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South Korea 2010

Thriller, Action

Na Hong-jin

Ha Jeong-woo
Kim Yoon-seok
Seo Joon-yeong
Jo Seong-ha
Lee Cheol-min
Kwak Byeong-gyoo
Lim Ye-won
Tak Seong-eun

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The Yellow Sea

Story: Kim Gu-nam (Ha Jeong-woo) lives in the Yanbian prefecture, an autonomous region of Koreans, which is located at the border to China, North Korea and Russia. Like many of the residents there Gu-nam has to scratch a living by doing half illegal business. He has debts since he oftentimes gambles away his money after his work as a taxi driver and because he lend some money from loan sharks in order to get a forged visa for his wife who is now in South Korea and hasn't got in touch with her husband since then. However, Gu-nam's problems could soon become a thing of the past as gangster boss Myun (Kim Yoon-seok) is willing to pay his debts if he would illegaly enter South Korea for him in order to kill a certain man. Gu-nam also would have the chance to search for his wife and so he accepts the offer.
After an arduous journey Gu-nam collects all the information he needs and plans the murder. At the same time he tries to find his wife but without success. He has only ten days because then his boat back to China leaves. When he wants to execute the kill several things go wrong and now he isn't only hunted by the police but also by the local mob boss Kim Tae-won (Cho Seong-Ha). Myun seems to have betrayed him, too, and so Gu-nam is left with no other choice but to get behind the reason for the kill.

Review: "The Chaser" was a gritty and neat thriller that could excite audiences as well as critics. Director Na Hong-jin's second movie "The Yellow Sea" is in line with the style of his first work and could excite the masses once again. But where "The Chaser", when taking a closer look, has been a little bit overrated, Na's newest work has been exposed to a baseless goodwill of critics, even to such a degree that it's almost hard to bear. "The Yellow Sea" is a gripping thriller at its best, when it comes to its worst sides it's simply a confusing vengeance flick, that goes along with problematic editing and a butchery in the third quarter that is almost completely unmotivated. There are just too many flaws for me to recommend this unreservedly and nonetheless director Na makes enough right to continue playing in the top league. That's because there is only a handful of well done thrillers out of Korea and Na Hong-jin proves that he has a knack for the genre. It's a shame that he gets tangled up in a mazy story and that the movie has to struggle with a confuse editing that is too much in love with itself.

"The Yellow Sea" has been released in a Korean and a Director's Cut version. With its 140 minutes running time the Director's Cut has even been cut down 16 minutes compared to the Korean version. Still, that makes sense as the film is now more compact and in the first version of the movie it supposedly was even more difficult to follow the story! However, neither of the two versions avoids the most obvious problem of the movie: the characters may all have their reasons for what they are doing but they don't have any real personality and so it remains difficult to have any emotional bonding to any of them. Ha Jeong-woo and Kim Yoon-seok as a dazzling gangster boss, who had also the lead roles in "The Chaser" and now play switched roles, can't change anything about that either. Gu-nam is often too grey and Myun is so strange that he could be right out of a manga. It's only thanks to Kim Yun-seok that he doesn't come across as such but depicts an interesting antagonist.

However, it's not that easy to speak of good and evil in "The Yellow Sea". There are many parties of which every one has its own agenda. That's also the reason why many critics think that this thriller has one of the best stories you can find in the genre. Still, you have to be careful with such a statement. It might be right that there is happening a lot and many unexpected twists are awaiting you but then again for an experienced viewer thoser twists aren't woven together as asonishingly smartly as one wants to make us believe. Furthermore, the ending can lead to some serious confusion that can lower the fun a lot if you haven't paid extreme attention on names and faces. The story is divided in four chapters. The first one introduces Gu-nam and takes place in Yanbian. Here, an extraordinary location has been chosen as at least two different cultures make up a melting pot, and Gu-nam's journey to South Korea via China almost has something epic in scale about it.

In the second chapter Gu-nam plans the kill and even though he might not have any experience in the field and surely hasn't any professional means to his disposal but only primitive ones he proves to be quite smart so that in the end we are actually rooting for him. What follows is everything going wrong. Which brings us to some serious implausibilities. Every now and then Gu-nam finds himself in situations in which the audience thinks that there is no way of escaping for him. But somehow Gu-nam still manages to pull it off, and this even when a whole army of policemen and several police cars are after him although he himself is just fleeing by foot! But this isn't the first time that Na draws an incredibly ridiculous picture of the police, which shows so much incompetence that it hurts almost physically. We have already seen that in Na's debut work. What has the police done to him? But Gu-nam also escapes the hands of the gangsters on several occasions! Things get a bit problematic in the third chapter, though. Even before that the movie stood out with extreme depiction of violence, but then there is a real massacre that involves clubs, knives and axes without any time to take a breath. But what purpose do these scenes serve? No one. They only bring action and adrenaline into the movie. In fact it would have been nicer (and also more believable, because at some point you simply roll your eyes in disbelief over the fact that the protagonists keep on going despite their numerous stab wounds) if these orgies of violence had been cut down and there had been more room for character exploration.

Director Na Hong-jin always captures his gritty pictures with a slightly shaky camera in order to create a certain dynamic. While this can become rather tedious with time he manages to capture some nice chasing scenes this way. The amount of cars that get wrecked in his movie isn't to be underestimated. These scenes stand as the third chapter's highlights. In the fourth chapter all pieces are brought together. Yet, at times this is achieved in such an unnecessarily confusing manner that - as already stated - you actually run the risk of not getting everything, even the more as the director leaves some things to the viewer's interpretation. Also to be blamed for that is a completely unnecessarily confusing editing that almost drives you insane towards the end. This leaves a bitter taste, especially since the ending was intended to be emotionally involving in a way, but the lack of well drawn characters doesn't make the drama work out at all. "The Yellow Sea" gets lost somewhere in the third chapter, loses its focus and instead delivers bloody massacres that at some time have no shock value anymore. Watching becomes even more frustrating as we know that a good film could have become of "The Yellow Sea". It's a fun ride anyway, but because of the given facts it only seems appropriate to be especially strict with director Na. Maybe things get better in his next movie.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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