Friday, December 02, 2011

Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea

For the ethnic Korean-Chinese Joseonjok living in the Northeast Yanbian prefecture, life is difficult. Many aspire to work in South Korea, but often return embittered by the experience, fueling anti-Korean sentiments within their own community and China at large. One Joseonjok cab-driver reluctantly agrees to commit one of the murders Koreans evidently just won’t do, simply for an opportunity to look for his missing wife in Na Hong-jin’s dark thriller, The Yellow Sea (a.k.a. The Murderer, trailer here), which opens today in New York.

The world is out to get Gu-nam. He still owes sixty large for his wife’s transit fee, but he has lost contact with, leading everyone to suspect she has left him for someone else. After fleecing the cabbie in mahjong, hitman and human-trafficker Myun-ga offers him a deal. If he goes to Seoul and kills the man living at a certain address, all will be forgiven. Not having a lot of options, Gu-nam goes along with the plan, hoping to track down his wife while in Korea.

Unfortunately, killing the man at the designated address proves quite complicated, at least for a novice like Gu-nam. Yet, as soon as he devises a workable plan, someone else executes the contract. Things get messy. Not guilty, if not necessarily innocent, Gu-nam suddenly finds himself on the lam. However, the born loser is surprisingly hard to kill, forcing Myun-ga to personally take care of business. His tool of choice is an axe.

Sea is the sort of thriller where the audience has Peter Boyle’s guarantee from The Candidate. No matter what happens, Gu-nam loses, so as long as he stays alive, acting as the spanner in the works, he is sort of winning. Just looking at Ha Jung-woo’s Gu-nam will make you want to pop an aspirin. Formerly the creepy psychopath in Na’s The Chaser, he is quite the sad sack here, but never to a cringe-inducing extent. In fact, he is rather credible rising to the occasion during the action scenes. Likewise, his Chaser co-star Kim Yun-seok is an electric pseudo-villain-slash-antihero.

Yet in the film’s most conspicuous weakness, the motivations of Myun-ga’s criminal co-conspirator, “legitimate businessman” Kim Tae-won, are rather ill-defined beyond general nefariousness. Frankly, it would be devilishly hard to explain why any of this was set in motion, but once it is, Na excels at the gritty in-your-face action. There are not a lot of guns in Sea. Weapons tend to be makeshift, but effective.

Sea definitely follows in the angst-ridden noir tradition of The Wrong Man and The Fugitive, but it crashes more vehicles and builds up a heck of a body count. Though grimly naturalistic, it is a fully satisfying action thriller, definitely recommended when it opens today (12/2) in New York at the Village East.