Action and character propel The Yellow Sea through an epic run time that features more knife fights than I could count. Everything about this film is dark, brutal, and unforgiving. Director Hong-jin Na (The Chaser) weaves a complex story of love, debt, and crime in a setting many are unfamiliar with. There is even a thread of dark comedy from the ways characters can do the unexpected. At 157 minutes, this isn’t an easy film to make time for, yet if you are looking for an action film with an actual plot, some surprises, and excellent fight sequences, it is something I cannot recommend enough. Hit the jump for my full review.
There is a place in China between North Korea and Russia called Yanji that is made up mostly of Korean immigrants. The people there are mostly without Korean citizenship, yet make an annual trek across the border, working illegally to make ends meet. Enter Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo), a cab driver struggling with the debt of sending his wife into Korea on an overpriced fake work visa. Left back in Yanji, he hasn’t heard from her in months and he fears she has left him forever. When his debt collectors come calling, he finds a chance to wipe out all of it by Myung-ga (Kim Yun-seok). All he has to do? Kill someone. Desperate and without many options, he agrees, and is sent over to Korea to complete his task. Of course, he now has the chance to track down his missing wife as well. Racing against the clock to complete both tasks, his hit is complicated when a group of thugs try to kill the unknown man first. When he finally shows up, he gets what he is after but has to contend with a swarm of law enforcement drawn to the chaos. Though he manages to escape, without a friend in the world, he is on the run from the law and the gang of the man that he was tasked to kill.
Throughout, we are treated to an increasingly complex crime story as the gang, upset at being unable to track down Gu-nam, attempts to find his employer. When they stumbles upon Myung-ga, he creates a new problem they hadn’t anticipated. He lashes out and brings the fight to them, and Gu-nam finds himself pulled into the middle of a bloody crime war that spills out onto the streets of Korea. Na tells the story in chapters, and each one seems to increase in tension and brutality. The knife fights, a showcase of the film, leave a bloody mess. Fingers, limbs, ears, and more aren’t safe from the sharp edges, and the common one versus many is played out a few times to absolute perfection. Myung-ga in particular loves using a hatchet, as do his thugs. He is also relentless on his quest, and getting hacked up and stabbed won’t keep him from continuing on his journey. Gu-nam is similarly feisty in his continual search for his wife and fight for survival.
At times the film gets overly complex, especially as it tries to tie things together. If anything, it feels like Na needed more time to give us the necessary details. Considering the amount of action and carnage that could fill two films over, it’s an astounding idea that he couldn’t fit it all within nearly three hours of film. Yet, that is the case. Despite all of that, The Yellow Sea remains one of my favorite films of the festival and one I can’t wait to share.