The Yellow Sea (2010) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : Reconsideration of Chase, Chaos, and Mayhem

— I previously wrote the review for “The Yellow Sea” in late December of 2010. This is the second review written after I watched the director’s cut version in this week.

If you want to read my original review, click here.

Looking back at the Hollywood blockbuster action films of 2011 when the year was about to end, I found none of them could top the raw realism of the ambitious South Korean thriller “The Yellow Sea”(2010). When I endured “Transformers 3” in last summer, I had no excitement at all with those pointless loud actions decorated with weightless CGI. In case of “The Yellow Sea”, the real people and the real vehicles are put into the actions on the screen, and they are certainly far more visceral than those big, humongous CGI robots fighting on the streets of Chicago.

“The Yellow Sea” is the second work by Na Hong-jin, who made a stunning debut with “The Chaser”(2008). I chose that movie as the best South Korean film of that year without any hesitation for many good reasons. It provided me a series of very intense moments of suspense and excitement while its seedy hero racing against the time to save his ill-fated employee from the horrible serial killer with no remorse but a chisel and a hammer. It was so absorbing that, overwhelmed by its urgency, I and other audiences were really quiet throughout the film; I even could hear someone near me faintly uttering a gasp during the devastating moment when one supporting character made a fatal mistake of trusting a stranger.

“The Yellow Sea” is another chase story, but this is a tale a lot different from “The Chaser”. Its landscape is not only far bigger but also far darker; this is a ruthless world propelled by the destructive impulse of the human nature which only generates more chaos and mayhem, and it certainly makes the characters in the film pay dearly for their foolishness in the end. Without a doubt, this movie is a grim experience, but it excites us with its sheer power relentlessly pushing the plot to the ending even when it is getting exhausted and collapsed during its final chapter. And it also manages to have some bitter laughs from observing how its characters screw up their matters while struggling in its convoluted noir plot which I also struggled to understand a bit during the first viewing.

In the international version/director’s cut, the movie gives you the important information you need to know at the start. The story begins in Yanji, the capital of the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture in China which is the border region between China, North Korea, and Russia. Lots of Korean people moved to this area during the 20th century for getting out of the oppression due to the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945), and many of them chose to stay even after the World War II ended. Most of Korean Chinese people, called Joseonjok or “Chaoxianzu” in Chinese, in this area can speak both Chinese and Korean while being assimilated into the Chinese society. When I saw “Dooman River”(2009), a cold but sad film directed by Zhang Lu(he is also a Chinese of Korean descent), one of interesting sights from its barren border town is the police station with the nameplates respectively written in Chinese and Korean hung at its front.

After the Cold War was over, China and South Korea have been no longer enemies since the 1990s, and Joseonjok people began coming to South Korea for earning money like other immigrant workers from Southeastern Asia and Africa. Some of them live and work legally, but the others do not, so they have been one of the social issues in South Korea along with the other illegal immigrant workers. They are not often treated fairly, and I heard the news about them from time to time.

Gu-nam’s wife also went to South Korea, but there has been no news or money from her for a long time. Gu-nam(Ha Jeong-woo), who works as a taxi driver in Yanji, has been frustrated about that. While living alone in a squalid apartment building(their only daughter lives at his mother’s home), he has been mired in the despair and gambling debt. The loan sharks, to whom he owes 60 thousands Yuan(around $9500), keep visiting his home, and they sarcastically remind him that even selling all of his organs will not solve his problem. To make the matters worse, he has recently been fired from his job.

On one day, the local crime boss Myeon Jeong-hak(Kim Yoon-Seok), or Myeon-ga in short, approaches to him with the offer he cannot refuse. If Gu-nam goes to Seoul and kills some guy, Myeon-ga will resolve his gambling debt problem. In addition, because there is some spare time before the deadline, he will also get the chance to search for his wife while he is in South Korea. Gu-nam accepts the offer; he takes a train to Dalian and then boards a small ship along with the illegal immigrants for going across the Yellow Sea to South Korea.

