The Yellow Sea (황해)
Directed by Na Hong-jin
With titles such as “Oldboy,” “I Saw the Devil” and “The Man From Nowhere” gaining international acclaim, Korean cinema has been rightly regarded as one of the world leaders in producing exciting, dynamic and violent thrillers. A film that had been touted as having the potential to top them all was the sophomore effort from acclaimed director Na Hong-jin, “The Yellow Sea.”
“The Yellow Sea” begins in the Yanbian Province of China, a Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where Gu-nam is struggling to make ends meet. This is due to a large debt that he owes after paying for his wife to move to South Korea. He spends most of his time either fantasizing about his wife having an affair, or gambling, which gets him into trouble with gangsters.
This is when Korean mafia boss Mun Jung-hak offers Gu-nam a chance to pay off his debts: He has to go to South Korea to kill a businessman and bring back his finger as proof. Seeing this as an opportunity to not only clear his debts, but also find out why his wife hasn’t yet been in contact, he accepts the mission.
While in Korea, Gu-nam carefully stalks his victim, plotting the best way to kill him, while also searching for his estranged wife. But when the time comes to take out the businessman, a strange set of events take place that leaves Gu-nam on the run from not only the police, but also the Chinese and Korean mafia.
“The Yellow Sea” opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews and is sitting on a certified fresh rating of 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. For the first hour of the film, I was in total agreement with this view. It was a slow-paced, interesting character study about one man’s morality and what we are capable of when backed into a corner. However, once the deed takes place, the film turns into an overly long game of cat and mouse, with one too many chase scenes, which made it feel like a totally different film.
While still enjoyable, I was upset at the change from seemingly realistic, gritty drama to a film with an almost invincible villain who can survive not only stab wounds, but gunshots, too. The film still has its moments, with a lovely, tender ending that returned to the pacing of the opening hour, but an overly convoluted plot left me scratching my head and not really caring.
“The Yellow Sea” has been praised in all corners of the globe so there’s no doubting the film’s quality and Na Hong-jin’s ability as a storyteller, but after all the hype, I was just expecting a little more.