Monday, September 19, 2011


Cast: Jung-woo Ha, Yun-seok Kim
Director: Na Hong-jin
Runtime: 140 min.
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Verdict: Savage, brutal, pessimistic and aggressively cynical. And yet, deeply humanistic.
Genre: Thriller, Crime, Action, Drama

        A car drives in, while another stands astray. It is morning, from the looks of it, mostly because the preceding sequence was during the night, and partly because there’s no sunlight. A morning without sunlight often feels a little glum, don’t you think? Two men, not exactly impressing us with the tidiness of their looks, climb up a rather narrow staircase. The color palette of the actual frame is might be different, but owing to their black leather jackets and a generally dull morning, the memory of the scene is mostly washed in grey. A sort of washed out black and white. The apartment they walk into doesn’t have any windows open. The doors seem to have caught a lot of moisture. There are stains everywhere. The general state of the apartment could be best described by the word mess. Cigarette butts and bottles and heaps adorn the place. One of the guys walks into the toilet. The toilet is like one of those where you hold your breath and try to pee as fast as possible so that nothing out there latches onto you. He pees and doesn’t flush. And walks out to the room where our man is sleeping. They slap him and wake him up. And ask him to leave pronto and get started on the day’s earnings. He wakes up to…and instead they hand him his jacket without letting him, you know, fresh up a little and do the general unloading. Cut. He is driving his taxi. It is not so much a stubble on his mostly soft face as it is a few bits unevenly distributed. I wouldn’t want to be him. It is quite uncomfortable to be doing your daily stuff without doing your morning stuff, and although I was watching Hwang Hae after I had had my daily dose of workout and bath and breakfast, I could feel the stench in the air. This is what I would call a real dirty filthy unclean film, the kind after which I would want to take a bath or watch a Johnnie To, and it is remarkable how Mr. Na Hong-jin (The Chaser) conditions us for this depraved world, a place where you wouldn’t be surprised if people start eating other. And not one such word is spoken.
        The beards are interesting here, and it is fairly amusing to see how Mr. Hong-jin lends his “uncivilized” characters (the Joseonjoks) a beard, while the “sophisticated” a.k.a bourgeoisie South Koreans are clean shaven. They have their hair nicely combed too, each sporting a distinct style, as opposed to their “savage” axe-wielding counterparts who have everything prickly and haywire upstairs. One might even find grounds to suspect a certain primitivist leaning to the proceedings. Here, I wouldn’t bother you much with the plot, where a Joseonjok, Gu-nam (Mr. Jung-woo Ha), in order to get rid of his debt and to find his wife who he thinks is having an affair in South Korea, accepts a job to enter the country and kill a man. That is the basic premise, and if we were to think of Mr. Soderbergh’s Contagion, this here could be read as the virus. Or say, the rat with the plague.
        It is something of a juggling act Mr. Hong-jin seems to be pulling off here at first, with his narration, something like what Mr. Soderbergh has done so effectively in the past, moving across calmly and most assuredly, from the murderer to the men who sent him to the victim to the cops to the South Korean mafia, always wanting to stick to the details, to the process rather to the result. Here would be a good moment to link you to Matt Schneider’s insightful essay on A Bittersweet Life, and Mr. Kim Ji-woon’s concern with the physical act of movement. Mr. Hong-jin shares a similar concern here, and its nature is more personal than interpersonal, reflected in the physical act of landing a blow, or in the physical act of being locked inside a ship, or in the physical act