Gu-nam is a cab driver who leads a pitiful life in Yanji City in Yanbian prefecture, a region between North Korea, China and Russia, where about 800,000 Korean-Chinese known as Joseonjok reside. His wife went to Korea to earn some money six months ago, but he hasn’t heard from her since. He plays mah-jong to make some extra cash, but his life only becomes more complicated and pathetic. One day he meets a hitman named Myun-ga and receives a proposal to turn his life around by repaying his debt, and reuniting with his wife. All for a price of one hit. But everything will go wrong.
CANBERRA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL:The first half of director Hong-jin Na’s heart-in-the-mouth Korean thriller, his second feature after The Chaser, plays like a classic slice of crime cinema that has 'cult hit’ stamped all over.
A bravura piece about a man forced to undertake a hit job to wipe out his gambling debts, The Yellow Sea announces itself as riveting long before it reaches the first of several of pulse-racing action set pieces just before the half way mark.
Too bad then that in its second half the plotting and action becomes more and more outlandish, with a blood-drenched mountain of gangland corpses piling up faster than a multiple train wreck. Hong-jin Na gets so carried away with his own virtuosity – the editing in particular is breathtaking – that he forgets about making the audience care.
Opening titles fill in the background needed to make sense of the tale, namely the position of a group of disadvantaged Koreans known as the Joseonjok, who come from the region where North Korea intersects with China and Russia. As the film opens, the film’s Joseonjok anti-hero, Kim Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo), is living in a hovel in the Chinese city of Yanji, near the North Korean border, waiting for his wife to come up from down south with their young daughter.
In a grimy Mahjong gambling den he manages to racks up an enormous debt in a single game and is soon approached by a shady local criminal, Myun (Kim Yun-seok), who almost gleefully proffers him the chance to pay off the debt by heading to South Korea to kill a man.
With no other financial options available, not to mention his desperation to find what’s happened to his incommunicado wife, Kim takes the contract. This entails being smuggled into South Korea aboard a boat, carrying out the hit at a given address, and returning within a set number of days with the victim’s thumb as proof of mission accomplished.
In Seoul he sets about finding his wife and staking out the city building where he’s to carry out the deed. From here onwards it’s best not to give away much plot other than to say he eventually finds himself on the run – from both the cops and a slick South Korean mafia boss – for a crime he hasn’t actually committed.
With its series of seedy and squalid locations, The Yellow Sea benefits from a vivid sense of place, its mixture of grimy realism with stylised and increasingly gore-soaked action (no guns, only machetes) is a memorable one, so it’s a pity the director seems to be unfamiliar with the concept of 'more equals less".
Ha Jung-woo manages to be both abject and magnetic, his desperate protagonist invariably escaping from scores of pursuers in the unlikeliest of circumstances. For a while the editing is so virtuosic that it’s easy to be caught up in the excitement of the chase sequences without overly worrying about their glaring improbability, but increasingly the film spins off into territory that can only be intended as tongue-in-cheek. Well, you hope it is, because otherwise the film looks silly. Either way, the tension dissipates.
At an intense 140 minutes, the film is exhausting to watch, not helped by being at least a half hour too long. For all that, I’d watch out for Hong Jin-Na’s name from now on. This is a manifestly talented director. Maybe his judgment will improve on his next features.