The Yellow Sea is a gripping thriller about a cab driver named Gu-nam that is in debt to the mob and has no way to pay them back. With nowhere left to turn, he accepts an offer from Myun Jung-hak to go to China and kill a man to clear what he owes, and to also hopefully reunite with his wife. Arriving in the country, he starts to plan out the murder but when the time comes, he finds he has been beaten to it, but if he is to get paid he must retrieve the thumb of the victim. Things spiral out of control and he ends up on the run from the police, from Myun Jung-hak and from the Chinese mob.
The film, while featuring many characters, is really only about two – Gu-nam played by Ha Jung-woo and Kim Yoon-seok who plays Myun Jung-hak. One of them is good and one bad, with both trying to make it in the world the best way they know how. Ha Jung-woo’s performance starts off subtle, as does Kim Yoon-seok’s. They could almost be friends as they both seem like two normal guys with one just a little better off than the other. But once the film kicks into overdrive, so too do their characters as Myun Jung-hak’s true persona of a hardened criminal mastermind comes to the forefront and Gu-nam becomes a man he never would have been or dreamed of being unless for these specific circumstances. They might have started out as opposites, but they end the film as two sides of the same coin.
When you watch this film, it seems very unassuming at first with the slowly paced opening. You might almost think you will end up watching a simple drama about a man and trying to make ends meet, but after the botched murder, the pace picks up and rarely lets down for a minute. The first chase scene where Gu-nam runs from the police is ridiculous and yet one of the most exciting things you will ever witness on film. In fact, many of the chase scenes see Gu-nam on foot as he runs from literally everybody.
Directed and written by Na Hong-jin, he not only ups the suspense but the violence as well. And it is brutally violent, yet beautiful as well. But that violence coincides with the action, and as such, you have to take it hat in hand. The choreography by Sang-seob Yoo is both intricate and deadly. The way people move, the way the fights are staged – everything is truly magnificent. You do not get your average gun fights in this film, though a few bullets are fired, but what you do get instead are scenes filled with knife fights, hatchets and even a giant bone. The action is up close and personal, so that each man has to look each other in the eye knowing that it is either life or death between them. Doing this also engages the viewer more and makes you feel like you have a stake in the outcome instead of an impersonal gun battle which everyone has seen a thousand times.
Motivation and desire are powerful things and the characters in this film definitely have the two traits in spades. Gu-nam is a person the average viewer can get behind and root for. Many people have been in his position and understand just how futile things can seem at times. So even though he is forced to do horrible things, they are justified in our eyes as he was pushed to do so. It is exciting and dramatic and hooks you in for the full two and a half hour plus film. Thrilling is probably too small a word to describe this picture and how it makes you feel, but it does keep you on the edge of your seat more often than not and leaves you wanting more.
4.5 out of 5