Yellow Sea, The | Varied Celluloid

Yellow Sea, The

Posted by Josh Samford On March - 9 - 2012

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!

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  • Risingson
    I just recently purchased this movie on Blu-ray from Eureka Ent UK. It’s a shame the Korean Blu-ray doesn’t include Eng subs cuz it sports a really nice looking minimalist cover featuring the title in Chinese calligraphy. 🙂
  • Anonymous
    Oh, wow, very nice! Have you seen it yet? I hope my review isn’t too overly filled with hype, but it is a solid film and I think even its largest detractors have to agree with that.
  • Risingson
    Yup, I’ve seen it & I agree that it’s a solid film. It’s certainly not hyperbole to say this film is one of the best action thrillers to have come out of Korea in recent years. I enjoyed this film much more than the over hyped “Man from Nowhere” which I felt was just run of the mill despite my fondness for Won Bin.
  • Anonymous
    I’ve been eying Man From Nowhere on netflix forever, but I never stop and give it a shot. I’ve just been too busy here lately! I Saw the Devil was a bit hyped up, so it ruined it for some folks, but I still managed to love it. I would count The Yellow Sea right up there with it as one of my favorites from Korea in quite a while. I keep hearing rumblings about “Breathless,” which is one I need to check out pretty soon. It is about as far-and-away from the dark-thriller genre as you can get, but some folks are throwing out some ridiculous praise for it.
  • Risingson
    I feel ya man about not having time to catch as many flicks as you would like especially with running this blog, guesting on various podcasts on top of your normal daily 9 to 5 routine. My ‘must see’ list keeps getting longer by the day & I doubt I’ll ever have the time to completely satiate my film lust. IMO, there is no rush to see MFN. It’s not a terrible movie by any means but just a bit too formulaic for my taste. I sort of imagine it’s the type of movie that Luc Besson would produce for the Korean market haha. A female friend became quite enamored with Won Bin after viewing this movie but this gave me an opportunity to steer her towards a much better film starring him which is Bong Joon-Ho’s acclaimed film, “Mother.” I completely agree about ISTD. I loved it as well. An absolutely masterful performance by Choi Min-Sik & certainly the best role for Lee Byung Hun since A Bittersweet Life IMHO. That scene involving the multiple stabbings inside the taxi cab shot from various different angles will go down in film lore as a classic. Unfortunately, I haven’t got around to watching “Breathless” either. I definitely need to check it out as well. I had some free time the other night & I should’ve made time to see it but instead I ended up watching a Korean B-movie/comedy called “Invasion of Alien Bikini”…yes, it was as ridiculous as it sounds but the lead actress, Ha Eun-Jung was just so sexy that I couldn’t resist. 🙂 Btw, Josh, this is off topic but I know your a big fan of Shaw Brothers films…so have you heard anymore about the remake of “The Flying Guillotine”? I read that the production has gone through several directorial changes & was once pronounced dead in the water but I have not heard any further updates or a release date. I believe “Death Duel” was also in the works to be remade but not sure if it’ll ever come to fruition.
  • Anonymous
    Definitely agree with you on Mother, but I have been a fan of everything I have seen from Bong Joon-Ho! Also agree with your assessment of I Saw the Devil! The taxi scene is going to go down in history, and will serve as an inspiration for young filmmakers throughout the world. Amazing stuff! And I have not heard about Invasion of Alien Bikini… but count me as being interesting 😉 Haven’t heard anything about this remake. I’m a big fan of Jimmy Wang Yu’s, so it kinda hurts to hear that anyone would try to remake anything from his catalog. What really blows my mind is the proposed remake of the 47 Ronin story with Keanu Reeves somehow in a leading role. That simply blows my mind!
  • Risingson
    Speaking of Bong Joon Ho, I still need to catch Barking Dogs Never Bite. Been wanting to watch that forever since hearing your guys’ podcast review on VCinema. Memories of Murder is one on my favorite films of all time. I was mesmerized watching that movie the first time & still in awe upon repeated viewings. That 47 Ronin remake sounds like an absolute travesty! The fact that Tadanobu Asano is in this film but is going to take a secondary role to Keanu Reeves just speaks volumes to the utter stupidity & crassness of Hollywood. I thought only the SBs movie that spawned the loosely adapted Jimmy Wang Yu version was being remade but apparently “Master of the Flying Guillotine” is also in the works. 🙁 I agree about all these studios trying to cash in with these shoddy remakes & completely losing the essence of what the original movie so great. Knowing Hollywood, perhaps a “One-Armed swordsman” remake is on the horizon with Seth Rogan. /s
  • Anonymous
    Oh wow, I misinterpreted you. They’re remaking the Chen Kuan Tai “Flying Guillotine” film? WOW! It is such an obscure flick in comparison to the Jimmy Wang Yu flick. Wow! They might as well remake Fists of the White Lotus. Chen Kuan Tai will be replaced by Taylor Lautner, lol! And yeah, Tadanobu Asano is a plus when he is in any movie, but Keanu Reeves playing a samurai completely negates any cool points the movie may have scored! Haha!
  • Risingson
    Yes, I was surprised too that the relatively obscure SB movie is being remade as opposed to the more popular Jimmy Wang Yu one. You would think Master of the Flying Guillotine would be more tailor made for a remake in today’s market with its iconic fight scenes involving the martial arts tournament scenario & the foreign fighters (Tony Jaa as the Thai fighter would be a natural of course & maybe someone like Shido Nakamura as Yakuma? lol). Hopefully they can cast a Bollywood actor to reprise the role of the Indian Yoga master who can elongate his arms at will, instead of a Chinese guy donning a turban & wearing shoe polish haha. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen The Flying Guillotine on a bootleg pan & scan VHS tape but I still remember how awesome Chen Kuan Tai was in it. He had an aura about him & he could convey raw emotion onscreen as well anyone on the SBs payroll. Two of my fave movies are Executioners from Shaolin & The Boxer from Shantung, due in no small part to his performances. I agree with you. I have no intention of watching that 47 Ronin remake despite starring Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada & Rinko Kikuchi. Keanu just kills about any interest I might muster for it.
  • Anonymous
    Most definitely agree with you on Chen Kuan Tai! One of my favorites! He is a ridiculously charismatic actor, and in his prime he was certainly one of the best Kung Fu leading men out there. I’ve reviewed a few of his films on here, but he has a massive library of great stuff. That is what is cool about the whole Kung Fu Christmas thing, every year I have the option to plow through a particular style of Kung Fu film or simply plow through the work of one filmmaker. Next year, hopefully I can focus a bit on Chen Kuan Tai. That would be fun!
  • Michelle Kirkwood
    “Man From Nowhere” blew me away, and it was off the hook—I really enjoyed that one so much I got the DVD—worth checking out because it’s got great action,it’s intense as hell, and gets way too gory as hell at times, but it’s worth.watching.




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