The story is divided into the four titled chapters. The first chapter(“Taxi Driver”) is focused on establishing its hero and his hopeless daily life, and Na Hong-jin does a good job of vividly capturing the gray, depressing feeling surrounding Gu-nam and others. Shot in Yanji and the surrounding areas, the places and the people feel authentic with the painstaking details on clothes and sets, and, above all, that harsh feeling of cold winter days(From my original review: “It may will make you want a big cup of hot coffee when you walk out of the theater.”). Gu-nam does not talk much about himself except the seemingly meaningless opening narration on the epidemic of rabies during his childhood, but the small moments with few dialogues tell a lot about his miserable life. There is a brief scene with his father-in-law who has nothing else to say except his short apology to him while Gu-nam is looking at the smashed glass frame of his wedding day photograph. They were probably happy at that time, but now he is frequently haunted by the dream of his wife having an affair with someone in South Korea. Does she really abandon him as the others around him say?

The movie takes a considerable amount of time in the languid pace while slowly building the tension with the approaching deadline. The second chapter (“Murderer”) is about how alien the South Korea society is to Gu-nam. He is mostly taciturn, but the people, including the guy he is supposed to kill, always see who Gu-nam is through his awkwardness and accent. While concocting a fairly clever plan for executing his hit job through the rudimentary night surveillance on his feet, he also searches for his wife, but, despite some helpful information about her, there is not much success in his search.

Finally, there comes the moment when he has to commit a murder as Myeon-ga demands, and here is a very good scene which is suspenseful in Hitchcockian way. It’s a quiet cold winter night again, and Gu-nam is waiting for his target while hiding at the place across the building where the target lives on the top floor. But an unexpected thing happens in front of his eyes before he is ready to go inside the building. The calm but intense suspense is meticulously presented through the motion-detecting light-bulb at each staircase of the building. Though it is merely observing these lights serially turned on then off from the outside, the circumstance is clearly conveyed to us and Gu-nam, who must do something though he knows the situation becomes more perilous after the target eventually arrives at and goes inside the building.

The bloody incident happens, so Gu-nam soon finds himself hounded by the police and others. One of the best moments in “The Chaser” was its exciting chase sequence along the narrow alleys, and Na Hong-jin does not disappoint us in this case. He tries to top that with the rapid sequence in which our unfortunate hero has to run as fast as he can through the alleys and streets while attempting to evade a bunch of policemen and several patrol cars. In this movie, the people are really running, and the vehicles get clashed or crashed with the real impact on the screen, so you may wonder how Ha Jeong-woo went through all these situations while still in his character. We can discern where they used stunt men and special effects through shot-by-shot analysis, but he might actually have survived through them, perhaps.

Right from the third chapter(“Joseonjok”), the plot gets more thickened and complicated. It turns out that a crime boss operating in Seoul, Kim Tae-won(Cho Seong-ha), is involved with the incident. He is desperate to cover his trails by any means necessary, so he wants to eliminate Gu-nam before the police catch him. However, the circumstance becomes more chaotic and confounding to him and others, and the story becomes more unpredictable when Myeon-ga enters with his gangsters into South Korea to take care of the problem in his own way. Tae-won is willing to allow that if Myeon-ga solves his trouble as he promises, but…

It is possible that you will be lost in the convoluted storyline. Three are several things left unexplained with big and small holes in the plot, and the relationships between the characters are a little too complicated; maybe I need a big diagram for your better understanding if you ask me to explain. Even Korean audiences like me can fail to get a barely audible but crucial clue when one character mumbles that out unconsciously before he dies, but most of you will probably watch it with the subtitle, so you will easily understand what he says.

Nevertheless, the movie has enough power and ambition to drive its complicated story on the high-tension level, and it is darkly exciting. In its nightmarish circumstance, anything can happen, so the story sometimes goes against our expectations while holding our attention tightly even when we are a little confused. There is the terrific extended action sequence where one kind of chase is quickly followed by the other kind of chase. This is quite intense because we can see the two cars are not CGIs and they are clashing with each other really hard while avoiding the other cars on the road in spite of choppy editing and shaky camera work – and the movie even has a real big container truck for a big moment to impress us.