of climbing the steps, or in the physical act of running away from the scene of crime, or in the physical act of driving a cab, or in the physical act of jumping into the water and then swimming to the pier and pulling one’s body over and running to a truck. There’s incredible physicality to the film, and that makes Hwang Hae an extremely visceral experience. The shaky camera aesthetic here, especially in the action sequences, is vital, not merely to the experience but to the overall narrative, which could be read as a deadly plague savaging the city. Which brings us back to the macro, and what Mr. Hong-jin actually does with his narration is pile things (events) on top of each other, accumulating mess until it all gives away in a primal instinct for survival. Everybody is running after each other. Mr. Hong-jin has made a zombie movie, or a deadly-virus movie, with neither the zombies nor the virus.
        The interesting thing here is, Mr. Hong-jin attaches a greater significance to this concern by linking this physicality with “intention” and often overlapping it with necessity, or need, thus establishing a complex moral predicament. Gu-nam’s needs the money, needs to find his wife for himself, and yet he reads his target’s movements for days, and repeats it for himself, moving in and out of the house. It is not an emotional reaction but a methodical process he indulges in. This is not a man engaging in self-defense or running around killing to find his daughter but a man who is planning a sort of perfect murder, and by charting this gray area between the need (emotion) and the intention (action), Mr. Hong-jin morally implicates him, albeit sympathizing with him.
        He further tinkers with our sympathies by doing the reverse – causing the need to be borne out from an act of intention – exemplified by Myung-Ga (Mr. Yun-seok), thus making everybody human and revealing the survivor within them. Myung-Ga gets into this with the intention of wanting to make some fine profit, and once he gets into this mess, the survivor he is, he goes full throttle. In a land of dogs, Myung-Ga is the top dog, and when found without a weapon he picks up a dog’s bone and bludgeons everybody in sight. In a chase sequence that is not exactly pretty to look at (and nothing should be in such a film), but incredibly effective in the way it reins in its themes, Myung-Ga and Gu-nam engage in incredible and intentional physical contact, by way of their cars, the latter the predator and thus with his intentions and the former victim and this with the need, and it is beautiful to watch the way Mr. Hong-jin maps out the mess here. Rarely has the face played a more vital role in a car chase. If ever there was a film that needed cars bashing each other out then this is it.
        It is tough in a film as this to cling to innocence, for we audience always start off innocent, and the only place we find some sense of right is the law, which in turn is human but helpless. It is remarkable how a simple thing like a cut to the random police guy chasing the protagonist reminds us of the fallibility running in the uniform. A cop mistakenly shoots one of his own, and through his reaction Mr. Hong-jin suggests tremendous humanity. And yet, the law seems to be more or less helpless here. Mr. Hong-jin takes this depravity even further by suggesting that his women are bitches (thank the lord the kids are spared!). But then, they are merely suggestions, and although these women seem to exist around the periphery of the film, they are revealed to be integral, all of them, one by one. This mess, this sort of deadly plague, seems to have been caused by helpless savages, and when the dust settles on the rubble, a deadly sucker punch awaits us, virtually turning the tables on our predisposition towards the source of the virus (which is always third-world), and revealing a greater sadder belief. Hwang Hae is an incredible film, brutal and epic, and I probably shall never watch it again.

