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.