The Yellow Sea (2010)
By: Stuart Giesel on June 14, 2013 | Comments
Monster Pictures | Region B | 2.35:1, 1080p | Korean DTS-HD MA 5.1 | 140 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Hong-jin Na
Starring: Jung-woo Ha, Yun-seok Kim, Seong-Ha Cho
Screenplay: Hong-jin Na
Country: South Korea
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The Yellow Sea. No, the name doesn't suggest the most racist movie since The Birth of a Nation, it actually refers to a strait between China and Korea. This strait serves as an aquatic conduit between the two nations and, more crucially as far as the film is concerned, a bloody rite of passage for our main protagonist.

Taxi driver Gu-Nam (Jung-woo Ha) is one of many ethnic Koreans who have grown up in China, and are referred to as "chosunjok". Many of these chosunjok have to take less-than-desirable jobs to make ends meet, and Gu-Nam is no exception. His wife has gone to Korea to make money but hasn't returned, and Gu-Nam owes money to loansharks for the cost of her visa. In desperation he turns to local hood Myun-ga (Yun-seok Kim) who recruits Gu-Nam as a hitman to travel to Korea (illegally, of course) to kill a wealthy resident. Naturally, Gu-Nam soon finds that things aren't quite as straightforward as he anticipated: amongst many problems he encounters, getting to his target proves to be a challenge all of its own, and despite the job's time limit looming over his head he becomes consumed with tracking down his wayward wife who he believes is cheating on him. Without spoiling too much, things go pear-shaped, and as various other criminal entities get involved with the fallout, Myun-ga is forced to intervene with his own particular brand of ruthlessness.

Admittedly, the plot starts to get a little convoluted, with various gangster types and other characters introduced to little effect. What matters is Gu-Nam's survival in a hostile and foreign land. The Yellow Sea changes gears about a third of the way in, and it's debatable whether this is for the better. With numbered chapter titles, Herzog-style, we are witness to a taut beginning where Gu-Nam is recruited into this dirty business and trails his quarry, realising he's more out of his element than he thought he would be. The scenes with Gu-Nam formulating a plan to take out his target are probably the strongest scenes in the film. But soon enough the film dives into action territory and never looks back. It winds up being a violent chase film that pretends to be something deeper by simply adding more characters.

Normally I revile any film that utilises the dreaded "shaky cam" style of cinematography unless there's a Bourne in the title, but it works to mostly great effect in The Yellow Sea, particularly in a kinetic footchase scene that makes you feel a part of the action. There is a later car chase where the camera goes really spastic, thereby testing the limits of the audience, and there's also some obvious blue-screen work, but it's not enough to spoil the action. The cinematography overall is superior, from the subdued colours (I don't know if this was post-processing or just the dour, depressing locations themselves) to the nighttime shots which are as good as anything Michael Mann achieved in Collateral.

As the action amps up, things get increasingly far-fetched and stabby. Yes, The Yellow Sea is one violent film, maybe not as spectacularly gruesome as I Saw the Devil, but pretty brutal nonetheless. Amongst all this carnage, what's an especially nice touch is that the character of Gu-Nam might be a strong fighter and survivor, but he's not exactly the most careful, calculating and professional of killers. No, he's just an average joe, possibly a bit better at survival than many, but still a man clearly out of his depth. Yet despite the ever-increasingly violent and desperate situations he finds himself in, we still root for him. Sure, as the film progresses it's apparent that Gu-Nam - as well as one of the principal villains Myun-ga - is more Terminator than man, able to brush off horrible injuries when needed and seemingly unstoppable no matter how many bad guys or police officers are chasing him. Gu-Nam is able to dispense - and withstand - enough stabs, slashings and beatings to make John McClane proud. Kudos to lead actor Jung-woo Ha for not overplaying the role, even in the most maniacal scenes.

There's a thrilling fight aboard a ship that has enough stabby-stabby action to please fans of Oldboy. Really, The Yellow Sea is more a Korean Bourne Supremacy than anything else, albeit a Bourne film that happens to have tons of knife, axe and blunt instrument violence. It's also a long film, yet doesn't feel overlong. The film may stretch the limits of credulity with the amount of punishment its protagonists endure, but then again that's the whole point with this sort of thing. It's not meant to be a wholly realistic crime drama; it's a blood-spattered nightmare that, thanks to its escalating carnage, almost becomes grotesquely and blackly humourous. The players all acquit themselves well; probably the standout is the ruthlessly efficient criminal Myun-ga, played by Yun-seok Kim.

If you're a fan of South Korean movies or of violent crime films in general, you'd be well advised to check The Yellow Sea out. It doesn't have quite the same punch to the gut that I Saw The Devil or Park-Chan Wook's Vengeance trilogy can muster, but it's a mostly engaging and thrilling experience. Oh, and be sure not to miss the final scene of the film that's buried a little bit into the end credits sequence.
The Disc
The Yellow Sea's visual style is all muted colours, striking nighttime shots and bleak cinematography, but that's not to say it looks dull. Far from it; the film's visual style is one of its greatest strengths, and the high-def presentation on the Monster disc provides a bright and attractive picture with strong detail. The soundtrack, the only option of which is the original Korean 5.1 master audio track, is a tad weaker - the sound is predominantly front-speaker based, and there's barely any immersive quality to it other than when it comes to the big action scenes. It's not bad by any means, but it lacks the punch I was expecting. Still, some of those axe and knife sound effects are really juicy.

Extras-wise, there's not a whole lot other than a bunch of trailers for the film, and a Making of Documentary. The documentary, running well over an hour, is pretty good even if it rehashes too much footage from the film proper, but it does provide some insight into the choice of lenses, the decisions the filmmakers made with regards to the night scenes, and how they staged the fight scenes to make them appear less as movie-choreographed fight scenes and more like real-world messy fight scenes.

Apparently the director's cut of The Yellow Sea runs 157 minutes, whereas the International version that's on the disc is 140 minutes, surely a more palatable experience if all they excised were more confusing sub-plots and unnecessary characters. Still, it would have been nice for both versions to be present on the disc. Unfortunately, as was the case with I Saw The Devil, all us Westerners get is the International version.
The Verdict
The Yellow Sea may not be the definitive Korean crime thriller but there's plenty of hand-to-hand action to satisfy the bloodthirsty. The plot gets unnecessarily complicated, but the action scenes are blood-pumping. It's another fine entry on the "South Koreans make awesome crime movies" list.
Movie Score
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