The Yellow Sea (Hwanghae) (2010)
(18) Running time: 147 minutes
Official Website: www.theyellowsea.co.uk
Director: Na Hong-jin
Writer: Na Hong-jin
Starring: Ha Jung-woo, Kim Yun-seok, Cho Seang-Ha
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
The trio of director Hong-jin Na and actors Jung-woo Ha and Yun-seok Kim return after the critical success of The Chaser. If you have seen The Chaser then you will have a pretty good idea of the sort of film you are going to get with The Yellow Sea, gritty, realistic and edge of your seat stuff. However, somehow the trio have bettered that film, and The Yellow Sea arrives as THE Korean film to beat this year. At nearly two and a half hours long, it is no easy watch, both in terms of the violence on screen, and the plot twists, but those who enjoy very serious and extremely violent thrillers will absolutely love this film. Make no mistake, this is NOT an easy watch, far from it, and this was one of the few films I have seen that actually made me wince in places. You will need to be of a very strong stomach to get through this savage film, but the rewards are far greater than the endurance, and I would honestly put this film up there with other Korean classics like Oldboy, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance and A Bittersweet Life.
For all the complications in the story with double crossings and twists, the basic plot is quite simple to follow. Gu-Nam (Jung-woo Ha) is a taxi driver living in a sort of no-man’s land between China, North Korea and Russia, and his wife has left to go and work in South Korea and has left behind a huge visa debt. Gu-Nam is left to pay off the debt, something which he cannot possibly afford, and so he spends what little cash he earns on gambling. However, he is not a good gambler and continues to lose his money. After a violent outburst in a gambling den run by the brutal gangster Myun-Ga (Yun-seok Kim), Gu-Nam is noticed, and Myun-Ga (or Mr Myun to his crew) offers him the chance to turn his life around. A hit has been put out on a wealthy man in South Korea, and Myun-Ga gives Gu-Nam the chance to earn the money he so desperately needs. He orders him to carry out the hit, and as an added bonus while he is there, he can search for his missing wife. Added into the mix of three main characters comes Mr Kim (Seang-Ha Cho) a local crime boss in South Korea who’s employees cross paths with Gu-nam. The stage is now set for a showdown of epic and violent proportions!
The Yellow Sea is not only an intelligent crime thriller, but it also pin points the struggles of some South Korean people who were forced from their homes during World War 2 to avoid brutal and violent oppression from the Japanese. These Korean’ now live on the borders of Russia, South Korea and China and are known as Joseonjok’s, and travelling into South Korea can be very dangerous for them. Knowing this, Gu-Nam tries to keep his head down to avoid any trouble, and he has just over a week to plan and execute his murder. We see Gu-Nam work out exactly what he is going to do in one of four sections of this brilliant and stunning film. Director Hong-jin Na cleverly breaks up his film into four major parts: The Cab Driver, The Killer, Joseonjok and The Yellow Sea, and each segment becomes more violent and more frightening as the film goes on.
The first part, The Cab Driver, explains Gu-Nam’s situation as we get to know him, his character, background and purpose. The Killer show’s Gu-Nam preparing to murder the wealthy businessman with precision and thought. It is quite frightening to see the length’s he will go to in order to plan the perfect kill. Also in this part we see him desperately searching for his wife, a search that provides some touching moments amongst the dark and disturbing story. Joseonjok is where things heat up, as the murder goes wrong and gangsters from both South Korea and his home town turn on him, and the final part, The Yellow Sea, is a sort of redemption.
The Yellow Sea is a relentless assault on the senses as each segment get’s more and more violent and menacing. The early stages of the film expertly build up the characters, and once we get to the end of ‘The Killer’ segment the knives come out, and they stay out! A superb build up and character focus soon lead way to a relentless chase as both Mr Kim and Myun-Ga hunt Gu-Nam, and this leads to incredibly violent confrontations. To say too much about the plot now would spoil things, but let me just say this: I have never witnessed so many knife fights, stabbings, axes and meat cleaver’s in all my life. Once The Yellow Sea heads down its violent path, it doesn’t let up and you will be treated to some truly horrific and savage scenes of brutal violence. I have seen many violent films in my time, but none quite as vicious as this. The gangsters usually attack with knives and meat cleavers, and Myun-Ga is especially fond of his axe and club. Director Hong-jin Na expertly creates scenes of breathtaking violence which is far too real to actually be enjoyed, scenes here will honestly make you look away, or physically feel the pain as an axe is plunged into an arm, a kitchen knife slices off fingers, or multiple stabbings and slashings allow you to pretty much feel it. This is masterful violent filmmaking, and it is doubtful you will see anything quite this brutal or realistic all year!
The Yellow Sea takes you to the edge and well and truly over it. However, Hong-jin Na never gets caught up so much in his violence as to lose track of his story. Even amongst all the fighting, he manages to deliver one of the most amazing chase scenes you will ever see as Gu-Nam gets chased by the police on foot. This is masterful, perfect filmmaking; this is gritty, violent, thrilling and absolutely mesmerizing. This is classic Korean cinema in absolutely every sense of the word. The Yellow Sea is stunning, inspiring and utterly brilliant from beginning to end, do not miss it!