Like “The Chaser”, the movie is a grisly violent film, and many characters, mostly criminals, get killed or injured in the process. You will probably recall Takeshi Kitano’s recent film “Outrage”(2010), a mathematic exercise of violence about the bloody meaningless war between Japanese gangsters. The gangsters in “The Yellow Sea” are no wiser than them; they try to solve their problem, but they remain stuck in the same position while wasting their time and efforts. Their foolishness makes their mess bigger and bloodier and more chaotic, and the movie has a morbid fun with their stupidity. The biggest irony in the story comes from the fact that the urban South Korean gangsters are quite unprepared for the beastly brutality of Myeon-ga and his less sophisticated men. Besides a hatchet and a knife, Myeon-ga also wields a big animal bone, which incidentally comes handy to him during one cringe-inducing fight scene, with no mercy to the guys who dare to stand on his way. While it is quite horrific to watch its frank, realistic handling of violence, the movie mercifully leaves some of his brutal rampage to our imagination.

Because it is the chase story and has more distinctive characters, “The Yellow Sea” does not lose our interest despite the distant attitude toward its mayhem. In addition, it cares about some of its characters. Gu-nam becomes sympathetic to his target’s wife as he faces the possibility that his wife may be murdered. When he comes across her by coincidence, he promises to her that he will find who is responsible for her husband’s death and his misery. The problem is, Gu-nam is no more clever than cops or gangsters in the film, and, even during the last chapter(“The Yellow Sea”), there is nothing much he can do except staying alive. He later arrives at the quiet revelation scene where he stares at two characters from the distance at some place while saying nothing. Certainly there is the sense of betrayal and disillusion in the air, but it seems there is a lot more than that in Gu-nam’s disoriented mind.

The main performances are crucial in holding the film amid the violent carnage. Ha Jeong-woo, who scared the hell out of me with his chilling portrayal of a sadistic serial killer in “The Chaser”, is now a flawed noir hero writhing in the confusion beyond his control. Gu-nam is not entirely likable, but we come to feel sorry about his plight while watching him grasping for anything to survive. On the opposite, Kim Yoon-seok, who chased after his co-actor in “The Chaser”, is subtly menacing and then strikingly merciless as the larger-than-life villain, and Cho Seong-ha also gives a solid performance with increasing panic behind his face as the crime boss who turns out to have a motive quite petty compared to all the troubles caused by it.

Several months after its original theatrical version (157-min) was released in South Korea in late December of 2010, Na Hong-jin made the director’s cut because the theatrical version was hastily edited during its hurried post-production. The director’s cut was introduced as the international version at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, and I saw it recently. My intial impression with the theatrical version is not changed much after watching this version, but this version indeed shows notable Improvements. The story is progressed more smooth and tighter in a shorter running time(140-min), and I could follow the plot more easily than before.

“The Yellow Sea” is a very compelling thriller crackling with its dark nihilistic force. Its ending is a rather anti-climactic compared to what it has built and smashed along the plot, but, the more I think about it, it works as the fitting finale for the story which ultimately turns out to be a tragedy of mistrust. When the movie came out, there were some discussions among the audiences on its ambiguous last scene – Is it real or imaginary? The sad thing is, that does not matter to poor Gu-nam anymore. He really should not have crossed the Yellow Sea.

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34 Responses to The Yellow Sea (2010) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : Reconsideration of Chase, Chaos, and Mayhem

  1. S M Rana says:

    It’s a long time since I indulged myself in a blood dripping South Korean fantasy of violence!!

    SC: You won’t be disappointed.

  2. Pingback: Korean Cinema Blogathon Links Page | cineAWESOME!

  3. micha says:

    I saw the movie twice now (DC), but still remain confused about the ending. Actually, this may be one of the weaker points of the movie; on the other hand it is formally ok by me, if the viewer is a little irritated, one has to compare it to Gu-nams confusion! How would we have felt being in his position?
    Great (and extensive) review, thanks alot.

    SC: You’re welcome.

  4. Peter says:

    I have a question re your thoughts on the plot twist at the end but don’t want to publish spoilers… Mind if I ask via email?

    SC: You may ask your question here with spoiler warning.

  5. Patrick says:

    *Spoiler Warning* Questions about the ending and the motivation for the movie.

    I’m really confused about the ending to this film and the motivation for the hit. I understand that his wife is still alive but why does he not go to her at the bank? And also what was the deal with the bank teller that told the two guys to find Gu-nam??

    About the Hit, if the two crime bosses were both trying to kill the same guy why did they end up going after each other? And why did Myeon want to kill the guy in the first place? And I’m assuming that Kim Tae-won wanted to kill the guy because of an affair??

