Director Hong-jin Na turned a lot of heads in 2008 with the Cannes hit The Chaser, a thrilling story based on one of South Korea’s most bizarre serial killers. Along with actors Jung-woo Ha and Yun-seok Kim, he was part of a fantastic trio which even got the attention of Warner Bros. for a possible US remake. Two years later, they’re at it again with The Yellow Sea (2010).
The Yellow Sea brings back the two amazing leads and matches them with a plot that unfolds over two-and-a-half action-packed hours. Gu-nam (Ha) is a cab driver from Yanji City a Korean border town straddling North and South and a melting pot of cultural backgrounds including Russian, Chinese and Korean. We are informed that over half the people living there make their living by illegal means. It only seems fitting to get a first glimpse of Gu-nam in an illicit mahjong gambling den.
Swamped by bad debts after paying for his wife’s visa and illegal passage into South Korea in search of a better life, Gu-nam is approached by Mr. Myun, a kingpin of the Yanji criminal underworld. Myun offers a seductive proposition: all debts erased, passage to South Korea and the chance to find his missing wife (who has not contacted him since her departure, she is briefly glimpsed in a series of eerie scenarios played out in Gu-nam’s mind) in exchange for a hit. Gu-nam finds himself with no other option but to accept the deadly assignment.
The Yellow Sea is almost a procedural thriller, a detailed incursion inside a novice criminal’s mind. The mission awakens primal instincts in Gu-nam that leads him to fulfill his brutal tasks. He learns how to stalk his target, blends into the shadows and uses ingenious tricks to achieve his goal. Unfortunately, even though his task had been seemingly accomplished, things take a turn for the worst, and the police are onto him. Soon after, the South Korean mob and Chinese mafia join the chase in what becomes a furious fight for survival.
Don’t expect a lot of portentous and profound dialogue in this one; oddly enough that’s the best thing about it. The Yellow Sea is a lean and taut thriller and a visual delight, shots are carefully constructed throughout to mirror the struggle inside of Gu-nam. Watch out for an almost total rejection of firearms: axes, knives and fists are the tools of the trade for these brutish gangsters, the visceral combat scenes are your heart stopping at times. They all lead to a somewhat unexpected and downbeat ending that in retrospect seems ever so fitting for the callous and pessimistic mood of the film.
Na’s second film is in a class of its own, with superb camerawork, a great story (written by Na himself), and flawless performances from all members of the cast. A more restrained edit was perhaps required once the plot is established, but this is only a minor flaw. The Yellow Sea is a worthy follow-up to The Chaser, which leaves one anxious to see what Na will pull out of the hat next – most likely an axe.