A desperate would-be assassin from a little-known Korean-Chinese community becomes the unlikely moral center of “The Yellow Sea,” a breathtakingly brutal man-on-the-run thriller with a trenchant basis in gutter-level reality. Gushing more blood and possessing more stamina than any number of Hollywood hack-’em-ups, writer-director Na Hong-jin’s pulse-pounding, mordantly funny genre piece is at times messily convoluted, yet serious and full-bodied enough to achieve a genuinely tragic dimension. Though less of a smash than Na’s 2008 debut, “The Chaser,” pic has grossed a solid $17 million since its chart-topping local bow in December, and deserves a major push beyond Eastern markets.
The widespread interest Na generated with “The Chaser” (Warner Bros. bought the remake rights) was likely a factor in securing Fox Intl. Prods as a co-financer on “The Yellow Sea,” making it the first Korean production to receive funding from a Hollywood studio (Fox World Cinema will release it Stateside on DVD and VOD). The re-edited international cut premiered at Cannes could certainly be tightened further, though at the risk of compromising the gritty texture and near-epic feel of this uncommonly rich actioner.
Down-on-his-luck taxi driver Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is one of 800,000 Korean-Chinese, known as Joseonjok, dwelling in a crime-infested city in northeast China’s Yanbian Prefecture. Overwhelmed by mahjong gambling debts, Gu-nam catches the attention of tough local kingpin Myun (Kim Yun-seok), who asks him to head to Seoul and bump off professor Kim Seung-hyun (Kwak Byoung-kyu). Gu-nam accepts the job, not least because it will allow him to look for his wife, who left him six months earlier to look for work in the South Korean capital.
First of the film’s four chapters takes its time outlining Gu-nam’s backstory and depicting his long journey by train, bus and finally boat as he crosses the titular sea to Korea. The effect of this patient, detail-attentive narrative approach is to immerse the viewer in a chilly underworld populated by the criminal and the dispossessed, as Lee Sung-je’s murky widescreen lensing and Lee Hwo-kyoung’s moldering production design convey an overpowering sense of moral rot.
Once the scene has been set, however, pic quickly gets down to its dirty business: Gu-nam scopes out his mark’s apartment building, only to find — in a nerve-shredding Hitchcockian setpiece that makes ingenious use of a stairwell and sensor-activated lights — that he’s not the only one who wants the professor dead. Fleeing a bloodbath for which he was only partly responsible, Gu-nam runs and runs and runs, never slowing down even when he sustains flesh wounds or worse; the pic’s thrilling signature shot has him racing toward the camera with thugs and/or cops in hot pursuit, to the propulsive accompaniment of Jang Young-gyu and Lee Byung-hoon’s score.
As Gu-nam stays barely a step ahead of his pursuers, Ha’s bracingly physical performance becomes an expression of pure, stripped-down survival instinct. As Myun, a seemingly unkillable killer who makes Gu-nam his personal target, Kim Yun-seok cuts an often hilariously mensch-like figure, expertly butchering a roomful of assailants without breaking a sweat. (Both thesps also toplined “The Chaser,” albeit with the good-guy and bad-guy roles reversed.)
Establishing a steady start-and-stop rhythm over its 139-minute running time, pic alternates swatches of heady exposition with sickening spasms of violence, almost all of it conducted with butcher knives and tomahawks (the only guns here are wielded by hopelessly incompetent cops). Less coherently staged and edited, and shot on lower-grade digital, is a lengthy Busan-set car chase that hails from the Jerry Bruckheimer school of vehicular bombast.
As the tangle of motives behind the murder come to light, exposing corruption and personal vice at the most respectable levels of Korean society, “The Yellow Sea” manages to stab and slash its way to a place of surprising moral gravity. If Na’s first film expressed a howl of outrage at the ineptitude of law enforcement, his latest evinces a quietly fierce concern for the exploited and marginalized Joseonjok; Gu-nam is truly a man without a country, an idea underscored by the film’s haunting final shot.
Though the pic will be billed as “The Yellow Sea” in most English-speaking territories, it’s also being marketed under another international title, “The Murderer.” Subtitles on the Cannes print read, “The Murderer (The Yellow Sea).”