The crime-gone-bad thriller is a staple of the crime genre. Na Hong-jin’s The Yellow Sea, a South Korean box-office hit making its North American debut at SIFF 2011, runs with the concept in a jittery thriller of a desperate taxi driver in Yanji (an autonomous region in Northern China dominated by ethnic Koreans) hired to kill a man in South Korea. Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is Joseonjok, a Chinese citizen of Korean ancestry living in the impoverished region across the border. His wife hasn’t contacted him since she left to work in Korea six months ago, he’s deep in debt to the gangsters who smuggled her across the channel (the Yellow Sea of the title) and he’s losing whatever he makes gambling at Mahjong. So a local crime boss, Myung (Kim Yun-seok), makes him an offer: wipe his debt clean in exchange for a simple murder.
Na takes us through the human smuggling process with a rapid-fire pace, jumping through the steps in the ordeal in a montage that makes its points without stopping to explain and sets the tone that will define the rest of the gangster drama: no sentiment, no hesitation, no warning, just keep moving, react immediately and don’t look back. There’s none of the John Woo bullet ballets here. Na Hong-jin goes for the unpredictability of violence and the chaos created out of panic and shoots Gu-nam’s action scenes—well, more like reaction as he improvises in the face of competition and goes on the run from both the cops and the crooks—with a jittery shakycam aesthetic. It’s an overused and abused technique to be sure, too often appropriated in place of building and sustaining effective action scenes, but here it’s saved specifically to put us in the agitated head of our hero, an amateur in a world of professional thugs running on panic and adrenaline. It drives his desperate flight from a careening mob of overeager cops colliding with each other in their pursuit to a runaway escape that is all desperation and reckless impulse at high speed.
The rest of the film is cleanly (if not always elegantly) put together. It’s clear that Na knows how to direct—his wordless sequence illustrating Gu-nam’s plot to kill his mark is a perfectly executed exercise in visual storytelling and his witty restraint when it comes to Myung’s gifts for facing overwhelming odds with just an ax and a sharp knife is perfectly measured—and his jittery run-and-gun chase photography is actually quite effective, if a little too agitated on the big screen. It can be exhausting, but the action is never less than compelling and the detective work and exposition is efficient, if not quite as engaging.
Na’s weakness is character. While there’s no shortage of motivation, there is precious little personality behind the characters and only a nominal story behind the expertly-constructed plot. And if there’s a socio-political, beyond the marginalization of Joseonjok population in both countries (in China the term is used as a racial slur by at least on guy), I didn’t pick up on it. Then again, there is the odd portrayal of the South Korean mob as ineffectual and timid compared its Chinese brethren and the sometime buffoonish portrait of South Korean police. It’s all that keeps Gu-nam alive in the plot of revenge, double-crosses, hidden motives and warring criminal gangs. He’s no more than a pawn to be sacrificed in the bigger game but his resilience upsets the already unraveling endgame. The overriding tone is bitter irony and brutal hypocrisy. There’s no honor among thieves here.
South Korean genre cinema stepped up its game a decade ago, after Hong Kong was handed over to China and the film industry lost its primacy in Asian action cinema during the transition and turmoil. South Korea’s specialty is slick, sleek thrillers of criminal masterminds and supercops squaring off in high-concept plots and set-piece spectacles. Which makes The Yellow Sea all the more interesting. The mobsters aren’t all that bright, the cops are just cops fumbling through a violent case and all he skill and planning in the world can’t prepare them for the wild cards that get tossed into every situation. This may not have the ingenious plotting of a Tarantino film, but part of the pleasure of Na’s film is that it never actually feels plotted as it unfolds. Only as we get our bearings do we see how nicely the pieces come together.
Note: The Korean version runs 157 minutes, which is the listed running time in the catalogue, but it was edited down by around twenty minutes for international distribution. SIFF is actually playing the shorter international version.
Plays at SIFF Cinema on Friday, June 10 at 9:30pm and Saturday, June 11 at 11:15pm. Director Na Hong-jin is scheduled to appear at both screenings.
[Editor’s Note: My coverage of the Seattle International Film Festival is cross-posted at The House Next Door.]