While people are prone to getting sentimental about the power of story, the truth is that narrative is nothing more than a means of providing structure to a series of disconnected things. Thus, rather than delivering their ideas in the form of bullet points, artists use stories as a means of linking different ideas and providing an emotional context that will shape how a particular work makes you feel about those ideas. On the crudest possible level, having all the bad guys smoke while all the good guys drink Pepsi is a pretty good way of encouraging your audience to gain a good impression of Pepsi and a bad impression of smokers. However, while narrative is one of humanity’s most enduring and effective methods of structuring information, it is far from the only means at our disposal.
Literary culture has long resented the cultural primacy of narrative and so many literary types are prone to treating the ability to read for style and subtext rather than plot as a sign of intellectual sophistication. One way of approaching the history of art house film is to date its creation to the point in the 1960s when European directors stopped trying to tell mere stories and began making art. In fact, one could push this analysis even further and suggest that European art house film was born amidst the boos that echoed round the cinema during the first screening of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a film that begins as a missing person story only to rapidly lose interest and set about trying to recreate the emotional texture of feckless upper-class Italian lives.
Just as literature has experimented with alternate means of ordering information, film has developed techniques that allow directors to structure their ideas around such abstract principles as character, theme or mood. An excellent example of this type of filmmaking is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life where a series of incredibly disparate vistas including family drama and warring dinosaurs are held together by the concept of ‘grace’ or (as I argued in my review) the pointlessness of seeking to impose narrative order on disparate lives. For those people not used to using principles other than narrative to make sense of a film, Tree of Life was a mess of incoherent and portentous ideas. For those people well versed in the techniques that Malick chose to deploy, Tree of Life was as beautiful as it was transparent. There is nothing inherently better about building a work around a theme rather than a story but our culture does a pretty good job of teaching us how to make sense of stories and so works built around moods and themes have acquired a touch of exclusivity. If you can make sense of The Tree of Life then it’s a sign that you’ve put in the effort of watching difficult films rather than just filling your headspace with Doctor Who and rolling news.
The problem with experimental techniques is that the good ones inspire imitation and the more a technique is imitated, the more likely it is that it will enter the mainstream and lose that hint of exclusivity. What many people now think of as the Golden Age of TV is really just a rather grandiose way of talking about the fact that art house techniques have escaped the cinema and begun turning up in TV dramas. Indeed, people who have watched more than a single season of Mad Men will find themselves perfectly capable of making sense of a film like L’Avventura as both works put a lot of effort into emotional texture whilst refusing to provide narrative closure and stressing the existential void that lurks at the heart of every character. Aside from depriving art house film of its much-valued hint of exclusivity, the democratisation of post-narrative techniques also speaks to a growing conservatism and intellectual exhaustion at the heart of art house film. If Millions of people tune in to watch Don Draper wander around an existential wasteland of mild-depression and meaningless sex, then how experimental is a film that makes use of precisely those techniques and subjects? Clearly, art house film is getting old and it’s time for something new… something like Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea.
The Yellow Sea is set in the Chinese province of Yanbian, an area that has been granted a greater degree of autonomy by virtue of its large ethnic Korean population. While ‘greater degree of autonomy’ may imply more freedom, the film unpacks this freedom as a lack of government investment resulting in a province that is dirt poor and filled with people who dream of going to live in South Korea. One victim of this particular dream is Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo), a taxi driver who took on a large debt to pay for his wife’s visa only for her to cut off all contact once she got to Korea. Incapable of paying the enormous debt he incurred on behalf of his wife, Gu-nam now spends his time gambling away what little money he has and torturing himself with memories of his wife. Sensing that Gu-nam has a little more spirit than your typical indentured loser, the kingpin of a local Korean gang (Kim Yoon-seok) decides to make him an offer: Travel to Korea and kill a member of the Korean mob. If you make it back to Yanbian alive, your debts will be cleared and you will be able to make a fresh start. It doesn’t take Gu-nam very long to decide to accept the offer.
