Looking back at the Hollywood blockbuster action films of 2011 when the year was about to end, I found none of them could top the raw realism of the ambitious South Korean thriller "The Yellow Sea" (2010). When I endured "Transformers 3" last summer, I had no excitement at all with its pointless loud action scenes decorated with weightless CGI. In the case of "The Yellow Sea," real people and real vehicles are put into the action on the screen, and they are far more visceral than those big, humongous CGI robots fighting on the streets of Chicago.
"The Yellow Sea" is the second work by Na Hong-jin, who made a stunning debut with "The Chaser" (2008). I chose that movie as the best South Korean film of that year without any hesitation for many good reasons. It provided me a series of very intense moments of suspense and excitement while its seedy hero raced against time to save his ill-fated employee from a horrible serial killer with a chisel and a hammer. It was so absorbing that, overwhelmed by its urgency, audience was really quiet throughout the film; I even could hear someone near me faintly uttering a gasp during the devastating moment when a supporting character made the fatal mistake of trusting a stranger.
"The Yellow Sea" is another chase story, but this is a tale a lot different from "The Chaser." Its landscape is not only far bigger but far darker; this is a ruthless world propelled by the destructive impulse of human nature, which only generates more chaos and mayhem, and it certainly makes the characters in the film pay dearly for their foolishness in the end. The movie is a grim experience, exciting us with its sheer power relentlessly pushing the plot to the exhaustion and collapse of its final chapter. And it manages to have bitter laughs by observing how its characters screw up while struggling in its convoluted noir plot (which I also struggled to understand a bit during the first viewing).
In the international version/director's cut, the movie gives you important information you need to know at the start. The story begins in Yanji, the capital of the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture in China which is the border region between China, North Korea, and Russia. Lots of Korean people moved to this area during the 20th century to get out of oppression due to the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945), and many of them chose to stay even after the World War II ended. Most of these Korean Chinese people, called Joseonjok or "Chaoxianzu" in Chinese, can speak both Chinese and Korean while being assimilated into Chinese society. When I saw "Dooman River" (2009), a cold, sad film directed by Zhang Lu (he is Chinese of Korean descent), one of the sights from its barren border town is the police station with the nameplates written in Chinese and Korean hung at its front.
After the Cold War ended, China and South Korea have no longer been enemies since the 1990s, and Joseonjok people began coming to South Korea to earn money like other immigrant workers from Southeastern Asia and Africa. Some of them live and work legally, but the others do not, so they have been a social issue in South Korea, along with the other illegal immigrant workers. They are not often treated fairly, and we hear news about them from time to time.
The central character of "The Yellow Sea," Gu-nam (Ha Jeong-woo), works as a taxi driver in Yanji. His wife went to South Korea, but there has been no news or money from her for a long time. He has been frustrated about that. Living alone in a squalid apartment building (their only daughter lives at his mother's home), he has been mired in despair and gambling debt. The loan sharks, to whom he owes 60,000 Yuan (around $9500), keep visiting his home, and sarcastically remind him that even selling all of his organs will not solve his problem. To make the matters worse, he has recently been fired from his job.
On one day, the local crime boss Myeon Jeong-hak (Kim Yoon-Seok), or Myeon-ga in short, approaches to him with an offer he cannot refuse. If Gu-nam goes to Seoul and kills a man, Myeon-ga will resolve his gambling debt problem. In addition, because there is some spare time before the deadline, he will also get the chance to search for his wife while he is in South Korea. Gu-nam accepts the offer; he takes a train to Dalian and then boards a small ship along with illegal immigrants for going across the Yellow Sea to South Korea.
The story is divided into the four titled chapters. The first chapter ("Taxi Driver") is focused on establishing its hero and his hopeless daily life, and Na Hong-jin does a good job of vividly capturing the gray, depressing feeling surrounding Gu-nam and others. Shot in Yanji and the surrounding areas, the places and the people feel authentic with the painstaking details on clothes and sets, and, above all, that harsh feeling of cold winter days. (From my original review: "It may will make you want a big cup of hot coffee when you walk out of the theater.").
Gu-nam does not talk much about himself except in a seemingly meaningless opening narration on the epidemic of rabies during his childhood, but small moments with brief dialogues tell a lot about his miserable life. There is a brief scene with his father-in-law who has nothing else to say except a short apology while Gu-nam looks at the smashed glass frame of his wedding day photograph. They were probably happy at that time, but now he is frequently haunted by the dream of his wife having an affair with someone in South Korea. Has she really abandoned him as the others around him say?
The movie takes a considerable amount of time at a the languid pace while slowly building tension with the approaching deadline. The second chapter ("Murderer") is about how alien the South Korea society is to Gu-nam. He is mostly taciturn, but the people, including the guy he is supposed to kill, always see who Gu-nam is through his awkwardness and accent. While concocting a fairly clever plan for executing his hit job through rudimentary night surveillance on his feet, he also searches for his wife, but, despite some helpful information about her, there is not much success in his search.
Finally, there comes the moment when he has to commit murder as Myeon-ga demands, and here is a very good scene which is suspenseful in a Hitchcockian way. It's a quiet cold winter night again, and Gu-nam is waiting for his target while hiding across from the building where his target lives on the top floor. But an unexpected thing happens before he is ready to go inside the building. The calm but intense suspense is meticulously presented through the motion-detecting light-bulb at each staircase of the building. By merely observing these lights serially turned on and off, a circumstance is clearly conveyed to us. Gu-nam now must do something--though he knows the situation is even more perilous after the target eventually goes inside the building.
