Easily the most highly anticipated film of the latter half of this year, NA Hong-jin’s second feature The Yellow Sea reunites the director with his two stars, HA Jung-woo and KIM Yoon-suk.
By Jean NOH
After the success of his 2008 debut feature film The Chaser, great expectations were put upon director NA Hong-jin’s shoulders as he was quickly urged to follow up on his psychopath action thriller. The film starred HA Jung-woo as a serial killer pursued by KIM Yoon-suk as an ex-cop running a “massage service” who is trying to catch him and save one of his girls. Easily the most highly anticipated film of the latter half of this year, NA Hong-jin’s second feature The Yellow Sea reunites the director with his two stars.
The Yellow Sea is an action thriller that portrays the story of a down-and-out man from the Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture in China who crosses the sea to Korea to find his wife and pay off his debts by carrying out a contract killing – but ends up framed and being chased by the police and hitmen.
It is also the first Korean production to get investment from 20th Century Fox. Earlier on in its pre-production stage, when it was tentatively titled The Murderer, the project won the Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Forum’s 2009 HAF Award and pre-sold to French distributor Wild Side Films. Mostly all of this was based on the strength of the director’s first offering, The Chaser.
In addition to gaining 5 million admissions, critical acclaim and multiple awards in Korea, The Chaser showed in the 61st Cannes film festival’s Midnight Screenings section and sold distribution rights to the US, Japan, England, France, Greece, Benelux, and Hong Kong. The film was also picked up for US remake by Warner Brothers.
Na Hong-jin had previously been pegged as one to watch when he won the Best Horror/Sci-fi Short Film Award at the Mise-en-Scene short film festival with a 9-minute 30-second offering entitled The Perfect Fishplate. Although some filmmakers and industry professionals had thus taken note of his talent, The Chaser had nonetheless relatively come out of nowhere during a period marked by audience complaints of disappointments at the South Korean box office. While The Chaser was fast-paced and flipped genre conventions in storytelling, it also paid attention to harrowing detail and drama.
The two co-stars and their gritty performances were also what made The Chaser a hit. Young Ha Jung-woo had up until that time starred in films such as the army suicide drama The Unforgiven – YOON Jong-bin’s debut film which screened in Cannes and the Korean-American production <Never Foreve>r opposite Vera Farmiga, directed by Gina KIM. A conscientious actor building his career, he had also appeared in KIM Ki-duk’s Time and Breath, but also took on supporting roles in lighter films such as She’s on Duty where KIM Seon-ah plays an undercover cop in a high school.
In the same year as The Chaser, Ha also appeared in four other films including LEE Yoon-ki’s drama My Dear Enemy, opposite JEON Do-yeon, and YOON Jong-bin’s Beastie Boys in which he plays a scheming male companion in a “host bar” catering in female clientele.
Since then, in addition to supporting roles in films such as HONG Sang-soo’s Like You Know It All, HA has starred in the hit ski jump film Take Off and the Korean-Japanese co-production Boat opposite Tsumabuki Satoshi, directed by KIM Young-nam.
HA says he decided to take on The Yellow Sea because of the script and a mutual respect for the director and his co-star. “I really liked the script. The power contained within the film, the characters that centered around the story are what made me choose this project. Also, I wanted to work with director NA and KIM Yoon-suk once more,” he said. “When I thought about why [my character] had to cross the Yellow Sea and the circumstances behind it, I felt the drama was very humanistic. He was an ordinary person with a wife and child, and I could understand and sympathize with the process of his turning into a monster when his loved ones were threatened and in danger.”
Before delivering a sit-up-and-take-notice performance in The Chaser, KIM Yoon-suk had most notably starred in LEE Joon-ik’s Happy Life as one of the worn-out fathers who restarts in rock band in their stressed-out middle age. His supporting roles included playing the father in LEE Hae-young and LEE Hey-joon’s adolescent wrestler film Like a Virgin, as well as roles in CHOI Dong-hoon’s con artist drama The Big Swindle and his card shark caper Tazza: the High Rollers. Until The Chaser, KIM was mostly thought of as a strong character actor and perhaps a less charismatic version of PAIK Yoon-shik – with whom he coincidentally appeared in the three aforementioned films.
But after appearing in The Chaser, KIM Yoon-suk took the lead in LEE Yeon-woo’s thriller Running Turtle in which he portrays an underdog country detective out to catch an infamously clever escaped convict who has humiliated him. Although it could have been thought of as a variation on a reprisal of his role in The Chaser, audiences were nonetheless eager to see him show off his chops in this film. Running Turtle took in a healthy 3 million admissions and finished at No. 10 in the 2009 box office. That year, KIM also played a Taoist wizard in CHOI Dong-hoon’s hit Woochi starring GANG Dong-won.
KIM says about The Yellow Sea: “Even though this is ultimately a story about an ethnic Korean from China, it is also a story about things we brush past but forget as we live our lives. Also, because I had worked with director Na Hong-jin and director of photography LEE Sung-jae before and seen their attitudes in working to their best abilities, I had confidence in them, and also had mutual trust with Ha Jung-woo, which is what made me choose this film.”
