Cast: Jung-woo Ha, Yun-seok Kim
Director: Na Hong-jin
Runtime: 140 min.
Country: South Korea
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
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.