Director Na Hong-jin’s “The Chaser” shattered several box-office records in Korea and even won two major film awards in the 2008 Grand Bell Awards (best director and best film). Now, almost four years after its release, Na Hong-jin’s follow up film finally gets released in the U.S. by Fox. “The Yellow Sea” was originally released in 2010 and received some coverage in the Cannes film festival. Those who have seen Na’s first movie would remember “The Chaser” as a tightly-wound thriller that channels a lot of emotion and was a film based on a true story. “The Yellow Sea” may not be based on a true event, but rather based on the Joseonjoks in a region between China, Russia and Korea.
There has been some confusion as to what is the director’s cut of this movie since the film originally debuted as a 156 minute movie in Korea while the U.S. Dvd being released by Fox is only 140 minutes long. I have done my research and the shorter, tighter version is indeed Na’s director’s cut. This review is based on this 140 minute version.
In the Yanbian province of China, Gu-Nam (Ha Jung-Woo), an ethnic Korean or a Joseonjok, is a disadvantaged cab driver whose evenings are mostly consists of hanging around gambling halls and drinking. He is also neck-deep in debt as he had taken a loan from gambling sharks in order for his wife to be able to legally migrate into Korea. To make matters worst, he has not heard from her and is tormented by nightmares of her extra-marital affair while he is hounded by his debt collectors. Gu-Nam sees a way out as a local gangster named Myun Jung-Hak (Kim Yeon-Seok) offers him a deal; all he has to do is to allow himself to be smuggled into Korea to kill a businessman and all his debts will be settled. Gu-Nam agrees and upon his arrival, he scopes out his target while at the same time, he searches for his wife. When the time does come to finish his mission, a string of coincidences and unexpected events occur that leaves him desperately looking for a way out. Now, Gu-Nam is being pursued by the Myun‘s gang, the South Korean Mob and the police. What Gu-Nam discovers is something that would shock his being to its core.
“The Yellow Sea” is one tight, exciting and intense thriller. It is marvelously visceral, rightfully brutal with a simple set up and yet, the film’s structure and the manner it unfolds becomes such a cinematic treat. Na’s director’s cut have cut off the ‘fillers’, changed some scenes and made the movie much more intense and exciting than the theatrical extended cut. The violence have been kept intact and the film is as sexual as the extended cut. What Na did well, was make for a much more cinematic experience with added flair and impact than what was originally released (the voiceover and the photo of a child in the beginning is one of the director‘s cut best changes). The messages in its narrative had been preserved and the shorter version only made for a much more exciting watch.
As with most Korean movies, the film spends some time developing its main character. There is an almost methodical approach with the way Na brought in the details of Gu-Nam’s character. It was wise to really move the film in a way that truly justified the cause of his actions, it makes for a character that you can easily feel sympathy for. He is a man at the end of his rope, with a child and only his mother helping him raise her. It was a build-up which was effective that allowed a connection to the Joseonjok situation in Korea and China. This build up makes for a more satisfying experience as soon as the film began to take off, the viewer becomes set to root for his character while at the same time, begins to question the motivations behind each main character as represented by Myun and Kim Tae-Won (Seong -Ha Cho). The direction knew how to play on the screenplay’s best strengths, it wasn’t that twists and turns were original or stunning, but rather the way it executes the screenplay is set on careful manipulation that keeps one guessing. With its tight editing, good cinematography, interesting characters and careful directorial manipulations, the screenplay would have no problems engaging its viewer.
The film is filled with intense chases, brutal fights and fast-paced action to drive its momentum. The set ups are certainly credible as you see Gu-Nam stumble across Korea in desperation. The film had some pretty wicked fights which were executed with visceral realism. Axes, knives and baseball bats are the weapons of choice, but even a huge Boar bone can fit the bill. The combatants were no fighters with a lot of finesse and style, but rather you could see that they are real people; they are afraid and they are willing to do whatever it takes to live through the struggle. One could easily feel the emotions behind each encounter, and it made the brutality appear necessary.
Many may say that Myun is a genre character and he may seem a tad cartoonish with his total bad-assery. Myun played by Kim Yeon-Seok was tough, mean, single-minded and totally relentless. Kim nearly stole the show as he closes in on his objective. Much of the movie is seen through the eyes of Gu-Nam and Ha Jung-Woo certainly delivers as someone who is certainly at the end of his rope. I could certainly feel his desperation and his resolve to redeem himself. The Kim Tae-Won character (played well by Cho) is by no means a special supporting role and he may be bordering on cliché, but he was a necessary one to achieve the film’s narrative force. The screenplay may not be perfect since it left one device barely developed, but they were such a tiny flaw to even nit-pick.
Director Na Hong-jin truly out did himself with his second film. I liked “The Chaser” a great deal, and I truly cannot say just which of his films is better. It is amazing how a simple story if handled by an unskilled director would no doubt only be bordering on ‘fair’, while in Na Hong-jin’s hands, a premise such as this could be this incredible. It is to the director’s credit that a screenplay that works around familiar devices could become such a compelling story because of the manner it is told. Hong-jin did a fine job because of his tight editing, timing and good old fashioned know-how to execute a scene. “The Yellow Sea” is poignant, intense, powerful, filled with surprises and twists that it thrilled and truly kept me at the edge of my seat up to its final scene.
Highly Recommended! [4 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
Such a shame that Fox chose not to release this on Blu-ray in the U.S..
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