Director: Na Hong-jin
Screenplay: Na Hong-jin
Starring: Kim Yun-seok, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Seong-ha, Lee Chul-min
Producer: Hang Sung-goo
Country: South Korea
Running Time: 140 min
BBFC Certification: 18
I'd like to add a mild disclaimer to this review before I start. My screener for this had the most brutally huge watermark right in the middle of the screen which was rather off-putting so I've got a feeling I may have rated this film slightly lower than I would have normally. Not that I don't appreciate getting sent screeners for such quality world-cinema releases that don't always reach my neck of the woods, I just think that the lengths gone to avoid anyone wanting to pirate the film were a little extreme. Then again, this is the first cinematic release screener I've been sent so maybe it's the norm?
Anyway, I digress. The Yellow Sea is a South Korean thriller from Na Hong-jin, the director behind The Chaser, my favourite film that I caught at Cannes '08. Starring the same leads (Kim Yun-seok and Ha Jung-woo) from his previous film, The Yellow Sea tells the story of Gu-nam (Jung-woo), an ethnic Korean (or Joseonjok as they are referred to in the film), living in Yanji City, Yanbian, China. The area is troubled, being set between North Korea, China and Russia and it's residents suffer, often having to resort to criminal acts to make a living. Gu-nam is pretty down and out at the start of the film. His wife left for Seoul for work and never came back, he is deep in debt from gambling at Mah-Jong and he struggles to make ends meet as a taxi driver. As his creditors start to hit hard on him for repayment (literally), he is offered a job to clear his debts. A charismatic, yet clearly unhinged hitman Myun-ga (Yun-seok) will pay the money that he needs if he travels to Seol and kills a wealthy businessman. Seeing that he has little choice and eying up a chance to track down his wife, Gu-nam agrees, heading off to the capital to do the deed.
Of course, things don't quite go to plan and he is framed for the killing that he doesn't actually carry out, resulting in the police and the real killers turning all their attentions towards him.
The Yellow Sea is the epitome of what I generally expect from Korean cinema these days. As with pretty much all the titles that travel to Western markets, the film is impeccably well made, with striking cinematography and assured direction. However, as is also the trend of Korean films (and those from many other East-Asian countries), it suffers from a few tonal-shift problems and a tendency to go a bit over the top, becoming overblown.
The first hour is great. The focus is purely on Gu-nam, his plight back home and the lead up to the pivotal murder scene. Everything is kept relatively restrained – the story at this point is very straightforward and Jung-woo's performance is a joy to watch. He's a fairly straightforward, simple 'everyman', but has a pent up rage that is unleashed whenever people back him into a corner. You also get a sense of the hardship that the Joseonjok suffer in both China and Korea. This is key to the film, which powerfully uncovers the racism apparent in both countries. Gu-nam seems to have been picked as the scapegoat purely because of his background and he and others like him are often treated like animals. The boat journey over to Seoul in particular is horrific, as the Joseonjok and other immigrants are herded into the ship's hold with no food or water, in treacherous conditions which lead to the death of one passenger. They are then ordered to jump overboard before the ship docks. This whole aspect of the film added a lot for me. Where the core narrative is fairly standard thriller-fare, the themes of persecution and the animalistic treatment and behaviour of many of the characters gave the film some welcome depth.
As mentioned, on a technical level the film is superb too. I was particularly impressed by the editing, which despite the long running time was very punchy and drove scenes forward with a strong energy, without ever feeling 'over-edited' like most of Michael Bay's work. The film looks great too, with night scenes in particular looking suitably dark, gritty and moody.
Where the film disappointed though was in the second half. Once the police and gangsters start hunting Gu-nam down the film splits in four, shifting part of the focus away from our protagonist and towards the gang wanting revenge, Myun-ga and cohorts, and occasionally the police. It's just too much to take on, Gu-nam's strand gets watered down and the film becomes overly complex and overlong. It also shifts tonally at this point, becoming more of an action film than a thriller, with the violence and set-pieces getting increasingly more ludicrous. Gu-nam and Myun-ga seem to become superhuman – taking vicious beatings and numerous stabbings, yet still managing to escape their captors. The film piles on the violence and although it's admirably visceral, it just becomes too much and the raw, simple power of the first half is lost.
It's hard to lay into the film too much though. It is extremely well made and followers of Korean films will be used to such tonal-shifts and excessive violence. It also has enough class and substance to prevent it from feeling like totally mindless action entertainment even in it's more ridiculous scenes. Lovers of Korean thrillers, especially Hong-jin's The Chaser, will be satisfied despite it's flaws and I would definitely recommend people see it and make up their own mind.
The Yellow Sea is released theatrically in the UK on 21st October and on DVD/Blu-Ray on 20th February 2012.