South Korean director-writer Na Hong-jin makes films filled with action, but they’re not quite action movies. The 28-year-old filmmaker’s two dark and thrilling films sidestep genre conventions by routinely turning expectation on its ear — even if that ear gets totally bloodied in the process.
“He takes a genre that you think it’s not possible to do anything new with and then finds something new to do with it. He changes the tone and the types of movies you think they are from minute to minute,” says Tom Vick, film programmer for the Freer and Sackler galleries, where Hong-jin’s films will screen as part of this year’s Korean Film Festival DC 2012. (The festival is co-presented by the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, which will also host screenings.)
In 2008’s “The Chaser,” an ex-detective-turned-pimp tries to find two of his women who have gone missing, only to discover they’ve been kidnapped by a serial killer. Eventually, the pimp-detective goes on a wild chase to find his prostitutes and their potential murderer.
“You think it’s a serial-killer bloodbath, and then it turns into a chase film, and there’s odd bits of humor in there,” Vick says.
Even better is 2010’s “The Yellow Sea.” Set in the Yaniban prefecture, a wild area bordering China, Russia and North Korea, the film features a gambling-addicted taxi driver who’s offered a large sum of money to carry out a single mob hit. As in “The Chaser,” the sympathetic antihero is soon in a situation that spirals out of control. Here, Na delivers a complex story and smart plot twists more evenly than in “The Chaser’s” sometimes dizzying changes of direction.
“With ‘The Yellow Sea,’ Na’s smoothed over some of those [plot] transitions but made it even richer as a drama,” Vick says. “It combines serious violence with a story that stands on its own.”
Particular details in “The Yellow Sea” that resonate with Korean crowds might go over American audience’s heads, but part of Na’s brilliance is turning far-flung places into archetypal locations.
“‘The Yellow Sea’ evokes an area of the world that most people in America don’t know about, and almost makes it this Wild West outlaw, dystopian place,” Vick says.
If something gets lost in the translation, not to worry: Na will appear at the AFI Silver on Saturday and the Freer on Sunday for post-screening discussion sessions.Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive and 12th Street SW; Sun., 2 p.m., free; 202-633-4880. (Smithsonian) AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; Sat., 7 p.m. & 10:30 p.m., $11; 301-495-6720. (Silver Spring)