Note: There’s a sequence after the credits, or before the credits, depending on the version you’re watching. It involves a train. It undercuts the tragedy and probably reduces everything to a joke, and I wish it weren’t part of the film. In fact, I’ve convinced myself it isn’t.


scherzi said...

I don't know if you still remember about the film since this review was written months ago but I just saw the film myself and I gotta say I'm completely puzzled by the ending. Could you help me understand who that bank clerk (Kim Jung Hwan) in the end of the film is? And what's the connection with Kim Seung Hyun's wife? I apologize for asking these questions and I understand that you're not my personal Hwang Hae Q&A guy, so feel free to not answer.

Completely agree with the last scene (the one involving a train) being a joke.


man in the iron mask said...

That's no problem at all. It is a pleasure, actually.

See the wife (Kim Seung Hyun's) is actually having some sort of a relationship (maybe merely an acquaintance, maybe an affair) with the bank clerk. If you remember the quivering guy who reveals the guy who paid for the contract was a "bank clerk". So, the contract lands in the hands of Myung-Ga, who hires our protagonist.

I hope that explains any resident doubts at your end. Please feel free if there're any left.

scherzi said...

I remember the quivering man and the bank clerk's business card that was in the car. But what contract did you mean? So the order to kill Kim Seung Hyun didn't come from the 'boss' Kim Tae Won?

God am I confused.

man in the iron mask said...

Remember the petite girl Kim Tae Won was having some "raw" sex with?

Kim Seung Hyun was sleeping with her, and that is what Kim Tae Won's final remark is all about. His (Tae Won's) behavior after that sex scene is also particularly revealing (at least in hindsight).

Remember the two men apart from our protagonist at the scene of the crime, the two men who're aided by the driver/bodyguard? They're from Tae Won's side, while our protagonist is from Myung-Ga side, who in turn is from the banker's side.

Does that make things a little clearer? Please do let me know.

scherzi said...

Aah so the two parties that was trying to kill Kim Seung Hyun were: Kim Tae Won and Kim Jung Hwan the bank clerk? And all because of.. well, domestic problems..? Okay that's kind of a letdown. Let me know if I got it right.

Thanks so much for bothering with all this! ;)

man in the iron mask said...

You got it absolutely right. Domestic problems. And if you see, it starts (at least by the narrative) with the "domestic" problems of our protagonist. As I say, the women here merely "seem" to be in the periphery.

And yeah, you're most welcome!

scherzi said...

I thought it was more because of some money-greed thing, since Kim Seung Hyun was apparently wealthy and was doing business with Kim Tae Won. Oh well. Thanks again! ;)

Oh, IMO Ha Jeong Woo always gives great performances, it's always a treat to watch him. By the way, have you seen Yang Ik Joon's Breathless? One of the most impressive Korean films I've ever seen.

barron32 said...

Thanks for the explanation! It makes sense to me now. I missed that detail probably because they both had the last name Kim.

Anonymous said...

Watch the film: was confused by the ending. But your posts explained it well. thank you.

Hadukin said...

Thank you for the explanation. Amazing movie. Really deep on many levels.

Andrew Chen said...

Thanks for the explanation.

With the ending part may be his wife was not murdered in South Korea. I remember the scene at the morgue where the person who was trying to identify the body with the photograph couldn't tell from the disfigured face. He simply lied to the protagonist that she was the person.

The way I see it is that she did come back. He crossed the sea for nothing. Feel free to correct me.

It is frustrating when the story is so complicated.

Ty Kampen said...

Massive Spoiler Alert - If you felt as confused as I did at the end of this film, have no worries. I believe I have the answers to the questions of who/why and more importantly WHEN certain events occurred that were only implied, yet will make the whole story much clearer. First, understand that there are three very important women in The Yellow Sea that all have very minor speaking roles, yet their actions were the catalyst for everything that happened. Rather than go through the whole thing chronologically, I'm going to tell each of the three women's stories separately, and this should make everything clear.
First we have the protagonist’s (Ga-num) wife, who went to Korea originally on a very expensive visa to send home more money, etc. After several months working at a lower paying job, she ends up hooking up with the Sushi Delivery Guy (henceforth known as Sushi Man), who gets her a better paying job. She stops sending money home and she ends up living with Sushi Man Driving the White Truck. This is the catalyst for Ga-num to become a hitman, since his daughter’s life is threatened and he has no means to pay back the debt originally incurred by his wife. When Ga-num confronts Sushi Man about the location of his wife, Sushi Man is beaten up, and humiliated by Ga-num. There is a time gap between when Ga-num and Sushi Man fight and Ga-num finds his wife’s apartment. It is inferred that after the fight between Ga-num and Sushi man, and while Ga-num is searching for his wife’s apartment/place of work, Sushi Man goes to the apartment he shares with Ga-num’s wife and confronts/has an argument with her. In his confession to the media/police he states that he felt angry, humiliated and betrayed when she said she wanted to go back to her husband. In an inebriated rage, he kills and dismembers her. The woman with the bank manager at the end of the film is NOT Ga-num’s wife as some mistakenly believe. (Details to follow). (more to follow in next post)

Ty Kampen said...

