From a cinematic export standpoint, there is no greater thing coming out of Korea than pure and beautiful violence. Some of the brutality we’ve seen from Korea’s best and brightest absolutely blows away anything even dreamt about by American filmmakers. And with his second film, The Yellow Sea, Na Hong-jin has joined the legions of Korean blood auteurs with a film that is organic, fresh and full of some of the most dazzling hatchet-on-knife-on-hatchet violence to be seen on screens of any size this year.
The story follows Gu-nam (Ha Jung-Woo), a cab driver in Yanji City, a rough Chinese province filled with Joseonjok people, Chinese citizens of Korean ancestry who live in a space between North Korea and Russia. Gu-nam’s problems are many — drinking, gambling away his cab earnings at the mahjong tables, and most of all, crippling debt earned when he contracted some unsavory types to smuggle his wife into South Korea. But all that is about to go away when Gu-nam is approached by Myung-ga (the electric Kim Yun-seok), a local crime boss who agrees to wipe away Gu-nam’s debt if he agrees to go to South Korea and kill a man for him. Left without a choice in the desolate, crime-ridden Yanji area, Gu-nam agrees and sets forth on a journey down a rabbit hole of chaos, violence and deceit.
The film’s narrative unravels beautifully, with Na meticulously allowing us to find the good in his main character. Despite his many faults, Gu-nam is simply a man who wants to reunite with a wife he hasn’t heard from in 6 months and rid himself of debts that have plagued him since she left. No wonder the guy drinks heavily.
As Gu-nam gets closer to executing his mission, things change quickly and the film explodes violently. New threats enter the picture, as the man he was sent to kill was apparently well connected, and Gu-nam quickly finds himself in the midst of an inter-continental war between crime lords. It’s dark, violent and holy shit does it get bloody down the home stretch. Na works perfectly within the confines of reality, using the brutality of the blade in service of his story. The greatest benefactor of such brutality is the magnetic performance of Kim Yun-seok as Mr. Myun. Passive early on, he eventually jumps in on the action and within moments of appearing in screen, hatchet in hand, there’s no doubt in our minds that this guy is something special — something supremely badass. Seventeen movies into Fantastic Fest and several hundred into 2011 and I’m convinced that he’s one of my favorite on-screen characters of the year. He’s charismatic, unnerving and the right kind of do-it-yourself crime boss that makes me never, ever want to get involved in the human trafficking game in Southeast Asia.
Beyond the intimate action moments — all the slicing and dicing (seriously, it feels like every character in this film gets stabbed about 90 times) — Na takes our breath away with a car chase scene that is hyper-energetic, creatively composed and full of, you guessed it, blood. It adds to what is easily described as a complete package. Great performances, raw, visceral violence and a story that unfolds with a perfectly blistering pace. With this forceful effort, Na Hong-jin has placed himself among the upper echelon of Korean purveyors of violence. Dare we call it a must-see coming out of Fantastic Fest? Yes, we certainly do.
The Upside: Unflinching in its pursuit of violent, creatively choreographed carnage that all works in service of a well-composed story, aided by exceptional performances.
The Downside: It has already screened twice at Fantastic Fest, so I won’t be able to see it again.