In it, KIM Yoon-suk plays contract killer Myun-ga, who proposes to HA Jung-woo’s character Gu-nam that he cross the Yellow Sea to carry out a hit. When things go awry, he also becomes hunted and in turn offers to go to Korea to find Gu-nam himself.
“The Yellow Sea is not a simple action thriller. There is a deep drama that runs in proud isolation inside of it. After the film ends, an emotion of sadness and unforgettable drama will be left over. Contained within the mechanism of the action thriller genre, I think the central story is an extensive drama about family and personal awareness, fate, and life,” says KIM.
To inhabit his role more fully, KIM put on 8kg and grew out his hair in a roguish style that made it hard for him to walk around his apartment complex without attracting the suspicion of security guards. KIM noted with humor but not jokingly: “The appeal of The Yellow Sea is that, although it is not a 4D film, you will find you can practically smell HA Jung-woo’s and KIM Yoon-suk’s toes – that’s how multi-dimensional, solid and vivid this film is.”
The two actors discussed their characters and the story with director Na Hong-jin throughout the pre-production and production process. In preparation for the film, the two actors spent several months learning Yanbian dialects and the culture.
“I concentrated on accepting and learning a new culture. we practiced mah-jong, understood it and tried to experience what Korean-Chinese people experience in their daily life. KIM Yoon-suk and I went to China and saw firsthand the neighborhoods where they lived and soaked in the atmosphere. The locale was very cinematic and noirish,” comments Ha, who lost a significant amount of weight and grew a beard for the film.
“There were times I had to climb mountains or fall into the sea during the shoot, but more than anything, staying in character and concentrating on this one human being for such a long period of time was the most difficult part. Even when we were taking breaks in Seoul, it was difficult to go out and socialize because Gu-nam had become such an integral part of me,” says Ha of his appearance and mental state during the drawn-out period of production.
The Yellow Sea started production on December 16, 2009 and wrapped on November 1, 2010. Over this period of almost a year, the cast and crew worked on 170 shooting days (about twice the number of a typical film), with 250 scenes and over 5,000 cuts. Stories of the director’s perfectionism and prolonged shoots to create realism filtered out from the locations in China and Korea. The film shot in a large number of locations including a massive dog market in Yanji City where sound recording was a problem (because of all the barking from over 1,000 dogs). A huge car chase scene in Busan blocked off traffic in the middle of the metropolitan city, and the actors repeatedly had to fall into icy waters in the sea off Ulsan during the coldest winter.
The project also reunited director Na Hong-jin with his cinematographer LEE Sung-jae and editor KIM Sun-min from The Chaser, as well as many key department heads. “When we prepared 10 [cuts], we picked only the best for the shoot. I wanted a great sense of speed of one cut quickly transitioning into the next,” says NA.
The film was produced by Popcorn Films, with Wellmade StarM presenting in association with Showbox Mediaplex. Showbox and Fox will co-distribute the film in Korea.
The Yellow Sea marks the first time Fox International Productions has invested in a Korean film. Fox executives were impressed after reading Na’s treatment for a new film at Cannes in 2008 when The Chaser made its international debut.
“From the moment we saw The Chaser, we pursued Na Hong-jin and wanted to be a part of his next film. That we could reprise the marvelous Chaser cast for this project was equally exciting. Na Hong-jin has a big future,” said Sanford Panitch, president of Fox International Productions.
Fox has co-financed the film with 20% of the production budget and reserves the right to participate in a potential English-language remake (and sequel) of The Yellow Sea with Na attached to direct and Popcorn Film to produce.
At the time of writing, the film has yet to start any previews, and director Na Hong-jin remains guarded about what he says in interviews. But he has noted: “This is not a small story, but after you watch The Yellow Sea, you will think, ‘This isn’t a story about someone else, this is a story about me.’ It’s about human relationships, family, karma, conversation, betrayal and love. That’s why every time we worked together on the film, I felt so alive.”
“Once I decided to tell this tale, I was imagining and expanding upon it. It helped to be able to think of the actors and tell them about it. I was able to call up the images of them living their lives, of them running, that sort of thing while I was writing the script,” he says.
About the trials and tribulations the actors had to go through, he says, “I think it was a difficult script to realize into images. The directions were all there, but expressing them was not an easy task. I especially feel sorry towards Ha Jung-woo because he had the hardest time of us all shooting all the action scenes.”
“KIM Yoon-suk is an actor with an inner strength that is unlike any other. Ha Jung-woo is an actor who moves instinctively and becomes that character,” remarked Na Hong-jin. “When I watched them during the shoot, I was continually surprised and always learned a lot from them. When I got to editing, I eventually learned that every single frame held a surprising discovery.”
Viewers will be looking forward to making their own surprising discoveries once the film is released December 22 in Korea.