YELLOW SEA, THE
Yanji City cab driver Gu-nam (Ha Jung-Woo) hasn't heard from his wife since she left for nearby Korea. He plays mah-jong to make some extra cash, until he meets Myun-ga (Kim Yun-seok) a hitman. Gu-nam is offered an opportunity to pay off his debts and reunite with his wife - all he has to do is cross the yellow sea to Seoul - and make one hit....
Review by Geoff Gardner:
Think superior story-telling. Think of a sinewy narrative in which criminals of high and low character and their various criminal enterprises smash against each other. Think of a tale told about an increasingly proficient little guy with debts facing betrayal at every turn of his life.
The Yellow Sea is the second film by Na Hong-Jin, following his highly regarded neo-Hitchcockian The Chaser (2009). There's a grand leap in prowess here, such as might suggest after only two films that we have a South Korean claimant, a long term contender at least, to the mantle of Jean-Pierre Melville, the cinema's supreme story teller. This is very superior modern noir, perhaps the best crime film of the year from any nation on the globe.
Gu Nam is living alone in Yanbian, an autonomous province of China with a population that includes about 800,000 Korean Chinese. They have the derogatory name of Joeseokjon and are despised by Chinese and Koreans alike. Half of them earn their living from illegal activities like selling dogs for food. Gu is in debt to local thugs. He hasn't heard from his wife since she left for South Korea and he squanders his meagre income on mahjong. He is offered a chance to find his wife and clear his debt. Just allow yourself to be smuggled into Seoul and kill somebody. Don't ask how. Just do it.
Generously spread across four chapters (The Cab Driver, The Killer, Joeseonjok and The Yellow Sea), taking his own sweet time in a film that again Melville-like runs on to just on 140 minutes, Na Hong-Jin stays up close and personal on Gu Nam as he deploys a fierce will to survive and acquires a certain proficiency for self-protection and for brutally harming his enemies. The camera sticks to Gu, hand-held, obsessive, showing us only as much of the Seoul and Yanbian landscapes as the amateur hitman sees.
The Yellow Sea, you should be warned is not a film for faint hearts. The escalating violence, particularly after Gu finally has to take on his former contractor Myun, is represented with a straightforward realism. There are no choreographed or balletic fights with leaping combatants and kung fu movies. In the Hitchcock fashion the deaths are lethal but messy. Knives are the implement of choice for most and it's all rendered gruesomely up close, especially as Myun reveals his own variant on the weapon of choice, as he starts to take revenge on other betrayers, a small but lethal hatchet. Only the cops use guns and the one death by shooting is from friendly fire.
Na veers away from Gu only occasionally. It occurs only when he has to set up one of the multiple betrayals on which the narrative turns. Otherwise we follow Gu step by step past every barrier until his final journey back to his homeland.
The story itself is a thriller but it turns on a live, hot issue. South Korea's disdain for its cultural and ethnic minorities is a significant driver of the drama. That disdain is established quickly but it serves to explain why this down on his luck cab driver can't find a friend nor a lucky break. The Yellow Sea is probably the year's best crime drama and might be confirmation that there is a new master of the genre, spinning tough as teak tales, ready to emerge.
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YELLOW SEA, THE (R18+)
CAST: Ha Jung-Woo, Kim Yun-seok
PRODUCER: Han Sung-Goo
DIRECTOR: Na Hong-Jin
SCRIPT: Na Hong-Jin
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lee Sung-Je
EDITOR: Kim Sun-Min
MUSIC: Jang Young-Gyu, Lee Byung-Hoon
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Lee Hwo-Kyoung
RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Monster Pictures
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 8, 2012 (Melbourne)