Na Hong-jin’s second film The Yellow Sea is an excellent follow up to 2008’s The Chaser. Just like in that previous film we are in the familiar territory of our central character being dragged into a more serious situation than they first expected.
Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) tries to cobble together enough money, working as a taxi driver in the Chinese city of Yanji, to cross the sea back to South Korea to his wife (who travelled over there to make money) and who hasn’t got back in touch with him since leaving. Gu-nam’s gambling problems lead to him being deeply in debt and desperate and he eventually agrees to kill a South Korean-based businessman for local mob boss, and as is shown later on a complete badass, Myun Jung-hak (Kim Yoon-seok) in exchange for clearing his debt.
When Gu-nam gets to South Korea he sets about finding his mark and planning his attack. At the same time he takes the opportunity to search for his wife and investigate what has happened to her. This build up causes the first half of The Yellow Sea to be quite laboured but it does prove to be worth the wait.
Gu-nam is by no means a professional in his new vocation but he does apply himself adequately to the task in hand and he has the determination of clearing his debt, getting his life back on track and the possibility of finding his wife all resting on his ability to get this killing done. However, when his mark is killed by someone else before he gets the chance to complete his task that is when things start to unravel and Gu-nam then has the police, Myun Jung-hak and his clan and the local Korean-Chinese mafia all chasing him down.
This is where the style of Na Hong-jin’s previous film really shines through as the chase begins and continues for an extraordinary length of time in an entirely breathless second half. With enemies at every turn, Gu-nam has to be at his most resourceful to stay that one step ahead as he tries to figure out who is after him and what he can do to escape. Not always the best planned but he does seem to have luck on his side as he manages to evade capture time and time again, mainly by putting himself in danger to do so.
As we build towards the climax (from a long way out!) the pace keeps on building and the frantic nature of this chase and the chasers just keep on coming. I said The Chaser was relentless in its cat and mouse game, well The Yellow Sea is even more so. Perfect use of a constantly moving camera means you always feel unsettled and unable to relax, adding to the kinetic feel of the intense scenes as they close in on the unfortunate Gu-nam. Whilst all of this is happening you continue to have a complex, intertwined story that has many faces, which I did struggle to keep up with at times. Especially when the groups of chasers started to intermingle and with his spouse-investigation scenario added on top of everything else.
The relentless chase is peppered with some really violent moments as knifes, hatchets, clubs and various other tolls to hand are all being swung and used to spill the blood of whoever was in the way at that precise moment or to further their own plight. This is certainly no “one shot, one kill” of a film as our protagonist gets a good amount of injury through a variety of different weapons across the films runtime. This again, like in The Chaser, gives it a more realistic feel as the hits have an impact and an ongoing effect on the recipient, as they should do. I think Na Hong-jin has done some incredible work in making these films all the more visceral by grounding them in a reality that really affects you.
As with all his other films, the police when they do appear are not very competent, and let him escape through their innate ineptitude. I do wonder what happened to him for his depiction of the authorities to be so useless! Na Hong-jin, it is safe to say, does not do happy Hollywood endings. Each of his feature length films (The Chaser, The Yellow Sea, The Wailing) has a bittersweet ending: a resolution that is tinged with despair. This isn’t a criticism of his choice and his films would be much less well received, by me at least, if they ended on an upbeat note.