The Yellow Sea (2010)

22 Mar

Such was the success of South Korean director Na Hong-jin’s debut, “The Chaser,” that Hollywood took notice and Fox International signed on to bankroll his next project. Despite the cash injection, Na doesn’t deviate too far from what made “The Chaser” such a hit with his follow-up picture, “The Yellow Sea.”

Sticking to the gloomy thriller genre, Na even puts faith in “The Chaser’s” two leads, casting Ha Jung-woo and Kim Yun-seok as chief protagonist Gu-nam and gangster Myun-ga respectively; and Na is richly rewarded for putting faith in the tried and tested.

Gu-nam, a Joseonjok (ethnic Korean) living in Yanbian prefecture in China, has reached his lowest ebb. His wife has moved to South Korea to work, but her visa costs and his mah-jong gambling habit have saddled him with debts. Living a dismal existence, he becomes increasingly frustrated and desperate until a chance encounter with local mob boss Myun-ga, a great big bear of a man, offers him a way out.

Charged with carrying out a hit in Seoul and with nothing to lose, Gu-nam is smuggled across the eponymous Yellow Sea in horrendous conditions. It’s an ominously grim journey as Gu-nam effectively sails toward an increasingly uncertain fate.

Given 10 days to do the job, Gu-nam divides his time between meticulously scoping out his target and searching the neon-soaked backstreets of Seoul and beyond for his absent wife. With the tension mounting, Gu-nam’s world is suddenly turned upside down in dramatic and very bloody fashion.

Seemingly double-crossed, Gu-nam goes on the run, hunted and haunted by police, the mob and Myun-ga. Na very deliberately ramps up the pace as the picture is transformed into a chase movie driven by redemption and revenge; and although a flawed character, it’s difficult not to root for the seemingly indestructible Gu-nam, who withstands hatchet blows and gunshot wounds along the way.

As events spiral out of control, Na infuses his picture with moments of incredible brutality as the mobsters pick each other off in a wave of reprisals. It’s a gritty, bloody tale filled with deceit and deception, but it’s also underpinned by a very human element as Gu-nam is effectively driven to despair out of a sense of duty and love for his wife.

Much of the film’s success lies in the fine central performance of Ha, who instills tragic hero Gu-nam with internal strife, world-weariness and fragility wrapped up inside a hardy determination. Kim, too, is excellent as the gruff, rugged Myun-ga, who chews up the screen in some of the film’s bloodiest scenes.

But it’s Na’s steady hand at the tiller that ensures that “The Yellow Sea” will inevitably replicate the success of “The Chaser.” His screenplay is tight and terse — although there is perhaps one convoluted plot twist too many — and he undoubtedly has a fantastic visual eye as the picture oozes with atmosphere. Yet it’s Na’s ability to credibly deliver a genre-busting and very moody, crime-ridden, thriller-drama that makes “The Yellow Sea” such a bloody delight.

 

(originally featured at www.criticsnotebook.com on 01/09/11)

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