Director Na Hong-Jin arrived in a big way in 2008 with “The Chaser,” an action thriller that made huge waves on the genre film circuit and nabbed a midnight screening slot at the Cannes Film Festival a few years back. For his latest effort, Hong-Jin paired up with his two lead actors from that film — Jung-woo Ha and Yun-seok Kim — and has returned to the Croisette with “The Yellow Sea” an electric, epic crime thriller that should launch the director into top tier of South Korean film directors alongside Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook.
The film’s tightly coiled tale that will unwind over the span of nearly two and half hours, begins in Yanji City. Located in the Yanbian prefecture, the region straddles North Korea, China and Russia and as the opening text informs us, of the 800,000 Joseonjok (Korean-Chinese) that live there, at least half are involved in some kind of illegal trade in order to make a living. So when we first meet Gu-nam (Ha) it’s no surprise that he’s in a gambling den playing mah-jong, and losing quite badly. A cab driver by day, Gu-nam is up to his neck in debt having paid for his wife’s passage to South Korea. Unfortunately, he’s heard nothing from her since, with most of his friends believing she’s found a new life and left him behind. Nearly down to his last dollar, Gu-nam is given an offer for a one-time job that will settle his balance sheet.
He’s introduced to the colorful Myun (Kim), a man who seems to have his hands in a number of operations in Yanji. The pitch proposed to Gu-nam is quite simple: travel to South Korea, kill a man, cut off his thumb and then his debts will be squared. He momentarily struggles with the idea of murdering somebody for money, but without any options, and with an opportunity to also track down his wife, Gu-nam accepts. Of course, things don’t go as planned and before long, Tae-won Kim (Seong-Ha Cho), a gangland leader in South Korea is drawn into the story and soon Gu-nam finds himself caught between two crazed criminal figures, looking to clear his name and stay alive.
The pleasures of “The Yellow Sea” are found in the story, which at times feels like it has the scope of a first-rate mini-series. Spanning two countries, delving into the politics of the region in a manner that is accessible even if you’re unfamiliar with the terrain and moving and shifting in continually unexpected and surprising directions, this is easily the most complex and rich action film we’ve seen in ages. But the thrills are found in the explosive set-pieces which outdo anything we’ve seen by American directors. One of the biggest and longest — it earned massive applause from the audience we watched it with — extends outward from the contract hit that essentially is a starting point for the rest of the film. Without spoiling too much, the murder winds up being far more complicated that Gu-nam envisioned and eventually finds him scrambling to leave the scene of the crime in a foot race/car chase with the police. Another memorable, and again lengthy and astoundingly choreographed sequence, begins with bloody hand-to-hand combat on a cargo ship and winds up with a breathless car chase through Busan.
But Na Hong-jin isn’t just concerned with big, sexy action scenes. Indeed, the bloodiest, most violent scenes (with the biggest body count) come from a number of person-to-person fights with knives and axes as the weapons of choice. Indeed, the film is notable because there there are only about three shots fired from a gun in the whole movie, all from an incompetent police officer in a scene that’s played for laughs. “The Yellow Sea” makes violence personal and most of all, irrevocable. Gu-nam has never mingled with vicious criminals on this level before and as the story goes on, the decreasing reluctance and increasing ease he has toward taking a life is unsettling, but understandable given the desperate lengths to which he’s been pushed. This is a film that plays for big entertainment, but doesn’t take the chracaters’ choices and responsibilities lightly.
If it isn’t already clear by now, “The Yellow Sea” is one of the smartest and most inventive action films this year and unlike anything coming out of studios big or small on this side of the ocean. It’s a refreshingly original story, with a darkly funny, demented and memorable baddie (Myun is a character for the ages and gets some of the film’s biggest laughs), crackling tension and exciting, unpredictable action. While a minor quibble would be that the third act runs perhaps a shade too long, we also can’t help but add we caught this film at the end of a long four-movie day — a situation which leads us to being extra-irritable — and we never once checked our watch, remaining fully invested throughout. Epic in scope and execution, with “The Yellow Sea” Na Hong-Jin has confirmed himself as one of the best genre filmmakers working today. [A-]