The Yellow Sea Review
The second outing for Korean director and writer Hong-jin Na - His first film The Chaser, was a critical success and, as such his next release was highly anticipated. Only a little less gruesome and no less gritty or lifelike than its predecessor, The Yellow Sea certainly lives up to expectations.
The film is set partly in the desolate Yanji region of China close to the Russian border. This area has a large Korean population, displaced from their homeland during various conflicts and now unable to return. Organised crime is rife and corruption is even more prevalent than in the rest of the country. Largely ignored by the authorities, simply maintaining any sort of standard of living in this province is a hard slog and lure of easy money through crime is easy to understand.
The film stars virtual unknown (even in Korea) Jung woo Ha as Gu Nam, taxi driver, gambler and somewhat hopeless family man. His wife has gone to work in Korea but has disappeared from sight, not contacting him or more importantly sending money home. His life simply consists of working to pay off the seemingly huge debt he acquired purchasing his wife’s visa, gambling it all away on the Mahjong tables and then drinking to forget. Pursued by debt collectors, he needs a way out.
The movie is divided into acts, each having a distinctive character and this helps a lot to make the whole movie more digestible. The subtitles are excellent throughout, not at all intrusive, as dialogue is minimal and the sound track superb.
Act one sets up the film, gives significant back story to the main character, informs us of the horrific act he is forced to commit and attempts to explain the reasons for his desperate actions later in the film. Some aspects are not entirely clear, possibly due to cultural understanding. Why is the money from his wife sent to an intermediary in China and why is the dog seller actually the local hit man? Some answers can be gleaned from the “Making of” extra, but the film can be a little confusing to Western eyes.
The sense of rural poverty and filthy over population is well portrayed with pot holed roads and rubbish piled high, all interspersed with garish advertising boards and Chinese slogans. It is only when you work out that the 60,000 Yen Gu Nam owes equates to a little over £450 that you realise how desperately poor this area is. The trip to Korea (Over the Yellow Sea, to which the film owes its name) is a trip undertaken by up huge sections of the working population of the area, with the promise of quick monetary gains in a country only a little less impoverished than their own. Death, disease and deportation are risks the illegals (Josenjok) are willing to take.
Although the predominantly hand held camera work may not be to everyone’s taste, it is well controlled, with generally good exposure and focus throughout. Longer, slower shots are tripod mounted, so any feelings of dizziness are allowed to dissipate. It does get a bit much during the busier moments though.
Act two starts with Gu-Nam having landed in Korea and after establishing when his rescue boat is due to return his setting about his gruesome task. The planning and execution of the murder are shown in great detail and you start to feel some sympathy towards Gu Nam. His luck never seems to change, with an interesting twist in the plot as he heads to carry out the deed. Gu Nam stumbles across another gang planning to terminate the same man on the same night. He becomes mixed up in their plot and is identified incorrectly as the killer. So starts the main chase sequence of the film.
The stunts have been kept fairly real, so exploding cars and spectacular roll overs are in short supply. The sheer number of stunts involved though is higher than one might expect considering the budget nature of the film. The chases are atmospheric, taking place predominantly at night. Only the second floor jump out of a window onto a car is somewhat contrived and the main characters all seem to share the ability to mete out unlimited violence without acquiring much more than a minor flesh wound.
After Gu-Nam makes good his escape, the pace changes as his life becomes more one of survival. The cast also expands more as we meet new characters who quickly become central to the plot.
Act three concentrates on Gu-Nam’s fight and flight, as he is cornered by some inept rural police. He needs to evade both the police and the various gangsta types from Korea and China who need him dead. Incredibly for Mr unlucky he manages both, retaining his liberty almost throughout the film.
The character change from the hopeless gambler to a desperate man fighting for his very survival is a pretty big stretch, but what choice does he have? He has nothing much to lose and absolutely no one to turn to. The level of violence and sex increases noticeably during this section of the film, but does not hit its gory crescendo until a little later.
The major parts of the plot by now are starting to fit together, with a much clearer picture of how everyone fits into the story. It also becomes clear that money and loyalty are worth more than human life as the body count continues to rise.
More chase scenes follow, interspersed with lots of violence and very little dialogue. Some feel a little staged, but overall the pace is maintained throughout. Some of the chase and fight scenes are very confusing when first viewed. This is mainly due to the shaky, fast moving camera work, but the use of many similar black sedan cars and the fact that one blood spattered body with matted hair looks much like another also play their part!
As we move into the final act, the aura of hopelessness around the main character begins to increase. His sense of loss increases as the reason for the original hit is revealed. It does take some serious concentration to follow the plot of who has paid who to kill whom, so be prepared to watch the movie again. As the movie starts its inevitable conclusion, the fights become more intense and in some ways it’s amazing there are enough characters left alive to land the story. However, overall, for what is only his second film, Hong-jin Na has produced an incredible feat that is both absorbing and engaging, and is on a par with some Hollywood action thrillers commanding budgets many times the size.
The splitting of the film into well defined acts has allowed the director to treat them quite differently without detracting from the overall feel of the film. Some locations are confusing, as there is little to differentiate the back streets of one town, city or for that matter South Asian country. There are a few continuity errors around car damage and clothing, but nothing too glaring. At one point a killer goes missing, never to reappear in the storyline. Not so much of a continuity error as a disappearing trick! More issues surround the basic plot however. Just why Gu-Nam’s wife was murdered is unclear, as is the relationship between some characters. Much is assumed and without watching the “Making of”, some locations do not make a lot of sense.
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