The Yellow Sea is a hard movie to recommend; directed by Hong-Jin Na, the second offering from the director of The Chaser, The Yellow Sea is a weird mix of multiple genres that should not work as well together, yet not only they do, but it is in theory an improvement from The Chaser in every aspect. I still like The Chaser better, but The Yellow Sea is such a different beast, that even comparing the two feels wrong, even if they have many similarities. For me, The Chaser feels like an excellent blockbuster, in that the story is easy to follow (although it is brilliantly executed and poignant) and the action is a selling point on its own. The Yellow Sea, on the other hand, feels like an art-house film had a baby with an action blockbuster; you need to follow the story (which is hard and vague), but at the same time, the action is so good that it can be enjoyed for the set pieces alone.
The premise is pretty straightforward; Gu-nam is a cab driver living in Yanji City, which is infamous for the poor living conditions of its residents and the fact that it is a place between North Korea, Russia and China. After sending his wife to Korea to make money, Gu-nam feels betrayed as he has not heard from her for 6 months, while his debts keep increasing. He is given a way to repay his debts and find his wife, by a shady local gangster, who offers him a sinister offer. While this story may seem pretty straightforward, it is anything but; there are heavy symbolisms throughout and the story is vague and left to interpretation. I’m not going to lie, this is a pretty hard movie to follow and understand from your first viewing, but there are a few reasons why you should try, and why it works well enough to warrant a second and third viewing; firstly, the action scenes. The Yellow Sea feels like a spiritual successor to The Chaser, specifically in the way The Chaser presented its action scenes, with The Yellow Sea following the same concepts, but executing them better and expanding on their capabilities; the camera is less shaky, the running segments are expanded upon with parkour set-pieces and the action is much more brutal and raw, as it also maintains the practical effects obsession of similar Asian movies and the “this is real” gimmick of The chaser, elevating it to a grander scale as the movie also features a few more traditional set-piece moments, such as an incredible highway scene and Yoon-Seok Kim’s memorably visceral scene (don’t want to give anything away, you will know what I was referring to once you see it) that are clearly real people, real cars and real impact that was captured (it could be some genius camera trickery and post-edit effects, but it really looks genuine at the very least)
The second reason is the characters; while The Chaser had two excellent characters, but also a few that were disappointingly simple, The Yellow Sea nails all the characters it needed to; Gu-nam is a deeply flawed and troubled character, making his life and those of others more difficult with his decisions, but he has a sympathetic side to him that makes those errors and misjudgments he makes redeemable and understandable, to a certain extend. Then there’s Myun Jung-hak, the local crime-lord that offers Gu-nam a way to find his wife, through sinister means; he is not a redeemable character or a nuanced one either. But he is expertly crafted, as he is menacing and terrifying, because he has no fear; considering where he lives, he really has nothing to lose and he is not afraid to die, which makes him the right kind of “psychopathic bad guy” stereotype (even though he does not feel like a stereotype, while watching the movie). Lastly, there’s Tae-won who’s another cog in this wonderfully elaborate machine; he is also a crime-lord but a South Korean one. He rules and survives by being smarter and more ruthless than everyone else, but he has a lot to lose; he has a nice life and, by many accounts, is a nice guy who lives a luxurious and envious life. When certain events transpire, he has to rush and make difficult decisions, in order to cover his tracks and save his life and lifestyle, which creates a perfect contradiction to Jung-hak and Gu-nam. These three characters are excellent and enthralling to watch, but there are a few side-characters that are well done also; there’s the father-in-law of Gu-nam, who has an incredibly somber moment, where he hangs his head in shame and apologises for his daughter’s actions to Gu-nam, and Gu-nam’s mother who cares for his daughter and has to make a few difficult decisions along the way. Obviously, there’s Gu-nam’s wife, but that is spoiler territory on how, or whether, she impacts the story, so I won’t go into detail on that.
Lastly, reason number three, is the story; at least the base level story. The actual mysteries driving the plot forward are quite thrilling to watch, as we watch Gu-nam enter a foreign, to him, South Korea and plan a way to carry his promise to the crime-lord Jung-hak, as well as find out the fate of his wife. The problem here is that, if the movie does not grab you with the symbolisms and deeper story-line, then the story feels unsatisfying; the plot gets to a point where it is incredibly complicated and, as with most Korean movies, is very grim and dour, which may leave viewers with a depressed after-taste. That is partly the reason why I enjoy Korean cinema so much, as this is a refreshing and well executed break from the cinematic conventions of similar Western offerings, but this is also why the movie is so special to me; there isn’t a lot of discource or explanations around the movie, which leaves you alone to figure out whether you want to attempt to understand and digest the movie, and if you do, what is your personal interpretation of the movie.
Which is why, I absolutely love The Yellow Sea, and think it is a “better” movie from The Chaser; it is less satisfying in the short-term, but it requires more from the viewer and grants more if given that effort. As I said, The Chaser is still my favorite movie of the two, but The Yellow Sea is ambitious and poignant, in a way that few movies are in the modern era of action-thrillers, yet it also perfects the action concepts and styles it is going for by improving and expanding their execution and scope respectively. This isn’t a movie everyone will love; it is ambiguous and difficult to follow, while also being very dour; it is also a Korean movie and unless you know Korean, it requires subtitles and listening to a foreign language, which does not bother me in the slightest, but I know it bothers many others. Nonetheless, the experience it left me with, is certainly worth giving a two and-a-half hour movie a strong recommendation and a plea to people, to support and experience this, and similar, movie/s because they can drive this medium forward and give us new and worthwhile experiences.