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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Review: The Yellow Sea * * * *

(18, general release)

Paul Whitington

Na Hong-jin's astonishingly intense and brutal thriller begins in the forgotten and forlorn Chinese district of Yariban, a dirt-poor prefecture bordering North Korea that is full of ethnic Koreans who wish they were somewhere else. One such is Ku-Nam (Ha Jung-Woo), a young taxi driver whose addiction to mahjong has landed him in serious debt.

When not working, Ku-Nam drinks and gambles and wonders if his absent wife is cheating on him. She went to South Korea to begin a new life but hasn't been heard of since, and Ku-Nam is beside himself with jealousy and worry.

To add to his problems, a pair of petty criminals are threatening extreme measures if he doesn't come up with the money he owes. Then a sinister dog-breeder and underworld boss called Myung-Ga (Yun-seok Kim) approaches him with a proposition: if he will travel to Seoul and kill a businessman, Myung-Ga will pay his hefty gambling debt. Seeing no alternative, and anxious to discover his wife's whereabouts, Ku-Nam agrees, and begins a long and arduous journey.

After a harrowing trip across the Yellow Sea in the bowels of a fishing boat, Ku-Nam arrives in South Korea and sneaks into Seoul to find his target, and his wife. But both will prove elusive in a thriller full of astonishing twists and turns.

After a slow and stylish start, The Yellow Sea achieves the kind of unstoppable momentum director Na Hong-jin managed in his memorable 2006 crime thriller, The Chaser.

Ha Jung-Woo is compelling as the surprisingly resourceful taxi driver who becomes an anti-hero in every sense of the word. And Yun-seok Kim gives an astonishing performance as the monstrous and unstoppable hoodlum Myung-Ga. The film's plot is complex to the point of bewilderment, but Na Hong-jin's brilliant pacing makes any confusion academic.

The director manages a series of extraordinary chase sequences quite magnificently, and the film moves into the realm of horror once Myung-Ga gets going.

The Koreans have a particular flair for screen horror, and in The Yellow Sea it's knives and axes that do the gory damage in frighteningly realistic fight scenes that achieve an almost Shakespearean grandeur. This violence might not be for everyone, but The Yellow Sea is a much better thriller than anything Hollywood has managed this year.

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