This review was written for the 2012 Korean Blogathon, an annual celebration of all things related to Korean cinema! Spread the word and encourage others to enjoy Korean cinema

The Yellow Sea (2010)
Director: Na Hong-jin
Writers: Na Hong-jin
Starring: Ha Jung-woo, Kim Yun-seok, Lee Chul-Min and Cho Seong-Ha

The Plot: Gu-Nam (Ha Jung-woo) lives in the Chinese city of Yanji, which is placed between North Korea and Russia. He works as a taxi driver and has accumulated a great deal of debt due to his love for gambling. This gambling seems to come from a rather self-destructive streak within his life. His wife, who was supposed to be leaving in order to help the family, left for South Korea several months back, but no one has heard from her since. Their child currently lives with Gu-Nam’s mother, while he attempts to clean up his act and make a better life for the family. This gambling debt that looms over his head, however, makes such a goal impossible. When the gangsters finally come to collect from Gu-Nam, they find that he is unable to acquire the money that they want. So, they offer him a chance at survival. He is ordered to leave for South Korea and kill a business man, and bring back the dead man’s finger. When he does this, all debts are forgiven and his mother and son may live in peace. If he screws up, though, he and his family are dead. When Gu-Nam arrives in South Korea, he finds that the process of killing another human isn’t as easy as it seems. He begins planning elaborate plots, while also searching for his missing wife. Eventually, on the very last night, Gu-Nam goes in for the kill: but someone else beats him to the punch. Gu-Nam still manages to grab the dead man’s finger, but he is caught on camera and now everyone in South Korea knows what he looks like. With the law out for him and having no way back to China, Gu-Nam must evade the police and find another ship that will smuggle him back. However, with this new attention focused on Gu-Nam, his employers also want to see him wiped out. That means Gu-Nam is being hunted by everyone, and he’ll have to rely solely on his wits if he wants to survive this arduous battle.

The Review
The Yellow Sea marks the triumphant return of Na Hong-jin, the writer/director who brought us 2008’s The Chaser, which was a film that brought a great deal of attention to South Korean cinema. Over the past year or so, The Yellow Sea has developed a mountain of great press as each marketplace has debuted the film. It seems that North American and European critic circles have been eating the hype up with a spoon, but for my own personal tastes this sometimes spells trouble. Not that I have a completely anti-establishment mentality when it comes to film, but normally this sort of hype gets inside of my head and can easily change my viewing of a movie. With that in mind, I went into The Yellow Sea with a certain amount of hesitation. However, aside from it being a bit on the lengthy side (this is a South Korean film, and they are well known for even making their comedies two hours in length), The Yellow Sea more than exceeds my expectations. A dramatically strong piece of cinema that toys with genre conventions, but inevitably delivers a showcase for the director to bring out his very strongest attributes. This is Na Hong-jin’s coming-out party. Although he isn’t as well known as Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, or Kim Ji-woon, you won’t be able to say that for very long.

First of all, the movie is beautifully shot, but this comes as no great surprise since the director’s previous work has shown a tremendous knack for visual flourishes as well. However, with this latest project it seems as if the director has become a more patient storyteller. Although this is a movie that is every bit as steeped within the world of genre-cinema as The Chaser, the pacing is more relaxed and the story is developed in a much more confident manner. With The Chaser, Na Hong-jin showed both his ability to handle dramatic tension in a precise manner as well his penchant for dishing out mortal violence, and with The Yellow Sea this director manages to effectively do both things yet again. Splitting his movie apart into multiple sections that are all tonally different, but uniformly tied together, the movie effectively becomes an epic journey in one man’s life. As this character, Gu-Nam, is forced into these outrageous situations, the plot becomes more and more intense with each missed goal. Finally the movie draws close to its climax, and everything inevitably hits the fan.

Taking on a “blockbuster” feel, the final half hour of The Yellow Sea becomes slightly reminiscent of a rather disturbed Hollywood production. The tension escalates to such a high level that the audience becomes enveloped in this cat and mouse chase that unfurls. Yet, despite the odd intricacies of this film’s plot, there develops a great number of action stunts and daring setpieces. A sequence that show an 18-wheeler flip over and crash into a dozen cars is only the start of one massive chase sequence that sees more collateral damage than I think I have ever seen in any South Korean film previous to this. Despite the early tones that make this seem like a very personal journey that will at most feature a tiny bit of bloodshed, the movie develops into something much larger than that. Essentially, it is as if all of South Korea is thrown into chaos and bloodshed due to this one man and his lost wife.

One thing that some will no doubt expect from the film, due to the short bursts of it seen in The Chaser, is the violence. The Yellow Sea, however, enters into a new stratosphere in terms of onscreen bloodshed. Unfortunately, a great deal of the violence comes in the form of CGI blood, but the mix and the variety between CG and practical FX generally keeps things working. As with all aspects of the movie, things start off rather slow. However, by the third act the movie turns into a complete bloodbath. Featuring very little gun use, the wars that are waged in this movie feature knives, axes, and machetes, and because of this the violence is much more brutal than what you will find in a classic John Woo film. There are numerous action sequences, which are beautifully choreographed I might add, and revolve around the dispensing of extreme amounts of violence. All of these sequences seem to pit one man against a number of enemies, and what follows is a massive bloodbath. After a certain point in the movie, it seems as if every character is completely drenched in blood. The fight sequences in the movie reach a certain level of brutality that is seldom seen, and it seems all the more surprising since this title obviously featured a fairly large budget.

The Conclusion
I have yapped on and on about the style and the violence, but I haven’t really stressed the very direct themes of love, revenge, and our inescapable placement within society. Although this is certainly a movie with great aesthetic excesses, audience are able to deduce a great deal of meaning within the film as well. After all of the style and violence that precedes it, the conclusion to the film will leave audiences emotionally drained. Easily one of the best South Korean films I have seen in a while. I give it a very high four out of five. Track this one down as soon as possible!