Fantastic Fest Review: 'The Yellow Sea'
The director of 'The Chaser' continues his cat-and-mouse games
By William Goss Oct 27, 2011 12:57AM
In a particularly scummy part of China, Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) has fallen on hard times. He barely earns a living as a taxi driver, and what he does earn is quickly blown on gambling. His wife has already traveled across the eponymous channel to Seoul in order to make ends meet, but it's been months since Gu-nam has heard from her. Already in debt for the cost of both her visa and his habits, facing the worst possible fates for his wife abroad and their daughter at home, he takes the measures that desperate men do and agrees to carry out a hit in South Korea in exchange for a clean slate. After all, if he makes the same journey, maybe Gu-nam can hope to bring the missus home safe and sound...
Needless to say, matters aren't so simple once the central crime goes awry and Gu-nam finds himself framed for a murder that he didn't yet commit, and around the hour mark, Na Hong-Jin's "The Yellow Sea" (a.k.a. "The Murderer") escalates in scale and mayhem for the hour and a half that follows, for better and worse. The film gets off to an understandable slow start, with the stars of Hong-Jin's previous thriller, "The Chaser," finding themselves in reversed roles -- Jung-woo is now the down-on-his-luck protagonist, while Kim Yun-seok plays Myun-ga, the mobster responsible for throwing our would-be anti-hero into the thick of things.
To our good fortune, and perhaps the film's misfortune, Yun-seok ends up stealing the show as an exasperated, blunt-force, do-it-yourself kind of badass, the shaggy flipside to Seong-Ha Cho's tidy crime lord, who begins to amusingly lose control of his turf once Myun-ga decides to cross the channel and start causing trouble. Their mob war is ultimately more interesting than the protagonist's comparatively slow and sincere quest for answers, and while it fuels the sprawling second half, it extinguishes one's interest in returning the story's focus back to the central wronged-man scenario.
Jung-woo's performance has a certain hangdog quality in its favor, but over the course of his many misadventures (looking for his wife and the real assassination culprit; avoiding two mobs and the cops to boot), Gu-nam becomes more of an underdog of convenience, often sullen and seemingly invincible. In a similar manner, the initially exciting confrontations and chases in which Gu-nam is almost always outnumbered begin to grow repetitive and even more poorly constructed as the film progresses. An early car chase feels like it was captured in the midst of real, thrillingly unpredictable traffic conditions; a later one is shot so shoddily from the sidelines that it borders on being incomprehensible.
The stab-happy fight scenes make for welcome gallows humor and even more punishment, while an increasingly convoluted series of plot developments undermine the crafty reversals of the first half. Though not as focused as "The Chaser" was, or as fierce as "I Saw the Devil," or as flamboyant as "Oldboy," "Sea" does boast its fair share of gripping moments, but it's ultimately so busy making waves that none of them have any impact once they finally come crashing down.