The Yellow Sea/Hwanghae

 

Directed by Na Hong-jin. Starring Ha Jung-woo, Kim Yun-seok, Cho Seong-ha, Lee Chul-min 18 cert, IFI, Dublin, 140 min

WHILE WATCHING the opening 30 minutes of Na Hong-jin’s gargantuan South Korean picture, the viewer could be forgiven for wondering just what genre we are dealing with.

Beginning in a northern province of China, The Yellow Seafollows the messy adventures of Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) as, crippled by gambling debts and depressed by the desertion of his wife, he makes half-hearted efforts to get his life back together. He mopes in his filthy flat. He visits disappointed relatives.

Are we enjoying the maturation of an Asian Mike Leigh? Not a bit of it. Na Hong-jin made his name with The Chaser, a taut, violent thriller, and, as we power towards the second hour, The Yellow Seamutates into one a tasty chase drama.

Seeing an opportunity to earn money while tracking down his wife, Gu-nam makes a deal with a local gangster to murder an enemy in Seoul. He travels to the South Korean capital and, after slurping a great many bowls of noodles, begins checking out the target’s apartment.

When he eventually makes his move – having worked out an intricate plan utilising the building’s security lights – he runs straight into a rival assassination attempt. Following one of many spectacular bloodbaths, Gu-nam finds himself pursued by a throng of competing cadres. If the police don’t get him, one school of thug surely will.

Though The Yellow Seafeatures the same class of jagged camera moves we expect from a post- BourneAmerican thriller, it moves through a considerably more fetid atmosphere than do those glossier projects. Filmed in a permanent damp fug, the film finds its antagonists hacking wildly at one another with carving knives, machetes and — in one particularly plasma-heavy scene — a casually wielded hatchet. There is something of a descent into hell about the protagonist’s protracted journey.

In truth, despite the many intrigues that develop along the way, the film can’t quite justify its untidy length. But The Yellow Searemains a remarkable compendium of pursuit, panic and punishment.