Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is the loser’s loser, down on his luck at the mah-jong tables, leading a pitiful life as an ethnic Korean in Yanbian, China. His wife left for Korea in search of work months ago and he hasn’t heard from her since, he is unable to support his child, and the debts have long spiralled beyond his ability to pay. Then local gangster Myun-ga (Kim Yun-seok) offers him a chance to wipe the slate clean: all he has to do is cross the Yellow Sea to Seoul and kill a businessman. He is understandably reluctant, but this seems his only way out, and offers him a chance to track down his wife.
Everything, of course, goes horribly wrong.
Na Hong-jin’s exhilarating film is pretty much a game of two halves. For the first hour or so it’s a wholly credible portrait of a desperate life. Gu-nam lives in a crappy world, he is well aware of his status as a ‘josenjok’, unwanted and despised. Everything seems to be on its last legs, everyone is heartless and on the make. His days in the shabby milieu of Yanbian, the gruelling smuggling operation that gets him to Korea, his cold and hunger and increasing frustration and stress are graphically evoked in blues and greys, through clipped sparse dialogue and sharp editing, as he plans to kill a man he does not know.
From the clusterfuck assassination onwards, however, the film evolves into a high-octane gore-flecked black comic shocker as Gu-nam goes on the run from hordes of cops, the Korean gangster behind the hit, and Myun-ga, who re-enters the picture to cut a bloody swathe through the last hour with a butcher’s knife and hatchet. The carefully built sense of verisimilitude is first strained, then shattered, as our fugitive changes from a pitiful nobody into a resourceful killer with nine lives. This never stops the film from being entertaining, however. Na Hong-jin clearly knows what he’s doing with a camera and there are a series of pulse-pounding audacious action sequences. Moreover, his sense of telling detail and street-level scuzz never deserts him. I enjoyed the town mouse/country mouse disdain that the Seoul gangsters feel for the Yanbian mob, and Myun-ga’s appalling grasp of housekeeping. It’s just that the poignancy and sad irony that the film aims for at its resolution seem oddly misplaced after all that Fargo via Simpson/Bruckheimer bloody chaos.
This is a common feature in a lot of Eastern cinema (‘the Asian Gear-Change’?). Many kung fu dramas crunched from Laurel and Hardy slapstick to grim Deathwish revenge thriller after the third reel. Fans of this stuff aren’t going to bat an eyelid at the wildly different tones that The Yellow Sea goes through, but it just seems odd to me, like James Toback’s Fingers being spliced with The Last Boy Scout. Ah well. Kim Yun-seok and Ha Jung-woo hold the screen well, I was never bored, it’s fast and funny and edge-of-the-seat tense; it’s just that I’d still like to see the end of the film it started off being.
Watch the trailer: