With “The Yellow Sea”, the acclaimed Korean writer-director Na Hong-jin triumphantly returns to the same bleak and violent thriller terrain occupied by his previous outing, 2008’s box office smash “The Chaser”. With a walloping running time of two-hours, twenty-minutes (edited down, mainly with trims, from a Korean version running sixteen minutes longer), and oodles of Hollywood cash now at his disposal courtesy of 20th Century Fox -- whose logo appears alongside the million other production credits here that always seem to preface Asian-made films these days – one might expect Na’s unrelenting action thriller to eventually outstay its welcome, especially as the director seems intent on augmenting his take on the classic chase movie formula (a genre essentially perfected by Alfred Hitchcock back in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s) with as many labyrinthine plot twists and shady warring gangsters with hidden motives as he possibly can. But the complexities of the plot and the preponderance of graphically violent bouts of gangland slaughter that periodically pepper this stunning work throughout, are kept from drifting into a deadening blur of senseless noise by an emotional and very real social drama that always keeps the crazy carnage set-pieces anchored to human concerns, ultimately succeeding in making this a harrowing nightmare journey into a criminal underworld inhabited by some of the world’s most dispossessed, exploited and forgotten non-citizens.
The film initially sets up shop amid the grim urban squalor and washed-out hopelessness of Yanji City, which is, let’s just say, not exactly a top tourist hotspot; the specific geography of the region – a forgotten no man’s land-slice of Northeastern China, wedged between the borders of North Korea, China and Russia, called the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture (even the name is awkward and ugly) -- appears to determine the general tone of neglect and defeat that pervades its inhabitants -- mostly a poverty-stricken ethnic underclass of Korean-Chinese, pejoratively termed ‘Joseonjok’ by both Chinese and Korean alike. This is a place claimed by no-one; a border region of the forgotten, the unwanted and the racially despised.
One such despised ‘Joseonjok’, living (or rather existing) here, is hard-up taxi driver Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo). Out of luck and out of money after blowing all his savings in the act of getting his wife to the promised land of Seoul in South Korea (where she was supposed to earn more money to send back home in support of the couple’s daughter), Gu-nam fritters away what little cash remains in the bleak backstreet gambling dens of Yanji City (about the only thriving business that seems to exist on its near-derelict streets) and then goes back to his damp, shambolic and unkempt apartment to dream about his vanished wife on a filthy mattress, surrounded by the detritus of their broken marriage: his wife who appears to have gone AWOL; who hasn’t been sending back any of the promised money from her day job in Seoul City; and whose whereabouts are currently unknown.
Now up to his neck in debt to a local mobster called Myun-ga (a menacing Kim Yun-seok), who’s a dealer in fighting dogs down at the dock market, and, unfortunately for Gu-nam, also a loan-shark, hit man and general threatening nut job concealing his all-consuming psychopathy behind scruffy hair, an avuncular persona and dark shades -- the taxi driver is in no position to resist when the gangster makes Gu-nam the classic ‘offer he can’t refuse’: which is to clear his debt by doing a little job for Myun-ga that involves secretly travelling to Seoul and murdering someone as part of a contract killing -- making sure to bring back the victim’s severed thumb afterwards as proof the job’s been done. Soon, Gu-nam finds himself packed alongside illegal immigrants into the darkened bowels of a Chinese fishing boat, then bundled with them in the middle of the night into a life raft and set adrift on the titular Yellow Sea between mainland China and the Korean peninsula.
From here, armed with only the memory of the name and address of the man he has been given ten days to successfully murder (and with the knowledge that the lives of his own mother and daughter are at stake as well if he doesn’t make good on the contract), Gu-nam sets about taking a crash course in contract killing, instructing himself in the movements and habits of his prey while staking out the potential victim’s luxury multi-storey flat on freezing street corners, in winter nights in the city; finding his task made all the more difficult by the fact that the guy scheduled for death seems quite a decent chap, who at one point even gives Gu-nam money after mistaking him for a homeless Joseonjok seeking warm shelter when he catches the reluctant hitman lurking around the stairwell of his apartment building.
The first fifty-minutes of this two-hour plus opus are played low-key, with Gu-nam’s plight delineated with steady remorselessness by cinematographer Lee Sung-je in his downbeat palette of dirty greys and faded browns. Alone, broken and abused by the very coldness of the inhumanity that surrounds him, the wifeless taxi driver is easy prey for the machinations of a (literally) dog-eat-dog world of casually callous hitmen and devious businessmen-cum-crime lords; and once he exits his dilapidated home city for the neon riot that is Seoul city his status, if anything, diminishes further, as the ethnic group to which he belongs seem even more looked down upon and ignored here than back ‘home’. Gu-nam methodically goes about his task of setting up the hit (no luxury of guns here – the kill is to be a brutal close-quarters stabbing in a stairwell) with the quiet desperation of a condemned man while also trying to investigate the strange disappearance of his wife; but, of course, when the time comes the hit goes catastrophically wrong, since it turns out that someone else has also had the same idea and done-in the very target Gu-nam had been assigned to take out before he even gets the chance. In fact, the hapless amateur hitman finds the actual killer in the middle of the act on the stairs of his victim’s apartment, dripping with his arterial blood as he administers the concluding stab to the neck!
From here on Na Hong-jin delivers on a raw, blood-red menu made up of a frenzied onslaught of unrelenting violence and kaleidoscopic action, coming in the midst of the screenplay’s giddying whirl of unravelling plot threads, which also open up the action to take in a host of other interested players. Somehow, Gu-nam’s hunted dog’s survival instincts kick into play, and he manages to flee the scene of the crime pursued by a screaming horde of armed policemen -- who now think he’s the killer -- through the streets of downtown Seoul, as multiple vehicular pile-ups occur on all sides like a choreographed high-impact clockwork ballet. The spectacle soon turns into grand carnage on an operatic scale, with a lost and bedraggled ‘nobody’ protagonist in the middle of it all.
Pretty soon, not just the jumpy foot police are after him (who all seem to be either kids who have never fired a gun before, or else aging, near-retirement–age veterans), who spend more time shooting each other and running round in hysterical circles than actually achieving anything (Na still has time for occasional slapstick in the midst of his grim catalogue of gory horrors), but also the army of gangster minions belonging to the director of a transport company called Kim Tae-won (Cho Seong-ha), who seems also to be some sort of suit-and-tie crime boss who runs all the rackets on the streets of Seoul from his cell phone in-between his official business meetings, and who also has some relation to the murdered man. When Myun-ga also arrives in Seoul, looking to put his own men on the job of hunting down Gu-nam, since the taxi driver is now a loose thread who was always meant to be disposed of in order to prevent him ever linking Myun-ga to the hit, a full-scale bout of old-school mob warfare is sparked off. Basically, everybody in the film from now on wants to kill everybody else, for a variety of convoluted reasons which are gradually revealed as the complicated plot progresses – and in turn, they all want to kill Gu-nam. There’s just one thing the murderous participants in this bloody charade hadn’t reckoned on … now fully aware that he was always but a pawn in a game that was designed for him to lose, Gu-nam wants revenge … He’s out to kill them all!
Somehow, Na Hong-jin successfully manages to maintain a juggling act of interests here which keeps the taut suspense flowing as we follow Gu-nam cross country and into the mountains, and then into any number of make-do shelters, while he attempts to stay alive and get back home to his family with virtually the whole city on his case, at the same time as detailing a wider conspiracy and the competing interests of his pursuers, leading to multiple plot twists and the intrigue that comes of such fragile alliances between ruthless and untrustworthy mobsters. Meanwhile, there’s the social drama playing all the while in the background and contained in Gu-nam’s continuing attempts to find his missing wife, and what it reveals about the attitude to Joseonjoks and their often bleak fate on the streets of South Korea. The glue that binds all these disparate genre threads together is, of course, the incredible action sequences and set-pieces that permeate the whole drama. The fight sequences are hard, gruelling, tough and clammy; none of our mobster antagonists ever bother with guns, but instead favour a lethal assembly of fish knives and axes, and set about fighting to the death at close-quarters with an unhealthy relish, leading to prolonged bouts of desperate struggle involving messy throat slashings, multiple stabbings and frequent chopping axes to the face. At one point Gu-nam is confronted with an army of axe waving killers baying for his blood and sprinting after him through the narrow corridors of a cargo ship! Myun-ga turns out to be the scariest of the bunch here -- an unstoppable killing machine without conscience, able to take out a basement-full of suited mobsters single-handedly and showing complete disinterest in the certain fatality of his own wounds … and even butchering several villains by smashing in their skulls with a hunk of bone he’s been gnawing on in his hideout at one juncture.
Meanwhile the gruesome violence is leavened with amazing stunts and car chases, and some of the most over-the-top multiple smash-ups in action cinema, culminating with a truly mad articulated lorry flip. “The Yellow Sea” is quite possibly the ultimate demonstration of Korean action cinema at its finest, displaying an almost alchemical combination of human drama, compelling performances (the trinity of Kim Yun-seok, Cho Seong-ha and Ha Jung-woo are all on top form here) and full-on bloody violence -- combined with the most mind-blowing action-stunts possible (although time constraints apparently meant that some of the planned sequences had to be abandoned, so goodness knows what Na Hong-jin might have in store for us in his future projects). The inflated running time soon flies by, with if anything, not enough time spent on developing some of the more sombre elements of the story, particularly with regard to Gu-nam’s wife and what she’s been up to in Seoul. Nevertheless, few western films come close to capturing the deranged atmosphere of an escalating bloody nightmare which pervades this film, punctuated by periods of curious calm. And few western actions films would even contemplate seeing the logic of a story like this through to its inevitable, tragi-poetic ending, as Na does here. Fox have spent their money well, “The Yellow Sea” is destined for modern masterpiece status.
Bounty Films provide the film with an excellent HD transfer for its UK Blu-ray outing, which comes with three trailers and an in-depth ‘making of’ documentary running for one-hour and fifteen-minutes, which features members of the cast talking about their characters and crew members such as cinematographer Lee Sung-je discussing the visual style of the film and the various shooting techniques that were required in order to do full justice to the frenetic night-time chase sequences, which give the second half of the film so much of its garish flavour. In addition, Yoo Sang-seob talks in detail about the fight choreography and stunt work employed in the film. All this material comes in the form of conversations between the participants and director Na Hong-jin, and is fleshed out with copious quantities of behind the scenes footage shot on set and giving a fascinating overview of the making of this extraordinary piece of cinema. Highly recommended.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing But the Night!