Director Na Hong Jin has been credited by some with rekindling the Korean Wave with his 2009 debut THE CHASER. Following the global success of works from the likes of Park Chan Wook and Kim Ji Woon, the industry had gone into something of a slump, churning out a flood of copycat revenge thrillers which mimicked the slick production values and dark mood of their predecessors but failed to evolve the movement any further. THE CHASER, however, was a breath of fresh air, a dark and edgy thriller that put a new spin on the serial killer tale, while putting audiences in the hands of a deeply flawed and unlikable hero in Kim Yeon Suk's cop turned pimp. Two years later Na has returned with an epic thriller that not only reunites him with his two leading actors - although this time with their good/evil roles reversed - but emphatically proves his debut was no flash in the pan, as THE YELLOW SEA raises the bar to a whole new level of tension and excitement.
Gu Nam (Ha Jung Woo) is a Joseonjok - a Korean emigrant living in China's Yanji City. After his wife borrows RMB60,000 for a South Korean visa - only to disappear, presumably with another man - Gu Nam is saddled with her debt. However, for a deadbeat cabbie with a healthy gambling problem, he is struggling to make ends meet. The loan sharks introduce him to Myun (Kim Yun Seok), a Korean gangster who agrees to repay his loan, in return for Gu Nam returning to Korea and assassinating someone. With an infant daughter to provide for and plagued by the notion his wife has been unfaithful, Gu Nam accepts Myun's offer, hoping to track her down in the process. Myun gives him 10 days to complete the task, otherwise his daughter and elderly mother are dead.
While always completely engrossing, THE YELLOW SEA takes its time, and Na is equally interested in examining the society his characters inhabit as he is in telling an action thriller yarn. Gu Nam must first successfully travel from China to Korea undetected - detailed in a wonderful extended sequence, fraught with tension, panic and disorientation as he - and dozens others like him - are smuggled across the titular sea in the belly of a sordid fishing boat, before being literally tossed overboard as they reach the Korean coastline. Gu Nam finds his target easily enough but getting close enough to kill him will be no easy task. All the while, he must avoid arousing suspicion and do what he can to locate the whereabouts of his wife, whom he has not heard from in a whole year.
When things do kick off, at around the hour mark, they do so in spectacular fashion, and Gu Nam soon finds himself not only on the run from the authorities, but caught in the middle of a Korean mob war as Myun comes to town with his own band of goons to clean up the mess and face off against a rival gang. To say that, in effect, the second half of THE YELLOW SEA is one long epic chase/fight sequence is in no way to belittle the film's plotting or structure. Na gives as a solid hour or more of back-story and set-up that builds gloriously to the central tipping point, after which all hell breaks loose. There are car chases, pile-ups and numerous bloody encounters between all the converging parties. But if the first half of the film belongs firmly to Gu Nam and his Faustian pact, the second half is stolen lock, stock and barrel by the charismatic yet ruthless Myun, who has never looked more at home than taking on a roomful of thugs armed only with a blunt instrument and dressed in nothing more than his underwear.
As is often the case with Korean films of this nature, the world onscreen is almost entirely populated by men. The only female character of note, Gu Nam's wife, exists almost entirely off-screen as an obsessive Holy Grail for which he seeks blindly in a country he barely knows. This itself underscores a major theme of the film, that the Joseonjuk - ethnic Koreans living in China - are a people without a homeland. Looked down upon by the Koreans, who see them as foreigners, and the Chinese, for whom they represent little more than a cheap labour force, the Joseonjuk are marooned by circumstance and Gu Nam's actions and the overall narrative of THE YELLOW SEA sees Gu Nam's already unstable world uprooted, inverted and tossed idly about by powerful forces indifferent to his fate.
If I have a criticism of the film it is that Na Hong Jin doesn't appear entirely comfortable shooting action sequences. During pivotal skirmishes and chase sequences he relies heavily on close-up shakeycam cinematography edited together so quickly it is sometimes difficult to discern who is doing what. As if to acknowledge this, however, Na introduces a wonderful storytelling element where a number of fight sequences occur off-screen, quite often to devilishly humourous effect. While the subject matter is serious for the most part and takes its audience to some pretty dark places, Na injects the film with a successful streak of pitch black comedy - mainly via Myun's increasingly outrageous antics - that comes as welcome relief.
Minor quibbles side, THE YELLOW SEA is an incredibly strong piece of work and certainly the best Korean thriller of the year. The plot is deceptively dense and packed with supporting characters and subplots that all serve the central narrative, while never cluttering the film or distracting us from the two powerhouse - yet wildly different performances - from Ha Jung Woo and Kim Yun Seok. Gu Nam is quiet, contemplative and introverted, while Myun is an uncontainable whirlwind - and one of the year's most memorable characters. With THE YELLOW SEA, Na has proved he is certainly no one-trick pony and has built on the already excellent skills he displayed in THE CHASER to paint a far broader, more ambitious canvas, but one every bit as energetic, visceral and entertaining.
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