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-[Film Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema, Korean Cinema

Another Korean Genre Sampling: ‘The Yellow Sea’ (2010) & ‘Burning’ (2018)

Directed by: Na Hong-jin [1], Lee Chang-dong [2] || Produced by: Han Sang-gu [1], Lee Joon-dong, Lee Chang-dong [2]

Screenplay by: Na Hong-jin [1], Oh Jung-mi, Lee Chang-dong [2] || Starring: Ha Jung-woo, Kim Yoon-seok [1], Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo [2]

Music by: Jang Young-gyu, Lee Byung-hoon [1], Mowg [2] || Cinematography: Lee Sung-jae [1], Hong Kyung-pyo [2] || Edited by: Kim Sun-min [1], Kim Hyeon, Kim Da-won [2] || Country: South Korea || Language: Korean [1, 2], Mandarin [1]

Running Time: 140 minutes [1], 148 minutes [2] || 1 = The Yellow Sea, 2 = Burning

In modern Korean cinema, the cinematic culture that birthed genre greats like Oldboy (2003) to The Host (2006) to I Saw the Devil (2010) and heightened dramas like Joint Security Area (2000), Mother (2009), Parasite (2019), and The Crowned Clown (2019), even features that don’t work for me like My Sassy Girl (2001), Office (2015), and The Villainess (2017) have a little something extra that other lesser movies from other industries lack; there’s most always a derisive streak of creativity in contemporary Korean filmmaking that sets that national culture apart from others, be it a commitment to blunt, effective violence, realistic characterizations or inventive screenplay premises.

Two additional creative yet, overall, disappointing features I would add to that list, are Na Hong-jin’s sophomore project, The Yellow Sea, as well as the acclaimed Burning by longtime screenwriter and novelist Lee Chang-dong. Both movies have respectable qualities either in their direction or script or both that explain their positive reception by critics in part, yet I could never recommend them to most cinephiles, let alone general audiences, due to major elements of both that left me colder than a cartoon sitcom dad in Smarch weather.

In Burning’s most recognizable sequence, Yoo Ah-in (left), Jeon Jong-seo (center), and Steven Yeun (right) watch the sun set.

The Yellow Sea’s first two acts (~100 minutes of its longwinded 140-minute runtime) worked for me more than they didn’t, as relatable yet kind-of-a-scumbag protagonist, Joseonjok (an ethnic Korean living in northeastern China) Ha Jung-woo, wallows in debt and laments a wife’s who’s gone missing abroad. After his loan sharks lose patience with him, Ha is directed to primary antagonist, gangster, and human trafficker Kim Yoon-seok, who offers to pay off Ha’s debts if Ha assassinates a wealthy professor for him in Busan, Korea (Ha will also have an opportunity to search for his lost wife there as well); Ha is thereafter smuggled into Korea where he spends the rest of the first act scoping out his target (Kwak Do-won) before the hitjob goes awry due to various unforeseen circumstances; the plot grows increasingly convoluted as multiple gangster factions enter the scene and Ha finds himself at the center of a multilayered, borderline incoherent criminal conspiracy, all of which builds to an impressive climax on a cargo ship dock around the 110-minute mark. The script’s biggest problem is that The Yellow Sea continues for about half an hour after that with several additional pointless subplots, unnecessary action sequences, and a nonsensical conclusion to Ha’s arc.

In terms of direction, The Yellow Sea ranges from pretty good to irritating. I enjoyed the hell out of Na’s The Chaser (2008) and Lee Sung-jae’s cinematography there, but here Lee bases the film’s entire look on chaotic handheld camerawork to the point where the film seems a direct homage to the work of Paul Greengrass on the Bourne (2002, 2004, 2007) franchise. Parts of the story where jump-cuts consolidate travel time from China to Korea or when Ha tracks Kwak to his Busan apartment mesh well with these unstabilized tracking shots, but the action sequences rapidly get away from Lee’s control; this cinema verité-style aesthetic morphs into all out shaky cam a la Mile 22 (2018) or even the Taken (2008, 2012, 2014) films throughout numerous action sequences to the point where I can’t see what the hell’s going on.

In similar yet separate fashion, I didn’t connect with Burning’s unlikable, impersonable protagonist (Yoo Ah-in), nor its thinly veiled commentary on class differences in Korea, the latter of which can either be interpreted as a quasi-murder mystery told from an unreliable narrator (Yoo) or as a heavyhanded social allegory about love-triangle jealousy. The film’s mammoth two and a half hour length also tests my patience once it becomes clear by the 90-minute mark that the story isn’t going to give any clear answers about its main characters’ backstories, actions, or ultimate motivations. To back up a bit, Burning follows the unfulfilled ambitions of Yoo, the son of working-class cattle farmers in Paju, who aspires to greater career heights than his family as well as a potential relationship with an old classmate (Jeon Jong-seo) he serendipitously meets while performing one of his several odd jobs. The story grows weirder when Jeon later returns from a trip abroad with a new male “friend (Steven Yeun),” who complicates Yoo’s courtship of Jeon and harbors mysterious, almost contradictory feelings toward the both of them.

While I can get on board with Burning’s subtle, impactful cinematography and understated performances, the overall narrative about Yoo’s increasing jealousy toward Yeun and frustration with Jeon, the latter of whom goes missing for reasons that are never explained, I find at best stretched across its 2.5 hour running time and at worst an incoherent slog. This is the closest modern Korean film has come to resembling dramatic Oscar-bait for my part, with its vague narrative progression, slow pace, and obvious political commentary. It reminds me of Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (2016) in a way, another bloated, ambitious Korean picture about communal tension and long simmering violence whose genius seems to have escaped me; both films take their sweet, sweet time elaborating their ultimate message, yet neither’s story has much of an identifiable narrative structure nor reaches any definitive conclusion. Many viewers appear to find this lack of screenplay format liberating, but I find it frustrating.

One of The Yellow Sea’s criminal factions interrogate local civilians to figure out where in the hell is protagonist Ha Jung-woo.

Between films like The Yellow Sea, Burning, and the previously reviewed Wailing, I’m encountering Korean features I find overrated more often than in the past. Part of this is likely a function of me digging deeper into the filmic subculture there, so as a cinephile I’m bound to find more movies, including critically acclaimed ones, that don’t jibe with me. On the other hand, I have legitimate beefs with the screenplay of Burning whatever its social inequality undertones, and have major complaints with aspects of both The Yellow Sea’s story and its direction to screen. You can try them yourselves if you haven’t already, but I argue they have considerable weaknesses that cinephiles seem to willfully overlook.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Complicated narrative paths muddle the themes of Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea as well as Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, but overzealous handheld camerawork in the former and an unlikable blank-slate protagonist in the latter make matters worse. If you find the action set-pieces of The Yellow Sea legible despite the shaky cam or the sociopolitical analysis of Burning interesting despite a longwinded, incoherent screenplay, then maybe you found something worthwhile in these films that I missed.

—> I remain ON THE FENCE, at best, with respect to both movies.

? Cheer up, old boy; Yuen will get eaten by an extraterrestrial entity in the next Jordan Peele film

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


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