The Yellow Sea

The Yellow Sea

***1/2

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Korean cinema is increasingly being seen in the West as a powerhouse industry able to carve out its own space while breathing new life into old genres. Crime films, thrillers, noir, chase dramas, police procedurals, martial arts epics - Korean directors seem willing to take them all on on their own terms, and Western audiences and studios are noticing.

The Yellow Sea's director Na Hong-Jin, has found himself elevated into the echelons of those Korean directors whose projects are highly anticipated in western markets, alongside Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho. Na's last film - taut thriller The Chaser - was a Korean box office smash ( more than five million tickets sold) in 2008, going on to sweep Asian award boards and impressing critics and audiences when released in the west.

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His follow up project The Yellow Sea has already enjoyed a slot at Cannes in the Un Certain Regarde programme, and can boast being the first ever Korean production to receive investment up front from a major Hollywood studio – with Fox International co-financing the film to the tune of 20 per cent of the production budget. Expectations were high that Na - back in gritty thriller territory with The Yellow Sea - could equal or surpass The Chaser.

Those viewers who yearn for Na to keep to a dark and oppressive tone will not be disappointed by the backdrop to this film. Not that fans should worry that Na has turned his back on the talent that helped make The Chaser a success, as both lead actors from that film (Ha Jung-woo and Kim Yun-seok) return here, though in a kind of role reversal.

We begin in in Yanji City, located in the Yanbian region that is wedged between North Korea, China and Russia and as the opening text informs us, of the 800,000 Korean-Chinese who live there, at least half of these 'Joseonjok' (Korean-Chinese) are involved in some kind of illegal trade. This backdrop is superbly laid out for us by director Na and his camera team, a sort of no man's land whose streets are walked by either the transient or the law breaking. As a place to live, it seems a unsettling hybrid of Soviet-style tower blocks and Asian street shacks. The sky is unremittingly grey, and beneath it every surface seems layered with a film of grease and dirt.

It is here we meet the seemingly downbeat and deadbeat protagonist Gu-Nam (Ha), betting the last of his money away in one of the small mah-jong dens.

Gu-Nam is a man down to his last dollar. His cab driver job isn't making the rent and his wife has seemingly vanished in South Korea, leaving him straddled with the debts from the cost of her visa. Every day brings another visit and abuse from the loan shark thugs followed by another disastrous evening at the mah jong table. But things suddenly change when Gu-Nam's fiery spirit and willingness to fight back come to the attention of the louche but extremely dangerous hitman Myun-ga (Kim).

Myun-ga is a man who seems to have his hands in every illicit operation in Yanji and beyond, and before long makes Gu-nam a deceptively simple offer. Go to South Korea by boat, meet up with associates there, kill a businessman, cut off his thumb as proof, come back on a scheduled boat, and all the debts will go away.

With no other way of getting a chance to look for his wife, Gu-nam eventually accepts. Before long he is in South Korea scoping the target out. In some of the best scenes in the film we follow Gu-nam as, having no experience in assassinations, he bumbles around a freezing Seoul trying ineptly (at first) to get a feel for the pattern of the target's movements. He doesn't have a suitable coat for the weather, or even a gun. This is asassination work of the grimiest, most low-rent kind with stakeouts taking place behind cars or in Seven Elevens.

Yet as pathetic as Gu-nam seems, Na crafts small moments that show Gu to be patient and adaptable, and far from stupid, as he begins to gather the tools and information he needs to carry out the hit. Above all Gu-Nam is determined, a quality that will keep him alive.

Of course, things don’t go as planned and someone else actually assassinates the target whilst Gu-nam watches. Framed and pursued by the police, Gu-nam's situation gets even more dire when he finds himself caught in a triangle of double cross and revenge between upmarket mobster Tae-won Kim (Cho Seong-Ha ), who had some connection to the murder, and the seemingly unstoppable hitman Myung who is none best pleased at having Tae-Won meddling in his business.

Na is certainly a deft hand when it comes to mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing. The first third of the film is economically told with fast, but never confusing cutting, that glides us from one interesting moment to another, drawing us into Gu-Nams' journey to Seoul without wasting a beat. The action sequences, when they come, are impressive whatever the scale. Na and his cinematographer Lee Sung-jae craft intense bursts of combat ranging from scuffles in stairwells to an articulated lorry crash through a port harbour gate that rivals The Dark Knight's tentpole scene.

It should be noted that this is a film with almost no firearms, which is very unusual for Korean thriller films. Instead, Na takes the combat down to close quarters - fierce sweaty struggles interspersed with the rapid stabbing of knives or the clunk of axes. Characters rarely fall with one blow, instead bodies require pulverising before a fight is over. This is an intense action film that spirals into a veritable orgy of double crosses, ambushes and bloody beat downs during the last third that will re-affirm impressions of Korean cinema as being a masterclass in how to frame exquisite violence. There is also much pleasure to be had spending time in the dark underworlds of Yanji and Seoul cities, where the action plays out in largely in tiny bedrooms, dirty corridors and dank alleyways that are atmospherically lit and dressed.

The performances match this intensity in their own ways. Ha Jung-woo projects a suitably tightly wound but aways sympathetic air as Gu-nam, whose tenaciousness and refusal to stay knocked down becomes more stark as the film progresses. In many ways, this entire film is his character's crash course in survival that drives him to ever more brutal acts. Kim Yun-Seouk has the more colourful and openly charismatic role as the killer Myung-ga, who's loutish and comedic airs hide the fact that he is virtually unstoppable in close quarter battles. The two leads are put through the ringer by Na and their characters are suitably adorned with broken bones and bleeding wounds by the end, but their performances do much to ensure that the attention does not lag in this film's very long running time.

But this film cannot match the tightly focused and satisfying feel of The Chaser. At 2 hours and 20 minutes long, no film can risk tangling its plot threads lest its audience's minds wander, but there is the feeling of a loss of coherence in the last third as so many villains pile in to try to either kill each other or Gun-nam. Here Na's editing, so effective in the first third, almost seems to work against him as his characters seem to jump randomly from one place to another to ambush each other and plot twists are introduced in a blink-and-youll-miss it fashion.

The triangle of Myun-ga vs Gu-nam vs Tae-won means less time to spend with Gu-nam, who was such an involving character on his own as we followed his travails. There is also something of a distracting tonal clash between the first and second half of the film as the levels of violence reach blackly funny levels, particularly after Gu-nam and Myun-ga walk away after their umpteenth car crash or beat down like Chaplin-esque figures.

Nevertheless for those wanting well-crafted visceral thrills, The Yellow Sea should be on your list.

Reviewed on: 11 Oct 2011
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A man agrees to take on a hit in a bid to pay off his debts.
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Director: Na Hong-Jin

Writer: Na Hong-Jin

Starring: Kim Yun-Seok, Ha Jung-Woo, Cho Seong-Ha, Lee Chu-Min

Year: 2010

Runtime: 157 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea

Festivals:

London Korean 2011

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