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DID YOU READ

“The Yellow Sea,” reviewed

“The Yellow Sea,” reviewed (photo)

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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.

“The Yellow Sea” opens today in New York City. If you see it, let us know what you think. Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…