The Empty Balcony: The Yellow Sea

If you can follow the plot of The Yellow Sea, the Korean film from 2010 written and directed by Na Hong-Jin, then you must be Korean, or at least speak the language fluently. Those are the only reasons I can think of why so many western viewers online, including myself, found this flick’s plot to be confusing, at best, and impenetrable, at worst. The good news is that doesn’t matter. Normally, when a movie has a plot that I can’t follow, that is a bad thing. Not so with The Yellow Sea. About halfway through, I gave up on trying to keep track of all the twists and turns, and just sat back and enjoyed one of the best action films that has hit cinemas in this decade.

Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) has a problem. He’s an ethnic Korean born and raised in northern China, which has its disadvantages, apparently. He is what is known as a Joseonjok, a blanket term for ethnic Koreans in the country. In order to finance a better life, Gu-nam goes into debt with some local coyotes to arrange transportation to South Korea for his wife. Because the standard of living in South Korea is so much higher than in China, she should be able to work and send back enough money to Gu-nam to pay off the debt to the coyotes and finance a trip down to the peninsula for both Gu-nam and the couple’s young child. But, something goes wrong. Gu-nam’s wife has been in Seoul for months, and nary a check has arrived. On top of that, the coyotes want their cash. In desperate straits, Gu-nam agrees to be smuggled in to South Korea on a fishing boat, to carry out a hit for a Joseonjok gangster, with the understanding that the debt will be paid.

Gu-nam is as good as his word. He has no crisis of conscience when it comes to the act of killing, although he is no criminal. He regards his task as nothing more than a necessary transaction, a way to a better life. If someone has to die along the way, so be it.

Gu-nam is efficient and meticulous when it comes to planning the murder. But, when the time comes to carry out the hit, everything goes awry, and the film takes flight. It turns out that just about every gangster in Seoul and China has a stake in whether or not Gu-nam’s target lives or dies. Not because the target is an important man, per se, but because, in life, he knew important men. Now everyone and their mother is trying to find Gu-nam, who spends the rest of film fleeing for his life. When various groups of bad guys do manage to find him, the viewer is treated to a symphony of bloody mayhem.

I have never been to South Korea. I have no idea what that country’s firearms laws entail, nor do I have any idea how hard it is to get ahold of a gun. What I can gather, from The Yellow Sea, is that kitchen knives and hatchets are some really badass weapons. There are fight scenes galore in this flick, and Na chose to not waste anyone’s time with something baroque as a gun. Hell, no! This film has a huge body count, cartoonish in its scale, and just about everyone died at the hands of a blade. As any viewer may guess, that means there’s quite a bit of blood in this one. In fact, the violence is of an epic scale. Na showed some mercy on the audience, making sure that when an axe head penetrated a skull that it took place just off frame, but goddamn. Goddamn!

And interspersed with all this blood and death, there are multiple car chases! With crashes! I don’t know what to think. I’ve been subjected to action flick overload with The Yellow Sea, and I’m not sure any honest assessment of the film can be made. What I do know is, rarely have I seen any film with action sequences so well filmed and so suspenseful. Plot seemed to be a secondary consideration with this film, yet that is hardly a problem. Cinema is better with action films like The Yellow Sea appearing every couple years or so.