Over the last two decades, South Korea has emerged as an unexpected filmmaking powerhouse. Courtesy of the efforts of Bong Joon-ho (Mother
, The Host
), Park Chan-wook (Thirst
, Old Boy
) and Kim Ji-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters
, A Bittersweet Life
) among others, the nation’s industry announced its arrival on the international stage, demonstrating a penchant for the darker side of the spectrum. Now, a spate of new talent is following in their footsteps, with the crime drama genre particularly common. With The Chaser
already on his resume, Na Hong-jin adds another entry to the oeuvre with The Yellow Sea
Living a piecemeal existence in Yanji City, Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo, Take Off) struggles to survive under the weight of grief for his absent wife and crippling gambling debts. With few other options, he accepts an offer of help from shady businessman Myun-ga (Kim Yun-seok, Running Turtle) – his willingness to travel to Seoul to murder a stranger for his new friend being the only catch. Whilst the act appears easily achieved, Gu-nam soon learns of others after the same target. As his path collides with Korean gangsters, his predicament worsens, all as a result of crossing the titular body of water.
In addition to providing the film’s moniker and motivation, the yellow sea embodies the overwhelming void in Gu-nam’s life. In the literal sense, the oceanic expanse that spans the Chinese mainland to the Korean peninsula represents the distance to his spouse – and then to his homeland – whilst thematically it parallels the vast gaps in his knowledge and emotions, the unending emptiness that permeates his increasingly dire predicament, and the insurmountable nature of his task.
As such, although wrapped in a genre amalgam of thriller, noir and action, The Yellow Sea is an existential work. Proving the masterful approach to his first feature was far from a fluke, writer/director Hong-jin again excels in weaving a complex web of treachery and duplicity, however it is his contemplation of his protagonist’s place in the chaos that resonates as the highlight.
Accordingly, The Yellow Sea is complex and compelling as it ponders the intersection of distrust, desire and desperation. As energetic and magnetic as it is frenetic, it barrels along at break-neck pace. However, depth dwells beneath the visceral and violent exterior. Indeed, the haunting and harrowing epic is enthralling and engaging, easily ranking amongst the best films of the year.
The Yellow Sea
Director: Na Hong-jin
South Korea, 2010, 140 min
Distributor: Monster Pictures
Screening now at Cinema Nova, Carlton