Korean director Hong-jin Na put himself firmly on the map with his very successful debut movie, the 2008 thriller The Chaser. Hailed by critics as the beginning of a new kind of thriller genre, The Chaser won many awards. Hollywood took notice and partly financed Na’s next movie, The Yellow Sea. It is a deftly directed action thriller about a lowly cab driver called Gu-nam. He is part of an ethnic Korean minority in China, just off the border of North Korea. He owes some bad guys a lot of money, which he borrowed to pay for his wife’s visa to South Korea. Tragically, the wife seems to have broken off contact with Gu-nam, and is assumed by everyone to have eloped with another man, leaving Gu-nam and their young daughter in the lurch. To pay his debt, Gu-nam accepts a hit job from a local gangster named Myun, which will take him across the Yellow Sea to Seoul – where he can simultaneously look for his wife (while the young daughter is being taken care of by a grandmother). He only has a few days to get the job done, and it’s not an easy hit, since the target is rich and bodyguarded. He wastes several days tracking down his wife, but never finds her. According to the local news she seems to have become the victim of a grisly crime of passion.
When Gu-nam gets around to performing the assassination, he is surprised to find a couple of other guys already doing it. Gu-nam needs to obtain the victim’s thumb as proof that he has killed him, so he has to confront the other killers right in the act. This drags him into a complex plot of gangster grudges and hidden motives. He has to run from everybody, police and gangsters alike, hiding in the countryside, trying to get back home, being tracked down and fighting for his life. The bad guys are corrupt bankers and businessmen who normally exist above the law – but this dirty business is dragging them into the street where they are held accountable for their actions.
The gangster boss from Gu-nam’s native community, Myun, also comes to Seoul and crosses paths with the big city gangsters in a near-all-out war, fought mainly with knives and axes. Myun is one extremely hard to kill son of a bitch.
The police are on more than one occasion portrayed as bumbling fools, due to whose incompetence Gu-nam can repeatedly escape their cuffs. But there are also a couple of pretty smart detectives working the case. Everything ends up getting settled (so to speak) among the bad guys themselves, however.
The plot is so complex that there are more than one occasion when you are a bit puzzled as to what’s going on. The major motives are only revealed towards the very end, and while I usually don’t like such a plot structure (as evidenced by my review of Fire of Conscience), it worked better here because the unfolding of the action is seen from the perspective of our main guy, Gu-nam, who incidentally has almost no dialogue but is simply caught in an ugly web of crime and revenge.
Most of the puzzling plot points do become clear when you think about it, but one thing that kept perplexing me was how come almost no one used guns. The action is taking place in the present day, but when Gu-nam was chased by a dozen cops who thought he was a murderer, and later two dozen gangsters who most definitely wanted to kill him, there were no guns. At all. And when Myun invades the inner sanctum of the big city gangster, taking on a dozen of his hardboiled guys, there were again no guns. This was very strange and, without an explanation, I felt it hurt the otherwise excellently conveyed realism quite a bit. Conceivably, the director had a reason for it, however. It certainly contributed a great deal to the extreme violence. I did not find the violence particularly disturbing, as it was basically only performed on hardened murderers, but if similar sorts of massacres were portrayed in an American action movie, no doubt most audiences would find it too over-the-top. We have corpses being fed to dogs and human bones used as clubs, and quite a string of bread-knife and axe murders. Does it seem realistic? I can’t say it does. On the other hand, a movie like this is a manifestation of a very different culture with different mindsets, different social circumstances and a different history, perhaps being more closely connected to rather less civilized sensibilities than what we are used to in the West. This, of course, makes the movie more fascinating than, and very different from, Western fare, which is one of the reasons I enjoy Asian movies – sometimes they seem like science fiction; like the story and the characters are from a different planet. In brief, The Yellow Sea is a movie that is every bit as exciting and engaging as a good action thriller is supposed to be. The morale probably is that crime doesn’t pay, as there is no end to the bloodshed and violent deaths that haunts virtually all the characters.
The new Blu-ray also contains an interesting 77 min. Making Of… feature, and some trailers. It’s a very neat package.
Director: Hong-jin Na
Cast: Jung-woo Ha, Yun-seok Kim, Seong-Ha Cho and others.
Runtime: 140 min.
Country: South Korea