    Any clarification would be much appreciated! Good review btw!

    SC: First, You mistook the victim’s wife for Gu-nam’s wife. Because the victim’s wife learns that Gu-nam is chasing after who is behind the hit, so she probably notifies that to her lover(the bank teller), and he hires them.

    They are the ones who contacted with Myeon-ga through some connection, while Kim Tae-won, knowing nothing about that, hired a couple of guys that went into the building first. They really should have thought about who hired who.

  6. pierre says:

    don’t get into debt and don’t give up on your wifey .That’s the moral!!
    awesome film even though the first half part is way better and grasping than the second half,which i thought sometimes was overlong and lacked connection .It s a very realistic movie and hands down one of the best in 2010.It s funny that the woman he tried to help were actually the one who hired him.But the end is very confusing is his wife alive or not?

    SC: Considering its nihilistic tone, I think she is alive.

  7. Justin says:

    *****SPOILER WARNING*****
    I’m also confused about the ending. Let me see if I got this straight. Kim-Tae won orders the hit because Kim Hyeung seun slept with his MISTRESS. The chick he has sex with in the hotel.

    The second hit, on the same man, is ordered by the bank clerk. He gets info about Myeon-ga and subsequently ends up hiring him.
    The question is why? The ending reveals that Kim Tae won’s wife has some sort of relationship with the bank clerk, but why would they order a hit on Kim Hyeung seun?
    I would really appreciate if you could clear this up for me. I’ve been searching the net for hours now trying to figure it out.

    SC: They are having an affair, and that is why they want Kim Hyeung-seun’s death like Kim Tae-won. They hired Myeon-ga without knowing about Hyeung seun’s plan, so they indirectly cause lots of troubles as a consequence.

    • Yogesh odyssey opera says:

      Hyeung-seun’s wife and the Banker are having an affair, while Hyeung-seun and tae won’s woman are having an affair…Hyeung-seun’s wife and the Banker hired Myeon-ga (i.e gu nam) while KIM TAE-WON hired the driver…finally gu nam understood these secrets…like he said he found who started this(Hyeung-seun’s wife and the Banker & KIM TAE-WON) and die in the boat….Meanwhile gu nam’s wife is dead …she was killed by the Mokpo seafood guy…the last scene shows how she came to south korea….the film depicts the affairs and causing problems…self respect of Kim Tae Won…Gu nam’s love of his wife… and Myeon-ga’s ambition….

      SC: My head starts to spin….

      • Yogesh odyssey opera says:

        <> That means nowadays the directors are not ready to narrate in eyes – nose – mouth…they starting from toes to nose and mouth to eye>> Hope you people understood<>>

      • Yogesh odyssey opera says:

        Ha Ha Ha! Why is it? What is your idea of this film? The only problem is, all characters are well placed but it lacks the correct explanation of the characters… likewise It should be compared to the climax of “ICHI THE KILLER” i’m not saying both are the same. It is an entirely different plot.. But the spoilers are alike…That means nowadays the directors are not ready to narrate in eyes – nose – mouth…they starting from toes to eyes…Hope you understand the real meaning…

      • Andrew says:

        I don’t think the wife was actually dead, i think at the end it was showing the wife going back to China. My reasoning is because when gu nam calls that guy to verify the dead person at the morgue (supposedly his wife) the guy says to himself, “i can’t tell” and then just go ahead and says its her, which gu nam says, “are you sure”. I think they put that in their to be a big twist, but hey idk.

        SC: There is always possibility…

  8. Vishanth says:

    Thanks allot for this post.

    SC: You’re welcome.

  9. Yogesh odyssey opera says:

    <> That means nowadays the directors are not ready to narrate in eyes – nose – mouth…they starting from toes to eyes>> Hope you people understand>

  10. deepak says:

    in the above comment one guy said that Hyeung-seun’s wife and the Banker hired Myeon-ga (i.e gu nam) but gu nam was hired by Myeon Jeong-hak ……… can anybody clear this to me and also why Myeon Jeong-hak wants to kill gu nam and kim tae won

    SC: Myeon Jeong-hak, who is also called Myeon-ga, and Kim Tae-won want Gu-nam dead because they think Gu-nam can be the link between them and the murder case. But Kim Tae-won later betrays Myeon Jeong-hak, so Myeon Jeong-hak wants to kill him, too.

