The Yellow Sea: Cannes 2011 Film Review

'The Murderer'
An overly fast-paced and violent thriller that’s technically superb but proves too taxing for the viewer. 

The second feature by Na Hong-jin centers on a Chinese-Korean who sneaks into Seoul to carry out a hit job.

Cannes –The Murderer (a.k.a. The Yellow Sea), the second feature by Na Hong-jin, whose debut The Chaser propelled him to instant fame, is a thriller about a Chinese-Korean who sneaks into Seoul to carry out a hit job. Na directs like a pole dancer – balancing difficult technical maneuvers with a racy mixture of grace and sleaze. However, there’s an impersonal air to his virtuosity. The raging stamina, unrelenting violence, rapid-fire editing and truncated narrative all give one no pause for thought or even breath. By the time the central mystery is revealed in a nice twist, it gets swallowed in the messy, anti-climactic end.

Despite a vote of confidence from Fox Internation Productions who invested in the project at early stage, Korea release in December 2010 underperformed. Japan is the first market to apprehend The Murderer since the trimmed new cut played in Un certain regard. More offers should follow suit.

The Murdereris set and shot in Yanji, the capital city of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture where China borders with North Korea. Kim Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) belongs to its large population of ethnic Koreans referred to as Joseonjok. To pay off mahjong debts and a whopping deposit to smuggle his wife Hwa-ja (Tak Sung-eun)into South Korea, Kim takes on a hit job in Seoul commissioned by local Mafioso Myun (Kim Yun-seok). As these things usually go, the assignment goes horribly wrong. In the midst of dodging the cops, Myun and the murdered man’s underworld connections, Kim persists in looking for Hwa-ja.

Employing as many as 5,000 cuts, of which there’s not a fade-in, fade-out or transitional shot in sight, editing by Kim Sun-Min (whose finest credits include The Chaser, The Host and Memories of Murder) ditches any sense of continuity in favor of putting the audience in Gun-nam’s mindset of being constantly on edge and not knowing what comes next. This technique brings tremendous velocity and ferocity to action scenes, especially a car chase shot in Busan where dozens of vehicles hurl themselves at each other and a mammoth trailer truck flips over in one take.

For narrative purposes, the disjointed melee of jump cuts causes much confusion. The screenplay (adapted by Na) is punctured by too many unclear leads and repetitive extreme violence which gradually lose its power to shock.

A bit like noir films such as Touch of Evil in which all crime, poverty and sleaze take place over the Mexican border, Yanji is made to look like a dusty, grimy hellhole still stuck in Stalinist standards of living. A rabid dog motif runs through Kim’s hopeless mission and Myun’s killer instinct. But are they like dogs just because they are ethnic minorities, or because they live in China? The script doesn’t delve into the unique identities of Joseonjok to validate their behavior or psyches. Instead, it takes their sub-human status as a given, most clearly expressed in Myun’s and his entourage’s swaggering entry into Inchon Airport, presented like Visigoths charging into Rome.

Ha Jung-woo is 100 percent credible as the fugitive whose desperation turns to anger, then to hardening resolve to exact his own form of justice. There’s not a moment when he looks relaxed till the poignant end. However, it is Kim Yun-seok who chews up the screen with his beastly, predatory bravado. Literally throwing his weight around in the vicious fight scenes, he projects a caveman-like savagery as if it’s a reflex beyond moral considerations, especially in a scene when he picks up an animal bone he’s just gnawed clean to use as a weapon.

Despite their strong physical presence and chemistry, characterization is weaker than their previous collaboration in The Chaser. Na provides the situation and motivation but not the personality or emotional core of his protagonists. Interactions between all the key roles are superficial because everyone is in a kill or be killed situation. 

Screenplay adaptor: Hong Won-chan.

Producer: Han Sung-goo.

Executive producers: Byun Jong-eun, You Jung-hoon.

Director of photography: Lee Sung-je.

Production designer: Lee Hwo-kyoung.

Music: Jang Young-gyu, Lee Byung-hoon.

Costume designer: Chae Kyung-hwa.

Editor: Kim Sun-min.

No rating, 141 minutes.


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