The Yellow Sea
Director Na Hong-jin’s dark and increasingly grisly follow-up to equally brutal thriller The Chaser…
Ku-nam (Ha Jung-woo, The Chaser, The Fox Family, Time, Breath) is a taxi driver in Yanji City with a heavy gambling problem on the Chinese side of the borders where China, Russia and North Korea meet. His wife left him behind to find work in South Korea and send money back, but he has yet to hear from her.
Tormented by nightmares of her having an affair and increasing in debt to collectors, underworld crime boss Myung-ga (Kim Yun-Seok, The Chaser, Woochi: The Demon Slayer, Running Wild) offers him a deal: if Ku-nam agrees to go to South Korea to carry out a hit, he’ll get enough money to pay his debt. With little choice Ku-nam accepts, hoping this will also give him a chance to find his wife, and heads to South Korea on a fishing boat with nothing other than $500 in his pocket for expenses.
When Ku-nam arrives, he takes time to study his target, casing his apartment and imaging exactly how the hit will go down in his mind. When it comes do making the hit, he finds someone has got there before him. Soon Ku-nam finds himself framed for the murder, on the run from the police, South Korean gangsters and Myung-ga’s Chinese triad – and just wanting the truth about who set him up…
Na Hong-jin reunites his leads Ha Jung-woo and Kim Yun-Seok, though ostensibly reversing their roles, in a follow-up to The Chaser that quickly becomes as grisly as its predecessor. (Sure enough, IMDB’s alleged, ahem, ‘plot’ keywords include things like ‘shot in the arm’, ‘axe in the head’, ‘finger cut off’ and ‘blood spatter’.) It’s interesting that in a year that’s seen various different takes on the relationship between North and South Korea, including Poongsan, The Front Line and Dance Town, The Yellow Sea is perhaps the most imaginative, and easily the least predictable.
It’s something of a revenger’s tragedy, and we all know how they tend to end up for all concerned. The characters are constantly under attack, jumping out of windows, in full-on car crashes and receiving hits from a variety of blunt and sharp objects. (You wonder how some of the characters make it as long as they do!) Fans of more brutal Korean films will find strong similarities with the likes of Old Boy and I Saw The Devil, but thematically this feels like a successor to Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, except whereas that film took pleasure in turning its subject matter into a series of still lives, The Yellow Sea does the exact opposite.
Cinematographer Lee Sung-je constantly keeps the camera moving, in a reportage, hand held style, adding an energy to the film that forgoes the 140 minute running time – this being the international ‘director’s cut’ that seems more of a tightening of the original edit than anything else. (You can find an exhaustive comparison of the two versions here. Just don’t look at it before enjoying the film for risk of spoilers!)
The result is movement even in the quieter moments, though as the film progresses there are less and less of those! The only downside is that you may end up feeling lime you’re on a boat, Ku-nam seems possessed by an inherent luck when it comes to evading capture, or perhaps that’s total desperation. Whatever it is keeps him crawling away from tens of cops, including cars, as they crash and tumble around him. I have to say I haven’t seen this many car crashes since The Blues Brothers, and many of the stunts seem for real, not all CGI as so much is nowadays.
The action choreography by Yoo Sang-seob ties up the complicated interplay between the participants, without turning this into a martial arts flick. It’s messy and nasty, little more than a brawl, but thrilling and realistic too. But without the sterling performances from the cast, particularly leads Ha Jung-woo and Kim Yun-Seok, even the powerful direction of that action could fall flat.
There’s a typically Korean black sense of humour surrounding the disconnect between how Ku-nam imagines the hit will go down, cleanly and quickly, and what actually happens that nicely culminates in the difference between how easy he thinks it will be to chop off his targets thumb, and the reality. It’s yucky, but darkly comic. Indeed I wouldn’t mind betting that director Na Hong-jin is channelling a lot of himself through Ku-nam’s over-active imagination, which at best leads to over thinking things, and worst paranoia.
The Yellow Sea is an impressive action film that keeps you on your toes; just make sure you have a strong stomach for it…
The Yellow Sea is available now from Bounty Films / Eureka Entertainment on Blu-ray and DVD. You can also Buy or Rent the film in digital format from the Bounty Films website.
Distributor: Bounty Film / Eureka Entertainment (UK)
Edition: Blu-Ray (2012)
Bounty Films/Eureka’s release is a fantastic transfer of sound and picture, there’s plenty of detail in the darkness so don’t think you can avoid the films grislier moments! It is the shorter, director’s cut version, but this is one case where I think that might in fact be an improvement on the original.
On the extras side, there are the usual trailers and a very detailed ‘making of’ featurette that comes in at nearly 80 minutes long, full of insightful interviews and behind-the-scenes footage - just in case you really want to know how it was done.