Hong-jin Na’s latest, The Yellow Sea, is also the first Korean film to receive investment from a major Hollywood, with Fox International reaching into their deep pockets to contribute to the project. The Yellow Sea is very much a Korean production though with Hong-jin bringing back the same cast and crew for his second film and swimming in very familiar waters to his début both in terms of the genre and the way in which he approaches it stylistically.
The Yellow Sea crosses back and forth across the titular sea, between the Korean Autonomous Prefecture of Yanbian and Seoul in South Korea. Much like the border crossing narrative the lead character, Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo), is a man divided both by his citizenship (Korean-Chinese, a so-called Joseonjok), by his desire to stay in Yanji City but also to travel to find his wife in Korea and also in his reluctance to break the law clashing with his need to.
After accumulating large gambling debts, and desperate to find his wife, he ‘excepts’ an offer to travel to Seoul. There he is supposed to carry out a hit on someone, thereby wiping his debts. This hit is not the simple job that was sold to him though and very quickly he finds himself on the run, pursued by gangsters and the police, all the while still trying to track down his absent wife.
The tricksy plot surrounding the hit is certainly engrossing, as is the search for his wife, but it is the grimy and violent action that provides the real meat of the film. None of the action is glamorous or balletic in any way though, the characters in The Yellow Sea fight dirty and they fight with whatever comes to hand, mostly knives and axes, and when vehicles come into play there is more crashing and breaking windows than there are handbrake turns or speeding sports cars.
Whilst this action and the twisting but forward propelled narrative are often gripping and entirely compelling, the pacing across this 140 minute film (the domestic version adds a further 17 minutes) is problematic and occasionally threatens to drag the film down entirely. The film too often stops and starts when moving between scenes and differing types of sequences, slow dramatic scenes then energetic action sequences, drama then action and so on and so on. This lack of fluidity is definitely an issue but luckily the various parts that make up the whole are largely fantastic and the film is mostly a solid and entertaining thriller, just one occasionally saddled somewhat by pacing issues.