Review: Hwanghae (The Yellow Sea, 2010)

the yellow sea

I don’t live near a sea, yellow or otherwise!

Screenplay By: Hong-jin Na
Directed By: Hong-jin Na

It takes a while for the action in Hwanghae to get rolling, but that is by no means a negative when it comes to this film. The camera spends time with Gu-nam as he prepares for his crime. We get to see him planning out what he will do, how he will do it, and what the possible variances will be. In essence, we are watching the film use a character to mirror the meticulous attention to detail of the director, Hong-jin Na. Hwanghae isn’t a fly by wall action film, it’s not a throw action scenes at the viewer and hope they are happy sort of action experience. There’s just as much attention given to the how and the why in Hwanghae as there is to the result. That’s apropos as the film ends up being not about gangsters killing one another. Rather, Seonsaeng Na’s film is about the place in time that the characters inhabit.

What I mean by that last sentence can be thoroughly ferreted out by an explanation of the car chase scene in Hwanghae. The camera is fluid during the chase, but it never loses track of the two men involved in the chase, or their vehicles. Seonsaeng Na mixes in static shots of the two of them with long shots of the roads they are driving on to make sure we understand where the characters are and what is going on with them. Thus, when the cars hit each other and the camera beings to get all squirrelly disorientation is avoided. We know there’s a pillar to the left of Gu-nam’s car, and that when he gets hit and is spinning to the left he is dangerously close to hitting said pillar. Seonsaeng Na’s film is not about losing one’s self in the action, it’s about understanding the spaces inhabited by the characters as they endure the action.

Meticulous though Hwanghae may be, it is a film brimming with energy. I don’t want to make the declarative statement that modern South Korean film seems to be about energy, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t what most South Korean films I’m watching are offering nowadays. Even in the static moments in Hwanghae there is the allure of movement. Myun-ga doesn’t just sit and watch the fire he has lit, the fire must dance around him and envelope him in movement. There’s a definite sense of energy and movement being in charge of the characters in Hwanghae. This ties into the fact that the plans the characters make continually go awry. There is something else at play in Hwanghae, something that the characters cannot control and cannot plan for. They are surrounded by this energy of movement, they are but slaves to the whims of the film, which in this case is doubling for misfortune.

Hwanghae is one tense ride, and that is only the case because of what I’ve written so far. The scene when Gu-nam finally attempts his crime isn’t tense because he’s committing a crime. It’s an extremely tense moment because of what the filmmaking has set us, as the audience, up for. In that moment the meticulous planning by the protagonist has prepared us for tense moments as he engages in his crime and gets the deed done. However, as he walks towards the building wrenches begin to be thrown at him. Gu-nam flinches at the factors he doesn’t understand, he almost runs away he is so frightful of the new developments. We are caught in the tension just as much as Gu-nam is, and when he flinches the heart flutters just a bit more. As he makes his way towards the building again we’re now in the dark, all the planning has been tossed aside. While we thought Gu-nam was planning, in actuality it was Seonsaeng Na who was meticulously planning how to grab a hold of the audience and throttle them in whatever way he saw fit.

I had a great time watching Hwanghae, and that’s because it is an eminently watchable film. The story does get a little too twisty and turny as the film reaches its conclusion. Still, there’s some wonderful filmmaking on display in Hwanghae. Seonsaeng Na has a clear grasp of action filmmaking and of delivering something special to the viewer. I know a lot of people are in love with South Korean cinema these days, but don’t let the hype steer you away from this film. Your brain and your heart need to get together and be subjected to Hwanghae.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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