The film’s opening act is utterly devoted to social realism. Aside from a fairly prosaic glimpse of what life is like in a place where criminal gangs have more impact on day-to-day living than governments, Na shows how the residents of Yanbian have come to think of South Korea as home while the South Koreans view them as nothing more than criminal immigrant scum. Gu-nam’s arrival in Korea reveals Home to be a series of empty doss houses and menial jobs provided by Korean mobsters who differ from their Yanbian counterparts only in so far as they wear suits. The scenes in which Gu-nam tracks down his target and tries to psych himself up to commit murder are filled with a mournful humanity that fits easily across the shoulders of Ha Jung-woo’s hang dog performance as Gu-nam. Every day, Gu-nam follows his target and tries to track down his wife before slinking back to his tiny room where he curses himself for his cowardice and crosses another day off the pornographic calendar that is the room’s only decoration. Beautiful, moving and filled with an outraged social conscience that recalls the work of the Italian Neorealists, the opening act of The Yellow Sea is some of the best social realism to come out of Korean film in a long long time… but then the film goes a bit mad.
Having worked out precisely where and when to murder his target, Gu-nam sneaks into the man’s building only to discover him being stabbed to death by his own driver. Struck by panic, Gu-nam runs out into the street where the police are already waiting but somehow manages to evade them and heads off into the city on foot. Initially, this chase is quite realistic as Gu-nam is clearly in much better shape than the people chasing after him but every time Gu-nam slips through the police’s fingers, a couple more people join the chase until eventually Gu-nam is running through the middle of Seoul with about fifty coppers just behind him. This beautifully controlled transition from gritty realism to cartoonish action is the film’s primary motif and is revisited throughout the film as Na guides us from one beautifully conceived and brilliantly executed narrow escape to another without ever compromising the film’s underlying sense of realism. Every time Na oversteps the boundaries of credibility, he takes the time to immerse us in the realities of life as an illegal immigrant before allowing the levels of violence and action to creep up again. Na plays around with this build-and-release a number of times before allowing the film to go completely off the rails.
The second veil is passed when the Korean mob work out that Gu-nam must have been smuggled into the country by a gang working out of Yanbian. Livid at the chaos and bloodshed unleashed on his turf, the Korean mob boss decides to send some goons to Yanbian in order to capture the local Kingpin. Initially, Na handles this kidnapping expedition with a complete commitment to realism as he shows us how the mob use a combination of cash and intimidation to get their way and how they turn up armed not with guns but with carving knives and heavy tools. To his eternal credit, Na takes us right up to the kingpin’s hotel room and shows us the mobsters trying to sneak in before cutting to a scene in which a cigarette-smoking sex-worker is helping the kingpin dismember the corpses of his would-be abductors. Aside from being completely unexpected and ghoulishly funny, the scene also marks the point at which the gonzo outpaces the realism. This rising tide of gonzo is the true underlying structure of the film, The Yellow Sea is not about plot or character but about how far you can stretch a neorealist crime drama before it transitions into something that could just as easily have been directed by Michael Bay.
The obvious reference point for The Yellow Sea is Old Boy, the second and best-known film in Park Chan-wook’s hugely successful Vengeance Trilogy. Like The Yellow Sea, Old Boy walks a fine line between genre artifice and social realism before surrendering to the demands of genre artifice in a sensational single-take fight sequence in which the film’s primary protagonist fights his way through a crowded corridor using a hammer. Once Na re-introduces the kingpin character, all realism immediately goes out the window as he is essentially a character taken directly from a martial arts movie. Having experimentally toyed with our suspension of disbelief, Na steadily increases the levels of gore and cartoonish violence until a scene in which the kingpin beats a couple of men to death with the remains of a roast dinner before slitting a load of throats and calmly setting fire to an entire apartment complex.
It is easy to imagine a film in which this rising tide of gonzo might have felt forced or crassly commercial. Indeed, one of the things about violent or fantastical elements is that once they find their way into a work, anything less violence or fantastical risks feeling like an anti-climax and so the temptation is always to go for bigger battles, more decapitations, more dragons and bigger magic spells. While The Yellow Sea is a film completely devoted to the rising tide of gonzo, Na’s introduction of these elements is so careful and controlled that it is impossible not to respond to Na’s toying with our suspension of disbelief and read the film as a mad experimental genre picture that blows up a dam and watches as the rising tide of gonzo drowns everything including plot, character and theme.
One of the most enjoyable things about a film structured around rising levels of implausibility is identifying the point at which your personal suspension of disbelief collapses in on itself like a dying star. Was it the foot chase? Was it the guy who took out a Korean hit squad using nothing more than a heavy wrench and a chain-smoking hooker? Or was it the bit where people seem to be wandering around the middle of Seoul carrying bloodied hatchets and kitchen knives? This strikes me as being at least as interesting a cinematic question as whether or not Sean Penn’s character in The Tree of Life experiences grace.