(Spoiler Continued). The second, and arguably most important woman, in the film is who I’ll call “The Mistress”. The Important Man/Mobster named Kim Tae-Won who is trying to find and kill Ga-num throughout the film has a super smokin’ hot mistress. She is Helen of Troy’esque in that she is really what launched the whole chain of events. She is identified by being naked and being in a vigorous sex scene. She is not to be confused with the nightmares Ga-num has of his wife sleeping with some nebulous Joe. (Identified by foggy/unclear sex scenes with faceless men). We find out at the end of the film that Kim Tae-won ordered the hit on “The Professor” because the Professor supposedly slept with The Mistress in Kim Tae-won’s own home. Kim Tae-won hired the Professor’s driver and two thugs to kill the Professor. When Kim Tae-won later finds out there was an unknown assailant (Ga-num) involved, he wants to find and kill Ga-num before the police find him so that he can tie up loose ends and have no fingers pointed back at him.
The last, and most surprising woman, is the Professor’s (murdered man) wife. We find out at the end of the film that a bank manager had supposedly hired Myun-ga, the Mob Boss that originally hired Gu-nam in China to kill the professor. Myun-ga was contracted to kill the professor, and cut off his thumb as evidence of the completed hit. Myun-ga passed that contract on to Gu-nam. Upon completion of the hit, Myun-ga also wants to tie up loose ends, and attempts to strand/kill Gu-nam. In the last scene, we see The Bank Manager who had put out the original hit taking money from a woman who turns out to be The Professor’s wife. (some assume this to be Gu-nam’s, wife, but look closely, it is The Professor’s wife.) Here is where I start to infer a sequence of events.
My guess is that the Professor’s wife finds out about The Professor’s affair with The Mistress and decides to put out a hit of her own. If you go back and watch the film, after The Professor is murdered, and Gu-nam begins to hack off his thumb, the wife comes upon the scene and seems genuinely horrified. She is horrified not because her husband was just killed, but because she is confronted with a man performing the deed that she specified as part of the hit. (cutting off the thumb) When Gu-nam talks with her near the end of the film and tells her that he didn’t actually kill her husband, but that he would find out who and why, she doesn’t appear to be relieved, or positive in any way. She appears resigned if you go back and watch it again.
So there we have it. One woman betrayed and two women who did the betraying were the genesis of this massive sequence of slaughter and death.

Pinot Noir said...

awesome summary ty kampen!! you should post it on netflix

Silly Boy said...

Finally it made sense, thanks to Ty Kampen. Now, I need to watch it again..

Anonymous said...

Ty Kampen you da man

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot Ty, i was so confussed about the movie! You cleared it all! Now i can go to sleep...

Anonymous said...

Yeah Ty, thanks a bunch! I've seriously been scouring the internet for almost half an hour trying to sort out the ending (especially the woman and bank teller part) and it was going to drive me crazy if I couldn't figure out what was going on! Great explanation, thx again

Anonymous said...

Then who is she at last coming out of the train in a railway station?

If she's Gu-Nam's wife then how can that be possible as he is carrying her ash?

And in the last scene weather Gu-Nam was killed by the fisherman driving the boat or did he treat him as he was bleeding???

I am still confused! 23-may-2014 5:28 AM, INDIA

Anonymous said...

Its nearly 5am in the morning and the reason for my lack of sleep being this confusing movie. But thanks to Ty now I can finally go to sleep. Everything is crystal clear to me now. :)

BASS said...

Ty Kampen,

I was struggling to understand the plot... Finally u made it crystal clear.. Thanks a ton man....

akrmba said...


Thanks a lot for the explanation. It heroes me understand most of the scenes. But I have a doubt. Post movie credits exactly at 2:16:08 a female. Who's this female???

I believe it's GU nam's wife (as seen in dream, while he died) gets down from a train. She wasn't dead and comes back to meet her cute baby.

Too bad(a question arises), She looks good and no worries, and also should have brought some money... But don't know why she failed to contact her husband and not even her kid

Still confused!!!