Release Date: December 22nd, 2010
Running Time: 156 mins.
Director: Na Hong-Jin
Writer: Na Hong-Jin, Hong Won-Chan (Screenplay)
Starring: Ha Jung-Woo, Kim Yun-Seok, Cho Seong-Ha, Lee Cheol-Min, Jeong Man-Sik, Jung Min-Sung,
Director Na Hong-Jin followed up his astounding debut, The Chaser (2008) with this film which proves to be even more macho, nihilistic, and violent as if inspired by the absurd cruelty of the split suffered by Koreans since the Korean War’s ceasefire. It is all played out through the misfortune of a simple taxi driver who finds himself caught between ethnic Korean Chinese and South Korean gangsters after he crosses the eponymous Yellow Sea on a mission to kill.
The film begins in the wintry Chinese city of Yanji, a place where Koreans and Chinese mix. People live in functional apartments and shop in open-air markets and small stores, they spend the night at gambling halls and get around on pot-holed streets clogged with cars from the early 90s. This place is the source of many immigrants that head to South Korea across the Yellow Sea.
Gu-Nam (Ha Jung-Woo), an ethnic Korean, or Joseonjok, is the husband of one such immigrant. His wife made the trip across the water with the intention of sending money back to her husband and daughter but she has disappeared. Now Gu-Nam, who took on massive debts to get a visa for his wife, toils away as a taxi driver and is hounded by gangsters who want the debt repaid. Not even selling his organs will pay things off. When not working, he is often found at gambling halls getting drunk and blowing his money while trying to ignore people who say his wife is having an affair and has abandoned him.
Enter local gangster Myun Jung-Hak (Kim Yoon-Seok) who offers Gu-Nam a deal: if Gu-Nam goes to South Korea to kill a businessman and return in ten days, he will get enough money to wipe out his debts. Not only that, he can search for his wife if he has enough time. Gu-Nam accepts the offer and leaves for South Korea by a route many illegal immigrants take, a rickety fishing boat.
When Gu-nam arrives in South Korea he finds a world slightly different from his own – clean streets, much more modern apartments, convenience stores instead of open air markets, people living closeted lives with more security and order and rich Koreans willing to exploit their poorer cousins who are illegal immigrants. Some things remain the same and there are gangsters but the South Korean variety wears suits instead of fur and leather, they use guns instead of hatchets and knives and they want the same person dead.
Gu-Nam spends a few days monitoring his target, planning his attack. There is a bodyguard and locked gates to get past but if Gu-Nam can get his timing right… but when the time to kill the man comes things go awry and Gu-Nam is left on the run with both ethnic Korean Chinese and South Korean gangsters looking to murder him while the police want to arrest him.
Split into different chapters such as “Taxi Driver” and “Murderer” the film charts the disastrous ten days that Gu-Nam suffers as he tries to head back to China and then solve why he is being targeted. The plot thickens and congeals as the murder goes so awry it quickly becomes clear it is a set-up and he is a fall-guy who is in over his head. The narrative is put together with a mixture of noir and Hitchockian elements – an innocent man accused, a protagonist who cannot trust anyone and gets beaten up constantly, ineffective police officers, a staircase playing a huge role, low-key lighting which favours shadows and darkness, and a convoluted tale that ends with a certain moral ambivalence. The film has a slow-burn energy that seems to build up in stages and peaks with various chase sequences where people get badly hurt, especially the main protagonist.
This being a Korean film, there’s a large dose of violence and its consequences from the brutal stabbing of Gu-Nam’s target to the pitter-patter of blood that flows down a staircase. Characters don’t spring back from punches, they stagger or collapse. Hatchets bite into backs. People are clubbed and kicked to death. Bullets send thugs sprawling. Knives stick and slash, leaving scarlet decorating the set. There’s little sympathy for many of these gangsters especially at the ending which suggests that each life can be wiped out with little consequence despite the ties broken. Indeed, the violence becomes operatic in scale and absurd as a result as so many die but when one considers that everyone exploiting and hurting each other is Korean and they are one people an element of tragedy enters the narrative.
The direction is crisp and unfussy and the fights are thrilling to watch before they get too grisly but it is the chases that are the highlights such as Gu-Nam’s escape from the scene of the murder he was assigned to carry out. He has to escape that important staircase into another building and weave his way through alleys and streets with a whole fleet of police cars and a small army of police officers on foot chasing him. Swift camera-work based on POV shots as our main protag and the policemen chasing him gets the blood pumping especially as police cars careen around city streets and crash into each other like this is a remake of The Blues Brothers, albeit much more serious.
Ha Jung-Woo and Kim Yun-Seok are reunited with their director to provide the engine that makes this film run. Ha Jung-Woo transformed from that slim-figured callous sadistic killer in The Chaser (2008) into a contemplative hulking bruiser in The Berlin File (2013). His performance and appearance here is midway between the two as he essays a confused, naive but determined and tough guy dealt a bad hand and scrambling to survive. Kim Yun-Seok goes from being a slightly sympathetic good guy to a beastly but slightly sympathetic bad guy who gets plenty of comedy in between moments of monstrous violence – he jumps into the water to chase Gu-Nam and he clubs a rival gangster to death with a huge bone.
Ultimately this is a great thriller that manages to make its convoluted plot compelling and it works because of Ha Jung-Woo and Kim Yun-Seok who relentlessly chase each other. Definitely one who wants to explore Korean cinema.