While on a visit to Korea, I once asked a wise, old-looking Korean how he would describe the spirit of the Korean people. My friend who was interpreting answered the question instead, to my initial annoyance, giving the answer ‘Fun’, which I found doubly disappointing given its apparent banality.
Several years on, I am beginning to appreciate his reply. The word ‘fun’ is not the first word that would occur, I would hazard, to most people acquainted with a country divided in two, and with a history of constant invasion. A more likely word would be ‘han’, a particular kind of sorrow which echoes this history of suffering and hardship.
And ‘fun’ is certainly not the first word that one would associate with the story of an ‘Joseonjok’ (the name for displaced Koreans who inhabit a physical and metaphysical space somewhere in between North Korea and China) employed as a contract killer, who embarks on a mission that culminates in a series of bloodbaths that grow increasingly profuse as the plot unravels.
And yet, I was reminded of my friend the interpreter’s comment last Wednesday when I went to the ICA to see Na Hong-jin’s ‘Yellow Sea’ (황해). This was a film I first learned of from a Guardian review which describes it as ‘one of the freshest action films in recent memory’ and opines that the Korean action film should be seen as a catalyst to revive the tired Hollywood genre.
As it notes, the fact that ‘Yellow Sea’ is grounded in realism – a genuine and troubling social context – makes for a more compelling ‘fresh’ film. On a more mundane level, when I remember the scene in which we see the newly arrived protagonist waiting outside his target’s apartment, with no overcoat, sniffing, shivering and jumping from toe to toe, I can still feel the cold of the Seoul night air. This contrast with the numb sense of sensual excess that follows many visits to the multiplex.
I am no connoisseur of Korean cinema. But I have seen enough films to know that Korean filmmakers can do ‘grim’ with the best of them, and this film was a prime example, with no cute kid, wise mentor or breathless heroine to provide relief from the vast bleakness of the world in which the characters fight for their survival.
The relief, however, came frequently and unexpectedly. The audience with whom I saw the film were largely, and to an even greater extent than the LKFF Opening Gala’s ‘War of the Arrow’, non-Korean and apparently unfamiliar with Korean cinema, judging by the random sample that I spoke with. The film was punctuated with bursts of laughter – wholesome laughter – generally provoked by the juxtaposition of absurdity and harsh reality.
I think my biggest laugh-out-loud moment was during an escape made by the main character after being apprehended by a group of inexperienced policemen. As the chase begins, we see a pack of vicious attack dogs being primed for a search, and one of them propelling its handler head first into a ditch.
Seconds later came one of the most poignant moments of the film, with the fugitive inspecting his wounded arm, and breaking down into tears of despair, loneliness, fatigue and physical trauma, in what I think was his sole display of raw emotion in the entire film.
The moral dimension of the story came into focus only only in the final moments, and (for me at least) made sense of the preceding chaos that had led up to it.
To sum up – I got my ten pound’s worth.