A version of this review originally ran as part of our coverage of Fantastic Fest 2011.
Korean director Na Hong-jin’s “The Yellow Sea,” his follow-up to his blockbuster debut “The Chaser,” starts as a spartan character study then sprawls into a massive crime conspiracy. By the end, things get a little too densely plotted; don’t be surprised if you walk out of the film still trying to sort through the exact details of who did what to whom and why. Not surprisingly, I liked the first part of “The Yellow Sea” a lot more than the second part, though both halves have their moments.
Na wrings an enormous amount of drama out of an insanely simple premise. A cab driver named Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is deep in debt, and the men he owes are getting antsy. They gave him 60,000 yuan for his wife’s visa so she could move to Korea from their pitiful home on the Chinese border, but it’s been months since she’s called or written. With nowhere else to turn, Gu-nam accepts a proposition from a mobster named Myung-ga (Kim Yun-seok) who promises to settle Gu-nam’s debt if he sneaks into Korea and murders someone for him. He has ten days to complete the hit and, perhaps, find his missing wife.
These opening scenes are spare and quiet, rich with detail and unspoken tension. The sequence that follows Gu-nam as he sneaks into Korea aboard a series of ships could be from a documentary on human trafficking. Na’s detailed work continues once Gu-nam arrives in Seoul and starts shadowing his target; meticulously learning his routines and determining the best time and method to kill his prey. His actions are small but the stakes are huge. To paraphrase Willy Wonka, the suspense is terrible and you’re just hoping it lasts.
The fateful moment arrives earlier and with a lot more complications than anticipated. The assassination doesn’t go wrong, but it doesn’t exactly go right either, and that puts Gu-nam in the sights of a lot of different groups: the cops who want to solve a murder, his victim’s underworld associates who want revenge for their friend’s death, and Myung-ga’s own gang who get drawn into an international mob war with a Korean kingpin.
When Gu-nam starts running for his life like a wild animal, the film grows equally frenzied. Bye bye quiet precision, hello orgy of violence. Bye bye carefully observed minimalist drama, hello knife fights, hatchet fights, crazy foot chases, knife fights, crazier car chases, and knife fights. Did I mention this movie has knife fights? Because it does. Apparently, no one in the Korean underworld can find a gun, but they’re all big fans of the Ginsu knife. Now I finally understand why it was important that that thing could cut through a shoe.
From there, the film become an extravagantly bloody mess in the style of other over-the-top Korean revenge thrillers like “I Saw the Devil.” “The Yellow Sea,” it must be said, does have a certain joie de vivre all its own. At one point, two characters are chasing one another on a boat. One leaps overboard to escape, and the other dutifully follows; the chase continues in the water below. A swimming chase! That’s a new one for me.
The frenzy is fine, but a little bit more clarity, at least narratively speaking, would have been nice. The film seems to provide an unambiguous answer to the core mystery that drives its second half, then immediately reverses itself with a couple epilogue scenes that confuse the issue. Of course I would never spoil anything here, but after you see the movie, leave me some feedback below and answer me these questions: just who was that banker? And why did he do what he did? And how was that woman connected to him?
When I saw the film at Fantastic Fest, no one there was quite sure. One wise colleague I spoke to who hadn’t seen the movie suggested that the perplexing finale could have been disorienting by design. And it’s definitely true that Na modulates his direction to match his protagonist’s mental state. When the crap hits the fan for Gu-nam he doesn’t know how or why either. On the other hand, characters in these final scenes exchange knowing glances that imply they understand who they are and what they’ve done, even if we do not. That’s the problem. The audience shares Gu-nam’s confusion, but not his final fleeting moments of comprehension.