Cannes (Un Certain Regard) – The director of 2008's critically-acclaimed thriller The Chaser has reunited with leads Ha Jung-Woo and Kim Yun-Seok for his follow-up. This time around, drama segues effortlessly into an action pile-up, says an impressed Emma Rowley.
It's almost impossible to believe that The Yellow Sea (The Murderer) is only Korean director Na Hong-Jin's second film. Fans of pre-Hollywood John Woo, or fellow Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook will get a kick (and several stab wounds to the heart) from this atmospheric thriller that's not only beautifully directed and acted but whose action set-pieces will have you jumping like a fork/toaster interface.
Gu-nam (a nicely judged, sympathetic performance from Ha Jung-Woo) is a cab driver trapped in a miserable existence in Yanji City, in the Yanbian region. It's an area that borders on North Korea, China and Russia and the home to more than 800,000 Korean-Chinese. The area's economy is poor and at least half of the Joseonjoks who live there rely on crime and illegal activities like gambling to survive. Gu-nam's saved enough money to send his wife to Korea six months prior to the start of the story. But in that time, he hasn't heard from her, spending his nights losing money at the mah-jong tables and growing increasingly frustrated at her abandonment. That is until local villain Myun (Kim Yun-Seok as a menacing but Tarantino-cool hitman, complete with oversize shades and fur collar) makes him an offer: travel to Korea and kill a rival in return for the clearing of his debts. There's travel money too, and the added incentive of tracking down his missing wife. All he has to do is bring back a thumb as proof that he's done the job.
The film has such a strong sense of place and character – Gu-nam's smoky haunts, the (real) vast dog market in which he meets Myun and his arduous journey to Korea in the hold of a fishing boat are compellingly drawn – that you're completely sucked in to believing you're watching a social-realist drama about the plight of the Joseonjoks. When the action hits, it feels like a startling genre-shift. Gu-nam arrives in Seoul but finds that his target is much harder to reach than he'd anticipated. He spends days identifying him, mapping his movements and preparing the attack. But by the time he's ready, he finds himself walking into the middle of an underworld murder. It's a terrible dilemma: he has to bring home his quarry's thumb in order to seal the deal with Myun but to do so, he has to get past the assassins who've made a lot of noise in the job and alerted the police. Gu-nam is a desperate man and what's more, he's as slippery as a fish: a good thing as Myun has double-crossed him, the police have CC-TV footage of his face and half the gangsters in Seoul are after him.
The action and violence are very much in the 'more is more' style of mobster films of all kinds but since the gangsters' weapon of choice is a thin kitchen knife rather than a gun, it's raw and bloody. Much was made in Cannes of the violence in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, but that was quick and to the point compared to this yet the audience (metaphorically) lapped up the gore, breaking into spontaneous applause three times in the film, after breakneck set-pieces concluded.
Rating on a scale of 5 hand-axe fight scenes I forgot to mention: 4
Release date: TBC
Directed by: Na-Hong Jin
Screenplay by: Na-Hong Jin
Cast: Ha Jung-Woo, Kim Yun-Seok, Cho Seong-Ha
Rating: TBC (but undoubtedly an 18)
Running time: 157 mins