Miss seeing some good action movies this year? Underwhelmed by Tom Cruise’s fey Jack Reacher? Induced into snoring by Liam Neeson’s geriatric heroics? The same ol’ same ol’ Jason Statham? Here’s your answer!
Well, lucky me, my favorite South Korean writer and director, Na Hong-jin, is finally being recognized for the genius he is and The Yellow Sea, which rocks and rolls with belly-laugh humor and buckets of gore, is being rereleased. In this film the bad guys get their comeuppance, but then again so it goes for more or less everybody else in the movie, as the whole world seems to get caught in a tsunami of violent murder.
In a voice-over opening, the noirish narrator, Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo), a taxi driver, speaks up about himself as a child. Dogs, dead or furiously barking and snapping, are a recurrent motif in The Yellow Sea. When he was young a country boy, Gu-nam recalls, his dog became rabid, a killer. The villagers wounded the dog and tried to destroy it. The animal escaped, but it came back to be with him before expiring from its wounds. Gu-nam buries the dog, but the villagers dig it up and eat its carcass. “The rabies that vanished has come back. It’s going around,” Gu-nam says as his voice alters from that of a boy to a man. “It’s going around.” On screen, a photo of a sad child transforms into a scene where an adult Gu-nam is losing at a game of mah-jongg.
We accompany Gu-nam as he slithers slowly downhill into a self-made hell. Set in Yanji, the capital of the Yanban Korean Autonomous Prefecture, a real-life poor protectorate of China that borders North Korea and Russia, we learn that Gu-nam is a member of an ethnic minority as a Korean (or Chosun-juk). Na Hong-jin slowly peels away the onion-like layers of narrative; while it at first seems that Gu-nam wastes his life gambling, driving a cab or else passed out blind drunk in his apartment, we also see the shattered frame of a wedding photo and learn that his wife has left to find work in South Korea, perhaps to pay off his debts.
Always chronically broke and hungry, Gu-nam finds himself humiliated and bowed before a mild-mannered, but clearly menacing gangster, Myun-ga, brilliantly played by Kim Yun-seok. Myun-ga casually informs him that the debt can be wiped out while they walk around a dreadful dog market, watching some animals fight desperately to stay alive while others passively wait to be butchered and eaten by humans. It’s simple, if the cabbie is willing to go to Seoul and assassinate an enemy of Myung-ya, his problems will be solved instantaneously.
In spite of the opening voice-over, Gu-nam is not one to actually explain much. A desperate journey to Seoul offers him the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone after the cabbie agrees to do the job. And as Gu-nam undergoes his odyssey to the South Korean capital, the story of what actually happened to his marriage is told in bits of bytes, through shards of conversation and flashbacks. Suddenly an amateur assassin, Gu-nam bemoans his fate sadly at one moment and then hungrily scarfs down a dog, charred on a stick moments later. Hungry, cold and comically alone—a sort of shoulder-shrugging inversion of Clint Eastwood’s poncho-wearing loner in scores of westerns—Gu-nam is petrified before he falls into each new violent episode.
Reunited with Lee Sung-je, the cinematographer and editor who worked on his feature debut, The Chaser (2009), this is simply one of the best action thrillers ever made, Na Hong-jin makes the film’s 157 minutes just fly by. I won’t give away any more of the plot, but what happens to Gu-nam when he arrives in Seoul slowly gets ratcheted up as the blood flows and the anxiety about his missing wife grows.
Bloody fights, double-crosses, hilarious slapstick car chases, spectacularly choreographed fight scenes; this film has it all in spades.
Beware of other versions of this film because they were dreadfully bowdlerized by American distributors when they released a 90-minute version in the U.S. in 2011. This version is the director’s cut and will be rereleased as a double DVD set by Criterion in 2015.