If you were left confused after watching “Inception” despite constant reminders and explanations in the story, I bet you will be also confused, or more confused, after watching Na Hong-jin’s ambitious noir thriller “The Yellow Sea”. It does not give a damn about explaining what’s going on while the story is convoluted with twists and troubles and mayhems. There are many gaps and coincidences, and I bet many of you will wonder about why or how all these things in the movie happen when the end credit begins. Even I needed some time to sort things out and sought some explanations for writing this review.
But it was not a boring experience. The movie has enough power to carry such a big mess like this to its finale, and I admire that. Despite its long running time(156min), the movie tightly grips us during most of its running time. Even while distantly observing how things get messed up for almost everyone in the movie in the bloody ways that you can expect from those violent South Korean movies, I attentively looked at the chaos because, when we are disoriented as much as the characters, there are always feelings and moods under the control until everything goes out of control and spirals down to the nihilistic collapse of the final act. It eventually leads us into the finale rather anti-climatic compared to all those things happenings in the story, but, I think it fits into what the movie wants to show us – the world of vast grimness where everyone hopelessly struggles for his survival. In this world, even the most unstoppable guy is getting exhausted no matter how strong and determined he is.
The movie opens in the place you might not have heard about before if you are not from South Korea. Goo-nam(Ha Jeong-woo) is a Chaoxianzu(Chinese of Korean descent) taxi driver living in Yenji, the capital city of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Mainly during the Japanese Occupation in the early 20th Century, lots of Koreans immigrated to this area, and they stayed even after the end of World War II. They still can speak Korean although the assimilation is being continued. Some of them cross the Yellow sea, the sea between China and the Korean peninsula, to earn money in South Korea, legally or illegally.
Goo-nam’s wife went to South Korea for that purpose. She promised that she would send money to him, but there has been no money sent by her, let alone any news from her. Goo-nam misses her while tortured by the possibility of her infidelity in his dream, but that is not his only problem. He has lots of debts. He tries to solve his problem with gambling, but that makes his situation worse and worse. Even the debt collector sardonically points out to him that selling his organs will not solve his problem. In addition, he is fired from his job with some severance payment, most of which instantly goes to the debt collector’s pocket. And he starts gambling again with what is left with him.
One day, Goo-nam is noticed by a local Korean mob boss/dog seller Mr. Myeon(Kim Yoon-seok). Myeon has an offer Goo-nam cannot refuse: if he goes to Seoul and kills somebody, his debt problem will be solved. Under the instructions from Myeon, he illegally entered South Korea with other Korean Chinese, and we briefly see their rough journey across the sea. It reminds me that not only USA has the problem with desperate immigrants who want a better life.
He arrives at some coastal area without much problem. He goes into Seoul while not being noticed by the law enforcement. He stays in a squalid motel room. He checks out the place where his target lives. He never killed a man before, but he is clever enough to devise a good plan while spying on the daily pattern of the target during the night, although I don’t think he has the ability to execute it. He also goes around Seoul for getting any clues about the whereabouts of his wife. The deadline is coming, but he still cannot find her. The time is short, and he must do the job as demanded.
The story is divided into four titled acts, and I described to you the synopsis of the first chapter and most of the second chapter. After that, as the trailer below my review suggests to you, the things keep happening not as the main characters intend or expect after the central incident happens, like any twisted plots of film noirs. After patiently establishing the situation and atmosphere in the first chapter, the director Na Hong-jin meticulously builds the tension surrounding the murder plan. One crucial scene is a very good example of Hitchcockian suspense. At the corner of a cold, quiet night alley, Goo-nam anxiously waits for his target to arrive at the building. And then, something unexpected happens in front of his eyes. He must decide whether to act right now or never.
That is when all hells start to break loose on poor Goo-nam. He is now chased by both the police and the mobs for what he does not commits. Not only he has to run fast on the alleys and streets of Seoul, but also he has to run around South Korea. He desperately tries to find a way out of this bad situation - and also tries to know who is behind his plight. However, he is no more than a timid pawn in this merciless world; it doles him out unlucky coincidences and lucky ones, equally and randomly.
