The Film Festival has been inordinately (and thankfully) packed with a trio of hardcase Korean films. The Man from Nowhere and I Saw the Devil have both already made their indelible marks upon my brain and now The Yellow Sea sears itself there too.
This is a down and dirty tale, dealing with a vast culture I had no previous knowledge of: the denizens of Yanji City, a city bordering China, North Korea and Russia. These people are commonly referred to as Joseonjok's and from the looks of it, this is what you would imagine a standard border town to look like: rife with poverty and crime, people struggling to make it through life and the hope of getting out. One person who made it out is Gu-Nam's wife; they borrowed money from a loan shark to get her out to Seoul and now Gu-Nam is stuck trying to pay the ever-increasing bill. He drives a taxi but gambles most (if not all) of his income away at mah-jong and he hasn't heard from his wife in 6 months. Enter local crimelord Mr. Myun with a proposal for Gu-Nam: he can consider his debt repaid and can look for his wife, if he smuggles into Seoul and kills a wealthy South Korean businessman - "The Professor" - and returns with his severed thumb for Mr. Myun. Gu-Nam struggles with the idea of killing, but with nowhere else to go and no-one else to turn to he reluctantly accepts. It doesn't go according to plan.
That's the set-up and that first part plays out like a slow-burn drama. Perhaps as you may expect from an arthouse foreign film detailing the downtrodden lives of a vast sea of immigrants offering cheap labour to Korea. But then the hit goes down, or more specifically, crazily sideways and the adrenaline kicks in like a bucket of Red Bull to the face. The chase sequence directly after Gu-Nam finishes the job is an insane piece of vehicular carnage, as Gu-Nam runs and the cops (on foot and in cars) close in. But Gu-Nam doesn't just have the cops to worry about: he's also still trying to track down his wife, The Professor had gang connections who are now after Gu-Nam and Mr. Myun is headed to Seoul to clean up. Gu-Nam has no friends or allies to call on, little in the way of weapons and funds and is quickly running out of time. But he's a tenacious bastard and won't let himself quit, even as the bodies and the beatings stack up.
The entire middle section of the film is made up of these chases, fights, deals and betrayals and director Na Hong-jin keeps the pace and tension up. Adding to the brutality is the almost complete lack of guns or firearms of any kind. Axes get a big workout. This is a genre film with the requisite gangsters but they're not glamorous and nor are they totally grim'n'gritty either. This is a film with a heightened reality - where a guy can take a gunshot, a bunch of stabbings and head wounds and keep on keeping on. There is also Mr. Myun who is a big, rough and total badass rogue who has a lot of the film's great lines and carries a lot of charisma; he's a larger than life character.
The Yellow Sea, for all its adrenaline and tensions, is not perfect. There is a certain point an amount of drag sets in and a chase sequence with visuals that become messy and distracting. The biggest problem I had though, was come the end where a number of plot contrivances are unnecessary but used to try and wrap and twist it all around. But damn this is an otherwise tightly wound film with Na Hong-jin masterfully using genre conventions to say something more.