Review: The Yellow Sea (2010)


To succeed and accompany the powerful Korean film triumvirate of Park Chan-wook, Kim Ji-woon, Bong Joon-ho, and their varied cinemas of revenge, violence, murders, monsters, and blood in the 2000s is a tall order. But it is a necessary one if contemporary Korean cinema wants to remain at the cutting-edge of Asian cinemas and continually capture the attention of global audiences, niche or otherwise. At the level of market infrastructure and international/regional hub, the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) and its new 2011 digs (the Busan Cinema Centre) certainly fulfill this challenge. At the level of film production, Na Hong-jin is undoubtedly one of the more recent Korean filmmakers to watch who also takes up this challenge, in a breathtaking way. With his sophomore effort The Yellow Sea (2010), he proves that the excitement that he generated with his first film was not a fluke but a sign of better things to come.

Na’s debut film The Chaser (2009) was a smart, suspenseful, and spell-binding interpretation of the rogue cop-serial killer narrative. Its tight rhythm enabled a viewing experience wherein the spectator was trapped into breathing in time with the lead characters, played brilliantly by Kim Yun-seok and Ha Jung-woo. Through The Yellow Sea, Na raises the stakes in his exploration of the action suspense/thriller genre but also goes beyond generic definitions to address an often neglected/ignored portion of the Korean diaspora. In terms of narrative and production, The Yellow Sea toes that delicate line between the local and the global, which distinguishes it from The Chaser, and in the process, engages with the issue of the nature of the Korean blockbuster vis-à-vis readings of Korean society.

The film traces the complex underworld industry of contract killing between northeastern China, and South Korea, and the violent misfortunes that befall a young man following an assignment. In Yanji City in Yanbian prefecture, near the border between China and North Korea, Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) barely ekes out a living as a taxi driver. He is one among the hundreds of thousands of Joseonjok (or Chosunjok), ethnic Koreans in China, who live in poor circumstances and try to do what they can to survive. His wife had returned to Korea to find work, but he has not heard from her in six months. An encounter with Myun (Kim Yun-seok), also a Joseonjok and hitman contractor, leads Gu-nam to take the risk of accepting an assignment in order to get the opportunity to travel to South Korea and look for his wife. Once in South Korea, however, Gu-nam’s pursuit of his wife becomes a secondary objective when he unwittingly finds himself in a triple bind, being a Chosunjok, an illegal immigrant in South Korea, and a wanted man by various parties for a botched murder. One of these parties ends up being Myun himself, who eventually initiates a manhunt for Gu-nam to rectify the latter’s wrongs. The twist is that rather than become passive prey to Myun’s relentless hunt, Gu-nam’s consciousness is raised, realizes that he has been taken in, and goes on a trail of revenge himself against Myun. The film then becomes filled to the brim with knives, axes, explosive car chases, and lots and lots of blood.

Such a plot may recall another recent bloody Korean film, I Saw the Devil (2010, directed by Kim Ji-woon), but do not worry. The Yellow Sea is leagues above that messy, senseless film. For one thing, the violence in The Yellow Sea is far from gratuitous. The violence is certainly spectacular, but underwriting the violence, blood, and explosions in the film are the hard-core realities of labor migration, trafficking/smuggling, discrimination, the hustle for survival, and betrayals. With these elements, the film constructs an unflinching portrait of capital unhinged: not in the sophisticated worlds of high finance or multinational/transnational corporations, but in contract killing, where murders are outsourced to the point of absolute alienation at the level of the killers, and what is more, through the lens of an already marginalized community. This point could have been more pronounced, but Na plants it as the bedrock of the film’s narrative without being didactic and overdetermining all actions.

The basic plot of a joseonjok taking on a murder contract in South Korea is based on an actual story that Na had heard of in South Korea. It prompted Na to travel to Yanji City and stay there for several months to become familiar with the community and the people’s lives. Addressing the joseonjok community is unprecedented in Korean cinema. Indeed, one of the film’s strengths is the detail with which Na presents the community and space of Yanji City. Reuniting with cinematographer Lee Sung-je, Na makes palpable the grittiness of this trade and transport hub. The grittiness is most palpable in the sequence of Gu-nam and Myun’s first meeting, which poignantly takes place in a large dog market called 369 Market. Yet another of the film’s strengths is the detail with which Na presents the perspective of (illegal) migration from a Korean who is nevertheless an outsider, and the fear that comes with constantly hiding and looking over one’s shoulder.

Holding together all of these issues are the lead actors Kim Yun-seok and Ha Jung-woo. Frankly, the film would not be half as commanding without the presence of these two men on the screen. Ha as Gu-nam is vulnerable but intense; he manages to draw out the extreme psychological complexities that haunt Gu-nam’s trials and revenge. Kim is steeliness personified; he slightly recalls the intensity of another great Korean actor, Choi Min-shik, but Kim stands all on his own as the absolutely brutal, fearless, and unforgiving Myun.

The Yellow Sea in general also stands on its own as an example of a Korean blockbuster within its thematic development since the late 1990s. Instead of conjuring up the more frequent and overt discourses of nationalism or brotherhood (however conflicted) as found in Shiri (1999, directed by Kang Je-gyu), JSA: Joint Security Area (2000, directed by Park Chan-wook), or Taegukgi (2004, directed by Kang Je-gyu), The Yellow Sea looks beyond the borders of North and South Korea and focuses on a marginalized diasporic community. Furthermore, while the aforementioned films have negotiated the local and the global tension by following the Hollywood model of production, even as the “Korean blockbuster presents itself as the cultural difference opposing the homogenizing tendencies of Hollywood” (So Young Kim, “From Cine-mania to Blockbusters and Trans-cinema: Reflections on Recent South Korean Cinema,” 2006), The Yellow Sea is the first Korean production to receive investment from a major Hollywood studio, Fox International Productions. Some of the strings attached to Fox co-financing The Yellow Sea is that it reserves the right to partake in a remake of the film or a sequel, in English, which would be helmed by Na.

But where The Yellow Sea finds common ground with Korean blockbusters in general is the absence of women on-screen: Gu-nam’s wife is all but an invisible name that Gu-nam invokes to motivate himself. So Young Kim writes, “Predictably the vanishing of South Korean women characters is offset by a new consolidation of homo-social bonding among men” (2006), which is precisely what one witnesses in The Yellow Sea. A “retreat of gender politics,” as Kim writes?

Whatever develops in the future with regards to remakes or sequels should not, however, distract one from The Yellow Sea itself, the thrilling cinema that it presents, and the anticipation of the development of Na’s cinema (all the while keeping gender politics in mind, of course).

82/100 - Through The Yellow Sea, Na raises the stakes in his exploration of the action suspense/thriller genre but also goes beyond generic definitions to address an often neglected/ignored portion of the Korean diaspora.

Rowena Santos Aquino

Recently obtained my doctoral degree in Cinema and Media studies at UCLA. Linguaphile and cinephile, and therefore multingual in my cinephilia. Asian cinemas, Spanish language filmmaking, Middle Eastern cinemas, and documentary film.
  • Christopher Misch

    The Chaser took me by surprise back in 2008. Excited to see what Na can do for an encore.