NA Hong-jin a film director and screenwriter, scored box office success in Korea, advancement to the Cannes Film Festival, and recognition of his work by the international film circuit in one fell swoop with his debut movie The Chaser (2008). His next film, The Yellow Sea (2010), a movie about a Korean Chinese professional hit man, the film featured a larger and more layered narrative and was funded by 20th Century Fox USA. The film was invited to the 64th Cannes International Film Festival where it was recognized for its artistic achievement.
Why did you start the preparation The Yellow Sea right after The Chaser?
I was thinking of having a rest for a while, but one of my seniors told me, “keep working, you are young”. So, I wanted to do something. But, I didn’t have a special interest in the matter of Yanbian or the ethnic Koreans. Using A Murderer as its working title and as the research process went on, I realized the atmosphere and reality of the society over there.
What was your first impression on Yanbian? How did you research about the ethnic Koreans?
I just picked up a backpack and went to Yanbian by train. And then I lived there for two months. I had to sit long in a stifle train to get there, like the scene Gu-nam sleeping in a train to Dalian, during the long travel; I was able to sense the overall atmosphere and emotion of Yanbian. And I was really surprised upon arriving in Yanbian, because I imagined something yellowish like The Yellow Sea, but it was grayish all over the city. It seemed to make me more interested. I began to listen to ordinary people there, they looked at me at the first time, as we met more often and drank together, they began to open up and told me many stories.
How was the production in China?
In fact, the portion of the scenes shot in Yanbian is not that much in the film. Due to an unexpected situation, we moved to Qiqihar, two hours from Harbin, to shoot most of the scenes. There are many ethnic Koreans living in the city too, the city has more decorations and a more cinematic feeling like noir than Yanbian.
While preparing The Yellow Sea, were there any images or instant strong impressions you felt or that captured your attention?
I was captivated by the eating scenes. I think all basic instincts come from a matter of eating after all. For example, the scene while waiting for the crucial moment, Gu-nam goes to a convenient store to eat a cup noodle, the scene when he devours kimchi from the refrigerator after starving a couple of days, and the scene where Myun and his team eats beef. Those scenes will always be remembered by the audience.
How Gu-nam ended up in the Southern city of Korea, Ulsan, from China remains unexplained?
People usually assume that the illegal immigrants might end up in Inchon, or Gunsan, the western cities of Korea. But that wasn’t true. Due to too many coast guards in the west, many illegal immigrants usually go around to the south. Also, there is an intention not to inform the illegal immigrants of their destination. They have to stay about ten days stuck in a fish room (a storage room for caught fish) from China to Ulsan. I heard once that all illegal immigrants died from suffocation due to the fish rooms’ window being mistakenly closed.
What concept was applied behind the scene where Myun steps into the hotel room naked, with a violent expression?
I wanted to make that scene something odd and interesting by explaining what someone’s perspective looks like from a third person’s point of view. I wanted to change the entire tone of the film from that scene, like a brief moment that changes the track, and replaces it with another emotion by removing reality from the film. It looks a little too excessive, but I must have the scene to explain the nature of Myun character. I wanted to make the scene like one from an old samurai film or yakuza film. I was told the scene reminds people of 2001: Space Odyssey when Myun picks up a bone, instead of an axe.
Why does It look like there were many different styles in the action sequences?
I worked with Yoo Sang-seob, a martial art director from the Seoul Action School, once again after The Chaser; his contribution to The Yellow Sea was huge, so a third component of this film was YOO’s.
While working on The Yellow Sea, did you ever think you would do what you didn’t do or finish from The Chaser?
Never, it’s like an already finished game. I rather thought that I’d never repeat what I did in The Chaser. The actors are the same, Ha Jeong-woo, Kim Yoon-seok, but I thought there was no similarity between the two movies. And I thought that I only needed to focus on “The Yellow Sea” itself.