At least, the Bad guys who are after him are more or less uninformed than him. Later, it turns out a mob boss in Seoul, Tae-won(Cho Seong-ha), is involved with the incident. After seeing that the incident draws the attention of the police and the media far more than he has ever thought, he becomes panic. He attempts to solve his problem even before knowing what’s exactly going on. This is a very unwise move, especially when Myeon comes to South Korea after deciding to take care of the problem of him and Tae-won. Both want Goo-nam dead, but…
You may expect that relentless urgency from the director/writer who made his debut with a grippingly savage thriller “The Chaser”, my best Korean movie of 2008, but “The Yellow Sea” is a different animal. In contrast to “The Chaser”, the director Na Hong-jin puts his story in more leisurely pace. The timeline of the former is around two days, but, in case of the latter, it is more than two weeks, at least. In the bigger space, the latter has more darkness and pessimism than the former with very few characters we can care about. There is little to make us feel sorry for these dirty guys, and the story collapses on itself along with the characters in the final act.
Despite grim, stark hypereality of the crime world full of unlikable characters fighting for self-preservation, the movie crackles with energy and verisimilitude in the darkness. Although the characterization, especially in case of Myeon, is mostly broad, they come to life by the good performances from the cast. The movie was shot on the several locations including Yenji, and their harsh world is shown with painstaking details in the cold weather. Rarely do we see the warmth on its gray, gritty surface; it may will make you want a big cup of hot coffee when you walk out of the theater.
Na Hong-jin skillfully plays with our expectations throughout the running time while moving his plot according to his plan. The plot is loose, but it is supported by the high tension level and punctuated by several excellent foot chase and car chase scenes. With the big budget he got thank to the previous success, he makes very impressive actions sequences. The camera is a little too shaky and the editing is a little too busy, and there is some awkwardness due to hectic post-production, but Na Hong-jin has a very good sense of space and time to make them felt considerably real. Like “The Chaser”, the characters are really running or struggling in the movie, and, my god, I am sure that lots of real vehicles really go through these fist-clenching moments without much help from CGI.
There are lots of killings during the doomed, destructive fourth act. The violent moments in the movie are delivered in drier, more economical way than we expected although we still see considerable amount of blood on the screen. Kim Yoon-Seok, who chased after Ha Jeong-woo’s character in “The Chaser”, is again paired with him, but, this time, he is more evil and fearsome one of the pair. His main weapon is a small ax, but don’t underestimate what he can do with it along with knifes and those big animal bones(leftovers from a big dinner with his gangs, by the way).
I think the movie bitterly laughs about how meaningless and pointless these violent acts turn out to be in the end, but it has a little heart, surrounded by barren nihilism, as the pivot we can hold on. Ha Jeong-woo, who was a chilling psychopath serial killer using chisel and hammer to kill women in “The Chaser”, gives a haunting, sympathetic lead performance as a flawed noir hero writhing in the chaos beyond his control. I have no idea about how he did that, but he immerses himself into his character very convincingly amidst these frantic chase scenes filled with lots of dangers. He might have really survived through them, perhaps.
This is a darkly riveting work in spite of its unpleasant subject. It is mostly unkind to its characters(and us), but I think it secretly feels sorry for its hero’s fate while firmly holding its hard-boiled heartlessness even at the end. The movie is not perfect, and there are several flaws in the story including a rather shallow view on the female characters who mostly remains on the fringe, but I have to admit that the movie impressively drips with undeniable vigor and following immense exhaustion – that’s something to watch.
Truffaut once said that he wanted a film expressing either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. “The Yellow Sea” is not a great movie and less satisfying than “The Chaser”, but, considering all those rumors about its troublesome production that exhausted the actors and crews under the control of its ambitious director for a long time, I think Truffaut would have liked to watch it. It does have what he wanted.