A cab driver in the Yanbian Province of China who is deep in gambling debt and whose wife has gone missing while working abroad gets offered a deal by a local gangster: his debts paid off and a chance to find his wife in exchange for murdering a man on South Korean soil.
As The Yellow Sea starts it should be clear that this will not be a happy tale. Gu-nam’s (Ha Jung-woo) opening anecdote should be evidence enough of that. It is populated by a-moral characters who will stop at nothing in pursuit of their selfish desires. It is a cautionary tale on dangers of unchecked human ambition. Though this may hardly be new territory, The Yellow Sea packs enough thrills and intrigue to keep proceedings interesting.
The Yellow Sea starts simple. It tells the story of a man, Gu-nam, who is desperate to discover the fate of his estranged wife, who emigrated to Korea many years before. Filled with envy over fantasies of being cuckolded, he sets out to find her. He is a selfish man, willing to abandon his daughter, risk her life, and kill in pursuit of his desires. He is given the opportunity to travel to Korea in exchange for killing a man while he is there. This first sequence is a slow build up to the ultimate murder. It is tension filled, but slightly long in the tooth. Luckily, when it finally gets to crunch time things change up considerably.
After thing don’t go anywhere near to plan, Gu-nam find himself in a completely new and even more dangerous situation. The cast expands and suddenly Gu-nam seems a paragon of virtue compared to those that now pursue him. Myung Jung-hak (Kim Yoon-seok) is a viscous and bloodthirsty mob boss who assists his Korean counterpart, Tae-Won (Jo Sung-ha), in tracking down Gun-nam, who has now become a loose end that needs to be tied off. Things can sometimes get a little confusing from here on in. A host of new story lines are introduced, and Gu-nam, who carries the film through its first half, becomes a smaller character in a much wider story. There is not enough time to give all of these stories the screen time they deserve or need, and the narrative is slightly too stretched through its second half.
Luckily this second half picks up considerably in the pacing department. There is a flurry of action scenes, often grand in scope, often testosterone filled. Though the camerawork and editing can be somewhat schizophrenic, these scenes are a hell of a lot of fun to watch. A scene at a dockyard stands out in particular as it develops from foot chase, to close quarters fighting, to a car chase. The action never becomes stale, constantly changing as it is.
As The Yellow Sea draws to its conclusion it becomes clear that it won’t be straying far away from the classic tragic narrative. There is the protagonist who steadfastly follows his own selfish desires (often at the expense of others), and there is excessive violence and suffering caused by the pursuit of vain and petty feuds. This is material that has been around since the days of Shakespeare, and The Yellow Sea doesn’t do a lot to burn its own path. But while it is around it spins an intriguing yarn.
There is no doubting that The Yellow Sea‘s main draw is it’s multitude of spectacular set-pieces. Fortunately the story is not simply a vessel for delivering these sequences. The narrative has enough twists and interesting enough character dynamics to keep the story constantly engaging. Still, a number of flaws prevent it from becoming the superior thriller it might have been.