October 14, 2012

The Yellow Sea: If You Can Cut With It, You Can Kill With It

In The Yellow Sea, Yanji* cab-driver Ga-num (Ha Jung-woo) isn't your typical anti-hero. A gambler whose debts have driven him to agree to kill a professor (Kwak Byeong-gyoo) in Seoul, he's short on charm and lacks a moral code, however warped. Myun-ga (Kim Yun-seok), the crime boss who enlists his services, comes across as more likeable and laudable. At least initially. But after the targeted prof has been offed, everything's become so horrific — the planned assassination has domino-ed into mass murder — that Ga-num emerges as the sympathetic guy. (It's hard not to feel for a guy who got played.) Framed and uninformed, he's left to fend off Myun-ga's gang, the cops, and the thugs of Kim Tae-won (Cho Seong-ha), Myun-ga's slimy white collar counterpoint.

Na Hong-jin, who also directed the heart-racing thriller The Chaser, must have paranoia in his DNA. Once again, the thrills in The Yellow Sea come from "Somebody's after me!" scenarios; yet again the action is all pursuit/escape. As Ga-num flees Myun-ga, Kim and the cops, Kim flees and pursues Myun-ga, and Myun-ga chases and chases and chases. Many of the face-offs when someone finally catches up to someone else involve men with big kitchen knives or just-as-lethal axes hacking, stabbing, and sometimes even sawing into unlucky bodies. Many die quickly, dramatically. But the three main guys — Ga-num, Myun-ga, and Kim — bleed and survive, stopping only for the time it takes to fashion a tourniquet.

Their collective rapid recoveries push The Yellow Sea into comic book territory, where men bludgeon others with pots and pans and even the occasional animal thigh bone. Where else can a man with a twisted ankle outrun police cars and a whole squad of officers on foot? Since the superhuman powers aren't restricted to the movie's hero, fights are fair among the main three: Anyone could win. Whether anyone actually does or not is a question to answer over the many excited drinks sure to follow.

*Footnote: Yanji is a Chinese city with a predominantly Korean population.

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