Director Na Hong-jin’s 2009 debut The Chaser, along with the works of Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon helped thrust the South Korean movie industry into the consciousness of Western audiences. However, a recent spate of mediocre and uninspired genre films has started to flood the market, threatening to stunt this Eastern revolution. Thankfully Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea (2010) is an original and intense revenge thriller that looks set to breathe new life into a stagnant industry.
Kim Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is a taxi driver struggling to make a living in the Yanbian – a Korean populated region which borders Russia, China and North Korea. Those who live in the area are known as ‘Joseonjoks’ – a derogatory term given by those in South Korean as many of these Yanbian natives end up fleeing the region to find work in the south. Gu-nam’s wife is one of these illegal immigrants; however he’s failed to hear from her since her departure – lumbered with the 60000 Yuan debt acquired for her visa and seemingly unable to pay it back to the vicious loan sharks who follow his every move.
Salvation comes from a local crime lord who offers to clear Gu-nam’s debt if he carries out a contract killing for him in Bussan. With few other options open to him Gu-nam accepts and embarks on a harrowing mission to pay back the money he owes and attempt to find his missing wife. However, things don’t go as planned and when Gu-nam’s victim is killed by someone else he quickly finds himself not only framed for the murder but also pursued by local gangsters.
The Yellow Sea is beautifully realised through a collection of startling cinematography and fast paced edits which choreograph the film’s close knit violence with an assortment of slick Western techniques. Indeed The Yellow Sea is the first ever South Korean film to receive financial backing from Hollywood and this East meets West aesthetic perfectly amalgamates to create a unique viewing experience. The film’s visual charm is matched by its intense performances with Hong-jin able to simultaneously evoke both sympathy and revulsion from the audience towards his vast collection of deeply flawed characters.
After investing the audience into Gu-nam’s fragile situation the film sadly loses its way in the third act when a plethora of peripheral villains are thrust into focus. This narrative sidestep confuses what until that point had be a tight thriller built around an intriguing central protagonist, with this lack of coherence in the film’s final third diluting the emotional resonance of its powerful ending. Despite falling at the final hurdle The Yellow Sea never fails to keep the audience entertained, with the film’s daunting run-time of two and a half hours never really becoming an issue. Indeed Na Hong-jin’s sophomore effort is a viscerally thrilling, energetic and intelligent film that only enhances his burgeoning reputation.