Na Hong-jin’s second film confirms that he is the number one crime-action auteur to emerge from Asia in recent memory. I like his films more than Park Chan-wook’s head-scratchingly abstract work since Oldboy and also Kim Ji-woon’s fun but sadly empty and pointless excursions post-A Tale of Two Sisters. Na’s first film, The Chaser, is a taut, horrific thriller with great momentum and some shocking surprises. It starred two very good but nonprominent Korean actors, Kim and Ha, as very complex action movie figures. The pair are recast in The Yellow Sea, again on opposite sides of a pretty thin moral fence, with both reacting to larger and more cynical forces that they don’t care to understand.
The film begins in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, a slice of Chinese territory above North Korea with a large ethnic Korean populace. A title at the start of the film suggests that half of Yanbian’s citizens undertake illegal activities to subsist. It’s a perfect place to imagine a crime movie and no surprise that within minutes Na has us siding with an individual on the edge – a desperate taxi driver, prone to gambling, struggling to pay off a debt incurred by his wife. She borrowed money from a loan shark to get a visa to enter Seoul. She left and hasn’t returned or written, apparently deserting the man and their young daughter.
Women are crucial to The Yellow Sea’s story, but they are hardly seen. Na follows the men, all of whom are aggressive, crafty, resourceful and adept at bashing and killing people with a variety of tools (knives, hatchets, shovels, wrenches, pots, tables, a half-eaten dog? bone). The taxi driver is hired to go to Seoul and kill a man in return for having his debt cleared. In a harrowing sequence he is smuggled into South Korea by boat. He’s told where the return boat will pick him up in 10 days, so he can return home free of debt to be with his daughter (they’ll kill her if he doesn’t come back). He doesn’t waste time, studying his target, going through the motions of how he will kill him. The process is involving and we find ourselves actually wanting him to kill this person who we know nothing about. Such is his desperation and, through the script, character motivation.
Of course it doesn’t go according to plan and he has to find a way to protect himself and get back to Yanbian to save his daughter. There’s a bigger picture, too, which Na suggests but doesn’t reveal until the resolution. Oh, and stick around during the credits for the ironic final touch.
In order to sustain momentum, Na really amps up the action at times. He will snip out slower elements of an action scene, like the moments of suspense in a chase sequence where one person or vehicle slowly gains on another. Instead he cuts directly to the physical action, where bodies collide and spectacular set-piece stunts can unfold. He also sprinkles obstacles to the hero’s movement at every opportunity, clearly a fan of 1980s action movies like Die Hard and The Terminator. Time and again there are near-impossible escapes from situations that make us think, “Surely he’s screwed now,” but Na has a knack for making such audience manipulation seem strangely believable and hence non-offensive. It helps that, like in The Chaser, each uniformed police officer Na puts on screen is an incompetent buffoon. He really has it in for cops, and bottom-rung gangsters aren’t spared much sympathy in The Yellow Sea either.
Na doesn’t quite hit the gob-smacking dramatic heights of The Chaser here, with a film that is a much straighter action vehicle. I do hope he returns to the more esoteric ambitions of his debut effort some day, but for now if he just wants to make sure his foot remains firmly in the door of the commercial production houses, then good luck to him.