MIFF 2011: The Stabby Korean Double
Korean double feature!! Stab Stab Stab Hack Hack Politics Betrayal Men Screaming Stab Stab . I love Korean cinema. It also should be noted that caffeinated beverages are simply not cutting it at anymore so I loaded up hard on sugar before throwing myself into this powerhouse duo of films.
First up was THE UNJUST, a truly bizarre and oddly bureaucratic crime film. The story is profoundly convoluted (to the point where I was too often confused and madly running to catch up) but essentially it covers the fight between two entirely corrupt individuals. Captain Choi is a dodgy cop entrusted with a task from those higher up of finding and framing a stooge for a series of murders that has been causing havoc in Seoul. Joo Yang is the prosecutor pitted against Choi, skeptical of the suspect Choi has brought to him, Yang also has his own fair share of dodgy dealings but this time it's with property developers trying to get shady deals through political channels. Both men don't like each other and are constantly trying to bring the other down.
The plot is so fantastically muddled that I really didn't ultimately care who lived or died by the end and the central characters are just plain detestable. I didn't know who the film was trying to ally me with as there isn't one likeable character in the whole film (and before you get all up in my grill about how there doesn't have to be a likeable character in every story let me explain. In this particular film we are dealing with a battle between two assholes, essentially. Why I should care is my primary issue). A twist is thrown in near the end for good measure which only results in more head scratching. In fact by the end of THE UNJUST, I was probably the most confused I have been the entire festival. Simply put, THE UNJUST is not a well told story. The first film in my MIFF Korean double left me underwhelmed.
Luckily THE YELLOW SEA more than made up for my early evening disappointment. Na Hong-Jin appeared on the international cinema scene two years ago with his brilliant debut THE CHASER. Establishing himself immediately as someone to watch, Na has now reappeared with his sophomore film, again written and directed by him. THE YELLOW SEA is an epic odyssey of a film and has much greater scope and ambition than his prior work.
Situating it's story mainly on the border between China, North Korea and South Korea, THE YELLOW SEA introduces us to Gu-Nam, a lonely taxi driver struggling to pay off his debts in the Chinese bordertown of Yanbian. We learn that Gu-Nam borrowed a large amount of money from some dubious characters in order to pay for the smuggling of his wife across the Yellow Sea into South Korea. Of course ever since his wife left he hasn't heard a word from her. Eeking out a miserable existence, Gu-Nam is constantly told his wife obviously used him to get into Korea but deep down Gu-Nam isn't so sure. As his financial troubles escalate he one day receives a proposal from the shady Myun. Myun offers to eliminate all of Gu-Nam's debts for a small favour. Gu-Nam must travel across to South Korea and assassinate someone.
Gu-Nam accepts the proposal out of desperation and begins a journey that most assuredly can be called epic. Much like many Korean films from the past decade, THE YELLOW SEA trades as a brilliant genre mash-up. Seamlessly shifting through tones over its generous 140 minute running time we begin with social realism, move into almost a Hitchcockian noir piece, take a sideline with some gangster politics before ramping up into a truly ecstatic final act of bloody, kinetic action frequently touching on absurdist comedy .
Occasionally Na's ambition is not matched by his ability. The film is notably over-long but this is a flaw that I ended up luxuriating in. His narrative is generously expansive and while the final act may test the patience of some, I personally found it to be the aspect that truly elevates this film to greatness. He also relies on shaky-cam a little too much in his action pieces but I felt this was a conscious decision as his earlier film THE CHASER had much smoother action beats. The anxiety and tension evoked by these frenzied sequences is defiantly palpable and it becomes what I am going to start calling, an endearing flaw.
At this stage THE YELLOW SEA may very well be my favourite film of the festival. It is dynamic, exciting and impeccably well-made. It magnificently manages to have it both ways as political commentary, realist drama and gory, stab-stab. violent comedy. One of the best of MIFF and of 2011...