South Korean thrillers are not kind to their protagonists. In fact, they bring them to their knees and beat them into submission. You can argue most thrillers work that way, but the SK variety are so unrelenting I find them enjoyably exhausting to watch. Even if the only one you’ve seen is Oldboy, you know what I mean.
The Yellow Sea (2010) falls into this category in spectacular fashion. Ku-Nam (Ha Jeong-woo) is a poor cab driver at the end of his rope. His wife left home to find work in another country, but he hasn’t heard from her in months. His mounting debts have forced him into gambling, which makes the situation worse. After watching Ku-Nam violently explode during a game of mahjong, crime boss Myung-Ga (Kim Yoon-seok) offers to take care of his debts if he travels to South Korea and carries out a hit. Ku-Nam accepts, and that’s when things begin to go very badly for him and everyone else.
The Yellow Sea is the second film by director Na Hong-jin. His first, The Chaser (2008), features the same two actors, except Kim Yoon-seok plays the sympathetic lead. And like it, The Chaser is a savage, maddening thrill ride. Eom Joong-ho (Kim Yoon-seok) is a former cop who runs an escort service. Girls begin disappearing, and as Joong-ho investigates he discovers a serial killer (Ha Jeong-woo) has been kidnapping them. Even though he gets the serial killer to confess, he’s going to be released from the police station in twelve hours because of a lack of evidence and staff resources. So begins a night of hell for Joong-ho.
If you’re relatively new to South Korean cinema, I would recommend watching The Chaser first, for two reasons. One: The Yellow Sea features a controversial ending that some have interpreted as a giant middle finger to the audience. Two: The Yellow Sea runs about a half hour longer, and parts of it have confused the hell out of some people.
At the same time, I think I enjoyed The Yellow Sea more. It features spectacular fight scenes and foot chases, and Myung-Ga is a far more interesting, relatable, and quite frankly badass foil. I also enjoyed how it leisurely progresses from the story of a humble man trying to figure out the mechanics of committing a horrible crime into a frenetic blood-soaked mess. So watch whichever one you want. Or both.
This post is part of The 2012 Korean Cinema Blogathon, hosted by New Korean Cinema and cineAWESOME! Click here for more details. I’ve been a big fan of SK movies for the last 5-6 years, and I hope to cover more of them on the blog.