It is impressive how director Na Hong-jin's second feature, The Yellow Sea, manages to be even more accomplished than his debut film, the critically acclaimed The Chaser. While the latter was a tense and gripping crime thriller, The Yellow Sea is more intense and exciting, with compelling story-telling and biting social commentary that elevate it above even The Chaser and in fact the majority of thrillers from anywhere in the world over the past few years.
The story concerns Kim Gu-nam (played convincingly by Ha Jung-woo), a Joseonjok (Korean-Chinese) living in the region between Russia, China and Korea known as Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Struggling to make a living, addicted to gambling and having lost contact with his wife, Gu-nam is truly down and out. So when given the opportunity to earn a good sum of money that will allow him to repay his debts and possibly find his wife, he decides to take on the job - to kill a person in Korea and bring back his thumb as proof of completion of the task. Soon Gu-nam finds himself on a boat travelling from China to Korea across the Yellow Sea.
After a relatively slow start, the film shifts gear. The action starts and quickly goes into overdrive. Filled with brutal and graphic violence, this is certainly not a film for those with a weak stomach. Most of the characters are capable of doing serious harm to the others, and one particularly dangerous man is Mr Myun, played by actor Kim Yun-seok with a mesmerizing performance. And once Gu-nam becomes a fugitive, audiences are treated to some exhilarating chase sequences that are both well-constructed and expertly edited.
The Yellow Sea is over 2 hours in running time, and takes its time to build the story. Divided into four chapters, the events unfold systematically. As a result, the film may not appear as taut as The Chaser, but the extra time spent in constructing the story gives insight into the life of a Joseonjok like Gu-nam - tough, seemingly meaningless and filled with uncertainty about one's own identity, as evident by Gu-nam's desperate statement that he is 'not a cockroach' in response to his own misfortunes and poor treatment by others. Rejected by the Chinese and despised by the Koreans, he ends up in The Yellow Sea, which is perhaps where he truly belongs.
Over the past few years, South Korea has built a reputation for making the best gritty thrillers in the world, and The Yellow Sea is further proof that the reputation is well-deserved. And with just two feature films, Na Hong-jin has established himself as a talented director who can handle this genre remarkably well. The Yellow Sea is both violent and intelligent, and a must-see for all lovers of crime thrillers.
The Yellow Sea is distributed in Australia by Monster Pictures, and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.