife, with good guys and bad engaging in close to a dozen sweaty, gore-soaked differences of opinion. Guns barely get a look-in as the tense, unrelenting drama unfolds on the streets and waterfront of Seoul. Being the odyssey of a Chinese man who agrees to kill a Korean academic, it is a blissfully brutal experience that springs as many surprises on the viewer as it does its protagonist.
Director Hong-jin Na made the exceptional The Chaser (reviewed on this blog) a couple of years ago, and this is his follow-up effort. The Chaser was notable for its ingenious plotting and superb craft. Here, the director serves up a darker beast -- as impossible as that may sound -- that plays like an American crime thriller of the late 70's. When it looks like it's turning into an Eastern First Blood, it resets and launches itself in an unexpected direction. There are several hair-raising car chase sequences and a handful of tense foot chases; The Chaser boasted a couple of those, too.
In a very real sense, Korean movie makers today are doing what their Hong Kong brethren were doing in the mid-80's to the early 90's. Their work possesses a vigor and sense of purpose that makes cinema a church worthy of your faith once again. I don't smell the cynicism of current American filmmaking (Hollywood!) in the glorious battering rams of Korean genre cinema. I smell energy and the taking of delight in the process. That delight is what makes The Yellow Sea a damn fine experience.
Title is taken from a shipping land that lies between China's Eastern border and Korea's West peninsula.
Highly recommended for lovers of brutal, bloody drama.