NOTE: This is a review of the 140-minute International Cut (aka Director’s Cut) version of the film.
Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is resilient. He may be hopelessly in debt, has been left by his wife, can’t take care of his daughter and has problems with gambling and controlling his temper, but he still persists. Fuelled by the mix of love and loathing that comes with sexual jealousy and a muted sense of regret and sadness over having to allow his mother to raise his daughter, Gu-nam needs a way out of his predicament. He therefore doesn’t need too much convincing when crime boss Myung-Ga (Yun-Seok Kim) offers him a large sum of money in return for killing a man. The mission involves getting smuggled out of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China to South Korea, which also happens to be where Gu-nam’s wife has gone.
The Yellow Sea is divided into four parts with each part given a title that reflects how Gu-nam is perceived by himself and the other characters. The first segment is simply ‘Taxi Driver’, named after Gu-nam’s job in Yanji City in Yanbian. He is so overwhelmingly in debt that his monotonous and subservient job is all that he is. This first segment has something of a social-realist feel. While the film maintains a gritty aesthetic, filmed with handheld camera and shot in the bleakest parts of the various Chinese and Korean cities and towns where the action takes place, the emphasis at the start of the film is the hopelessness of Gu-nam’s situation.
Gu-nam has similarities to Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Not only do they both share a profession, but they are both loners in a hostile environment who become increasingly violent. There is a brief shot in The Yellow Sea where Gu-nam is walking down a small street, looking pensive with his hands thrust into his army jacket, which bears a remarkable visual similarity to the shot of Robert De Niro as Bickle used on many of the Taxi Driver promotional posters. While Bickle’s act of murder is the climax of Taxi Driver, Gu-nam’s act occurs at the climax of the The Yellow Sea’s second chapter, titled ‘Killer’. This whole chapter functions as a tense thriller with Gu-nam attempting to find his wife while planning the assassination he has been sent to perform. He really is God’s lonely man in this section; a man whose future has become defined by how successfully he performs his hit.
The third chapter is a combination of action, fugitive and gangster film, titled ‘Joseonjok’, one of the names used to describe people like Gu-nam who are Chinese of Korean descent. While the urgent and bleak style of the film becomes increasingly used to facilitate extraordinarily choreographed action set pieces, the film also makes an interesting commentary on Joseonjok identity. On the run from both Chinese and Korean gangs, The Yellow Sea writer/director Na Hong-jin seems to be using Gu-nam’s story to suggest that Joseonjok people are outsiders who aren’t fully embraced by either culture.
The final chapter expands the scope beyond Gu-nam’s story to focus on the rival Chinese and Korean gangs. This section is appropriately titled ‘The Yellow Sea’ after the large body of water between mainland China and the west coast of Korea. It is also the sea that Gu-nam is initially taken across, by smugglers who have little regard for the lives of their Joseonjok passengers. The action reaches a fever pitch in this final chapter as the Koreans and Chinese butcher each other. Na Hong-jin alternates between scenes shot in open spaces where adversities come from all sides making escape look impossible, and tightly filmed sequences in confined spaces that are rapidly edited to convey disorientation and panic.
While it does provide a commentary on the geopolitical relations between China and Korea, the shift away from Gu-nam during the final sections does lose some of the film’s intense focus. In particular, there is one too many scenes of Myung-Ga being indestructible and unstoppable as if he is some kind of Terminator. Nevertheless, The Yellow Sea is still an exhilarating film with action that is breathtakingly kinetic and visceral. The traumas inflicted on the human body by knives, axes and even a large bone (there are very few guns in the film) leave visible and pronounced marks that don’t heal between shots. For a film this slickly structured and ultimately over-the-top, it maintains a grim realism.