All he needs to do is illegally cross the Yellow Sea to South Korea, complete a hit job, and then get home to Yanji, China. Sounds simple enough…right? Check out our review of The Yellow Sea ( 황해/Hwanghae) after the jump.
Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is a down-and-out Joseonjok (Chinese person of Korean descent) who has seen better times. His wife has left him and gone to South Korean for work – although he suspects she is having an affair; and he has gotten into money troubles through his late-night gambling at the mahjong tables. Desperately needing money, he takes a job from local gangster Myun-ga (Kim Yun-seok). In exchange for his debt being wiped, Gu-nam must travel illegally across the Yellow Sea to South Korea and kill a man. Gu-nam isn’t exactly a criminal so he initially scoffs at the idea. However, it doesn’t take long for him to realise that he really doesn’t have much of an option. He also realises this might be a chance to track down that wayward wife of his.
From here the film follows Gu-nam as he heads to South Korea to complete the job and find his wife. There is an epic journey across the sea, the stakeout, chases, kills, Korean Police stupidity, and of course just one or two gruesome scenes. It wouldn’t be a Korean thriller without them!
What really works in this film are the two key performances by Ha Jung-woo (as Gu-nam) and Kim Yun-seok (Myun-ga). Ha Jung-woo is an absolute joy to watch as he transforms from a nervous and bumbling amateur crook, to someone who can match it with the big-time gangsters. His comedic timing is excellent and you (initially) can relate with his character greatly. His facial expressions as he methodically plans his hit are absolutely hilarious – he says a lot without saying anything at all. On the other end of the good/bad spectrum we have the excellent Kim Yun-seok as the head ganster Myun-ga. You see, Myun-ga seems like a bit of a teddy-bear when we first meet him. He is quite funny and a little quirky, and seems to want to help Gu-nam out. Well it turns out he is the most terrifying of them all – a ruthless killer that will take out anyone who gets in his way or just happens to annoy him. Kim Yun-seok gets the balance of being menacing and being funny (in a menacing way) just right.
The action set-pieces in the film are for the most part fantastic (and often very funny). The best scenes involve the slightly hapless Gu-nam trying to escape the stereotypical idiotic and incompetent South Korean police. Neither are particularly skilled at this sort of thing and it gives the film some of its best comedic moments. Action scenes with the gangsters are a little less funny and a little more gruesome. Compared to other recent Korean action-thrillers, this is light on the gore factor, although there are still a few scenes that will have you looking away from the screen. There is also a good measure of excellent car chases to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Ultimately what lets this film down is it tries to bring too many players and too many sub-stories into the mix. There is the person who wants the person killed, who hired the person, who hired the person, who told this person to do it. In the final third of the film as much time is spent figuring out who is who, as is watching the action unfold. It’s a little like a snowball – the further the story progressed, the more characters and stories it picked up. A couple of less players with a few less story-lines would have made this a much sharper film. The impact of the ending is lost a little as you’re still scratching your head trying to figure out who did what and why.
At 157 minutes long, it is a tad on the long side. Shaving off some unneeded characters and their story-lines could have taken a good 15-25 minutes of the runtime and produced a much punchier film.
Overall, The Yellow Sea is a lot of fun. It has comedy, action, tension, and a few moments when you’ll cover your eyes with your hands.
Director: Hong-jin Na
Writer(s): Hong-jin Na
Starring: Jung-woo Ha, Yun-seok Kim, Seong-Ha Cho
Runtime: 157 minutes
We would like to thank the Korean Cultural Office Sydney for giving us the opportunity to see this film.