The Yellow Sea begins in Yanji, the capital city of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Northeast China. This region is home to an estimated 800,000 Joseon-jok (Chinese citizens of Korean descent), who constitute one of the 56 ethnicities officially recognized by the Chinese government. Na Hong-jin’s second feature following his riveting neo-noir The Chaser (2008) focuses on one of its desperate citizens – Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is an impoverished Joseon-jok who is having a run of bad luck at the gambling tables as he tries to repay a substantial loan that his day job as a taxi driver will not cover. Gu-nam owes 60,000RMB, borrowed from a shady lender in order to secure the visa that would enable his wife to work in South Korea. However, she has not made contact or sent money for six months, leaving Gu-nam to deal with the debt.
Under pressure to repay the loan, Gu-nam is forced to accept an offer from local gangster Myun-ga (Kim Yoon-seok), who needs someone to kill a businessman in Seoul. This entails travelling by train to Dalian, then taking a treacherous voyage across to South Korea by fishing boat to enter South Korea illegally. Gu-nam methodically stakes out the target at his office building to ensure that the hit will go smoothly, with the audience only receiving as much information as the isolated protagonist at this point. However, when the hit goes wrong, Na switches to a multi-stranded approach, placing Gu-nam’s assignment into wider criminal context and illustrating how his border crossing has put the bourgeoisie Seoul underworld on a bloody collision course with their less well-attired Yanji equivalents.
Aside from a brief, possibly hallucinatory, scene in the end credits, The Yellow Sea does not return to Yanji once Gu-nam leaves to carry out his mission, but the squalor of the city is established so vividly in the opening twenty minutes that its grim landscape informs the uneasy atmosphere of the rest of the film. There is little sense of community, and the city’s infrastructure seems designed to keep Joseon-jok culture in quarantine: homes that are currently being lived-in look abandoned, the patrons of the gambling parlours find amusement in the misfortune of others, and Myun-ga uses a dubious dog-selling business as a ‘legitimate’ front for his crime empire. A scene in which Gu-nam wakes up to find a debt collector standing over his bed, and is then ordered to get to work without being allowed to have a wash, is indicative of the quality of life in this merciless world.
In Seoul, Gu-nam simultaneously tries to find his wife and works out how to kill the businessman on schedule so he can catch the boat home, moving evasively and avoiding eye contact with others, not only fearful of detection, but burdened by the stigma of his cultural identity. While mostly able to operate invisibly as one of Seoul’s many illegals, Gu-nam is occasionally recognised as a Joseon-jok and treated dismissively, or allocated a shred of sympathy providing that he moves on swiftly. Na alludes to the theme of identity through the four chapter titles that break-up the eventful narrative – ‘Cab Driver’, ‘Killer’, ‘Joseon-jok’, and ‘The Yellow Sea’ – with the latter referring to the choppy waters that connect China to South Korea, while the aggressive pursuit of Gu-nam by the gangsters or law enforcers of both territories marks him as an outsider who does not belong to either culture.
The social realism and fascinating ethnographic investigation of the exposition section are jettisoned once Gu-nam goes on the run, at which point The Yellow Sea becomes a more routine chase thriller, albeit a breathlessly paced one with a particularly relentless set piece at the Busan docks. Credibility is stretched by the manner in which these adversaries suddenly morph from representatives of an oppressed society to genre staples (resourceful wronged man and unstoppable killer), especially when they survive beatings, car wrecks, stabbings, or any situation in which either is seriously outnumbered. The excessive carnage of the ‘Joseon-jok’, and ‘The Yellow Sea’ sections, mostly shot with shaky cam, may depart from the observational aesthetics of ‘Cab Driver’ and ‘Killer’, but relevance to Gu-nam’s opening voice-over shows that Na is working from a master plan.
While losing at mah-jong, Gu-nam recalls a childhood incident when a dog in his village contracted rabies and bit anything it could. The dog ran away when the neighbours tried to put it down, only to die from its illness and be buried, then dug up for consumption. He concludes the story by stating, ‘The rabies has come back. It’s going around.’ Gu-nam is now the infected dog and everyone who comes in the vicinity of his rage is most likely doomed.
The Yellow Sea ultimately settles for being a gripping thriller, but it also offers a valuable glimpse of a minority culture which is rarely seen in the South Korea’s commercial cinema.