A bloody incident happens, so Gu-nam finds himself hounded by the police and others. One of the best moments in "The Chaser" was its exciting chase sequence through narrow alleys, and Na Hong-jin does not disappoint us in this case. He tries to top that with a rapid sequence in which our unfortunate hero has to run as fast as he can through the alleys and streets while attempting to evade a bunch of policemen and several patrol cars. In this movie, the people are really running, and the vehicles get clashed or crashed with real impact on the screen, so you may wonder how Ha Jeong-woo went through all these situations while still in character. We can perhaps discern where they used stunt men and special effects through shot-by-shot analysis, but he might actually have survived them.
From the third chapter ("Joseonjok"), the plot grows thickener and complicated. It turns out that a crime boss operating in Seoul, Kim Tae-won (Cho Seong-ha), is involved with the incident. He is desperate to cover his trail by any means necessary, so he wants to eliminate Gu-nam before the police catch him. However, the circumstance becomes more unpredictable when Myeon-ga enters South Korea with his gangsters to take care of the problem in his own way. Tae-won is willing to allow that if Myeon-ga solves his trouble as he promises, but...
It is possible that you will get lost in the convoluted storyline. There are several things left unexplained, and the relationships between the characters are a little too complicated; maybe I'd need a big diagram for your better understanding. Even Korean viewers like me can fail to get a barely audible but crucial clue when one character mumbles unconsciously before he dies, but most of you will probably watch it with subtitles, so you will easily understand what he says.
Nevertheless, the movie has enough power and ambition to drive its complicated story on a high-tension level, and it's darkly exciting. In nightmarish circumstance, anything can happen, so the story sometimes goes against our expectations while holding our attention tightly even if we are a little confused. There is the terrific extended action sequence where one kind of chase is quickly followed by another kind of chase. This is quite intense because we can see two cars are not CGIs and are crashing against each other really hard while avoiding the other cars on the road - and the movie even has a real big container truck for a big moment to impress us.
Like "The Chaser," the movie is a grisly, violent film, and many characters, mostly criminals, get killed or injured in the process. You will probably recall Takeshi Kitano's recent film "Outrage" (2010), a mathematic exercise of violence about a bloody meaningless war between Japanese gangsters. The gangsters in "The Yellow Sea" are no wiser than they are; they try to solve their problem, but remain stuck in the same position while wasting their time and effort. Their foolishness makes their mess bigger and bloodier and more chaotic, and the movie has morbid fun with their stupidity. The biggest irony in the story comes from the fact that the urban South Korean gangsters are quite unprepared for the beastly brutality of Myeon-ga and his less sophisticated men. Besides a hatchet and a knife, Myeon-ga also wields a big animal bone, which incidentally comes handy to him during one cringe-inducing fight scene, with no mercy to the guys who dare to stand on his way. While it is quite horrific to watch its frank, realistic handling of violence, the movie mercifully leaves some of his brutal rampage to our imagination.
Because it is a chase story and has more distinctive characters, "The Yellow Sea" does not lose our interest despite the distant attitude toward its mayhem. In addition, it cares about some of its characters. Gu-nam becomes sympathetic to his target's wife as he faces the possibility that his wife may be murdered. When he comes across her by coincidence, he promises to her that he will find who is responsible for her husband's death and his misery. The problem is, Gu-nam is no more clever than cops or gangsters in the film, and, even during the last chapter ("The Yellow Sea"), there is nothing much he can do except staying alive. He later arrives at a quiet revelation scene where he stares at two characters from a distance at some place while saying nothing. Certainly there is the sense of betrayal and disillusion in the air, but it seems there is a lot more than that in Gu-nam's disoriented mind.
The main performances are crucial in holding the film amid the violent carnage. Ha Jeong-woo, who scared the hell out of me with his chilling portrayal of a sadistic serial killer in "The Chaser," is now a flawed noir hero writhing in confusion beyond his control. Gu-nam is not entirely likable, but we come to feel sorry about his plight while watching him grasping for anything to survive. On the opposite, Kim Yoon-seok, who chased after his co-actor in "The Chaser," is subtly menacing and then strikingly merciless as the larger-than-life villain, and Cho Seong-ha also gives a solid performance with increasing panic behind his face as the crime boss who turns out to have a motive quite petty compared to all the troubles caused by it.
Several months after its original theatrical version (157-min) was released in South Korea in late December of 2010, Na Hong-jin made a director's cut because the theatrical version was hastily edited during its hurried post-production. The director's cut was introduced as the international version at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, and I saw it recently. My initial impression with the theatrical version is not changed much after watching this version, but this version indeed shows notable improvements. The story is smoother and tighter in a shorter running time (140 minutes), and I could follow the plot more easily than before.
"The Yellow Sea" is a very compelling thriller crackling with dark nihilistic force. Its ending is rather anti-climactic compared to what it has built and smashed along the way, but the more I think about it, it works as the fitting finale for a story which ultimately turns out to be a tragedy of mistrust. When the movie was, over there were discussions among the audiences on its ambiguous last scene - Is it real or imaginary? The sad thing is, that doesn't matter to poor Gu-nam anymore. He really should not have crossed the Yellow Sea.
Footnote by Ebert: "The Yellow Sea" is streaming on Vudu or Amazon Instant Video for $3.99. Having seen "The Chaser," I strongly agree with Seongyong Cho that it's a great thriller. It's playing on Netflix Instant.