The Yellow Sea (Whanghae)

This movie was one of the Dublin International Film Festival offerings. Written and directed by Hong-Jin Na, Yellow Sea is his second movie, the first being the critically well received The Chaser (2009). When something works the first time, don’t change it and this is the rule he followed. The leading cast members are the same as his previous outing. The film opens in Yanji City, part of an autonomous provence located between China, North Korea and Russia. We are told at the outset that 50% of the population lives off crime.

Our “hero” (Jung-woo Ha) and I use the word lightly, is a down on his luck taxi driver who owes the local mob a large sum of money which was used to buy a visa for his wife who is not working in South Korea.  His gambling losses at the Mah-jong bring him to the attention of one of the local crime lords who hires him for a hit in South Korea. The fee will pay his visa debt.  He agrees to do the hit, for the money and the chance to find his wife, who everybody is convinced is cheating on him and tells him so.

After a harrowing trip to South Korea or friend finds his target’s home and begins to stake out the house.  One the night he intends to do the hit, everything goes wrong. The film moves to an ever descending cycle of violence with some of the most intense chase scenes of recent years.  The movie deliberately does not have the polished look of many South Korean movies such as Untold Scandal (Lee Je Yong 2003) but more the chaotic tension feel of The Good, The Bad and The Weird (Jee-woon Kim (2008). This is a movie of many twists and extremely graphic violence. The weapons of choice are assorted knives and hatchets, the only people to use guns are the police and they end up shooting one of their own in the process. The violence aside, it is full-on and visual but somehow stays this side of becoming a slasher movie; Oldboy (Chan-wook Park, 2003) springs to mind.

The film is actually quite engaging and carries the plot most of the way, but I can’t but get the feeling that the plot started to take second place to the screen images (the killings) in the later chapters of the movie and the tracking of the person responsible for the whole mess culminates in what feels a little like a Deus ex machina convenience. If is was a little shorter it would possibly have been a very different film, focusing more on his quest for answers rather that the bloody battles being fought.  That said, it is well worth watching as long as you are not too squeamish. It was a hit at the Korean box office when released and I suspect once it is finished the festival circuit it will likely find a distributer to replicate the Korean launch. At the very least I expect to see a lot more of Jung-woo Ha and not only in Korean role.

Watch to the very end, there’s a twist at the credits….

Rating 7/10 but not for those who don’t like blood. It is a good gangster movie.

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