Cinema Review: The Yellow Sea

What happens when there's too many children in the sea

DIR/WRI: Hong-jin Na • PRO: Sung-goo Han • DOP: Sung-je Lee • ED: Sun-min Kim • DES: Hwo-Kyoung Lee • CAST: Jung-woo Ha, Yun-seok Kim, Seong-Ha Cho

The Yellow Sea begins in Yanji, a bustling, multi-ethnic city in the Korean Autonomous Prefecture region on the China/North Korea border. Ku-Nam (Ha Jung-woo), is a down-on-his-luck Joseonjok (or Korean immigrant) and part-time cabbie who ends up deep in hock to the local mob after gambling his money away on mah-jong. With his wife missing in South Korea after leaving to find work, Ku-nam takes up a lucrative offer from mob boss Myung-ga (Kim Yoon-seok) to assassinate a gangland figure in Seoul. And so Ku-Nam boards an illegal immigrant boat to South Korea with the double mission of finding his long-lost wife and meticulously planning the contract killing. When the Seoul mob become involved in the hit, all hell breaks loose as Ku-Nam desperately tries to evade capture by a combination of the clownish local police force, his hatchet-wielding Chinese employer and the Korean gangsters whose turf he is now trespassing on.

While not exactly the most original premise, Na Hong-jin’s second film after his award-winning 2008 debut The Chaser is lifted well above the ordinary by its outlandish scenes of brutal, high-octane mayhem. Oddly, not a single bullet is fired in The Yellow Sea, these old -school hard-nuts settle their differences with whatever they find lying around,  including hatchets, iron bars and machetes – at one point the formidable and resourceful mobster Myung-ga even does a Samson, braining an assailant with a left-over thighbone! As Ku-nam gets sucked further into mortal danger, the body counts ratchets up as the action races towards an appropriately bloody finale, with the sound of blades hacking into the flesh of countless mob-goons echoing around the warehouses and alleyways of gangland Seoul.

The Yellow Sea is set in the bleak shipyards and shabby bedsits of a part of the world rarely glimpsed in Asian cinema, and Na Hong-jin takes full advantage of  the area’s natural grittiness to create a shadowy atmosphere of paranoia and violence.  Ku-nam’s search for his wife also gives the film genuine emotional resonance,  providing an extra dimension which many films of this ilk often lack. Though saddled with a hefty running time of 140 minutes, The Yellow Sea never lags thanks to its sometimes demented energy and the gleeful prevalence of near-cartoonish levels of butchery and slaughter. Fans of the likes of Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy will certainly find much to enjoy here. Overall then, The Yellow Sea is a memorably blood-soaked entry in its talented young director’s CV.

Martin Cusack

Rated 18 (see IFCO website for details)
The Yellow Sea is released on 21st October 2011


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