  11. JADEEYES says:

    Its funny that you compare the director’s good sense of suspense with Hitchcock, because I have done the same in my review of The Chaser, my number one Korean film of all times. I would have thought this movie had a lot of The Chaser without even knowing the director is the same. Now I understand many things.

    It is a great film, but it won’t top The Chaser for me. I think the film lacks clarity in its story line. I’m usually never confused while watching movies, I pay a lot of attention to details and I over analyze everything so I’m often the one explaining what happened to friends and so on. With this film I ended up having to come here for help because although I understood the reason why they all killed each other. I missed to understand the part where the bank teller hired Myeon Jeong-hak. I think the director failed to be more simple in delivering the complexity of the story. If that makes any sense. The Chaser, surprisingly being his debut, is less complicated and yet he was able to make it a complex plot, but not something hard to decipher in the end. Still, this movie takes a 10 from me. Would I have understood every part of it during watching, I could write my review. But as it is, I would have to watch a second time, and frankly it is so morbid I don’t know I can put myself to the task.

    Without fail, Na Hong Jin has become my favorite film director, right there with Clint Eastwood. Which brings me to say your comparison of this film with Transformer is far unfair. Hahaha. Many other Hollywood films to compare this to, although the outcome might still be the same, but really, Transformer? that movie is a child’s play.
    The problem with Hollywood now is that they are too preoccupied with making money, and sadly the majority of the American viewers want simple action, and movies that are easy to understand. For that I have to give Hollywood two thumps up for Inception, same year (2010). A film that although full of the CG you have mentioned, it is far, far, more complicated and well made than Transformers. It has stellar acting, good directing, and beautiful ending.
    I think there are good movies in any country and any film industry. You just have to know how to pick them. For Korea is films like this one, The Chaser, I Saw the Devil, and even A Beautiful Life which is not more popular. But they also have really bad films. Like any other country.

    Good review, minus the comparison. I think I will be coming back here to read more from you 🙂

    SC: Oh, yes, we have really awful films every year along with really good films.

  12. Shelty says:

    How about ‘Haunters’ as a really really bad film?

    SC: Not bad, but I didn’t like it.

  13. lorraine says:

    we kept rewinding the film because we got lost in the middle of the story trying to watch the action while understanding the story. anyway, I finally got my answers with this thread of replies. thank you. Now my head stopped spinning! I love the film but i don’t like sad endings. now i believe that most Korean films have sad endings.

    SC: Many South Korean films have happy endings.

  14. Ricky says:

    Thanks for posting this review and all the answers to the questions we all had (actually everyone had the same questions) any ways thanks again. P.S Can you please suggest any more good Korean movies?

    SC: “Sunny”(2011) and “Nameless Gangster”(2012).

  15. deepak says:

    i can bet that the last scene when gu-nam’s wife landing from the train was of south korea bcoz gu nam was thinking of her as he bids a fairwell to her at china station in his imagination when he was in the boat at the climax and his wife’s scene was an imaginary one bcoz she was wearing the same clothes when she lands at south korea as well as at her departure scene and if u don’t believe me than i have a ques. that if she lands at china station then why she doesn’t have any injury signs on her face bcoz she was beaten by the fish guy.

    SC: It can be, you know.

  16. ma says:

    Very good review.
    I’ve just watched this movie several times and figured out different versions of the characters’ motivation each time. Now it’s a relief that I’m not the only one who is a bit confused about this wonderful but heavy film. Recently I got my cousins to watch it with me and at the end we came up with different “solutions” as for the “who” and the “why”. We had serious debates if he director wanted to leave holes in the plot just to make people to find out their own versions or it was the script lacking consistency in the storyline. I remember the scene from The Chaser (my most favourite movie along with the Memories of Murder) when the little girl was found seriously injured in the alley – at first watching it wasn’t obvious what had happened to her, later we found out the a motorcyclist had run over her. That scene showed me that the director just doesn’t want to make everything obvious and we western audience are forced to pay more attention to the details than in other cases. Yet, I have the feeling the beyond this the story of Yellow Sea is a bit overcomplicated.
    Yes, it crossed our minds too that the last scene with the wife is just some kind of hallucination – but we later rejected this idea as why would he hallucinate after his death…? But what happened then between her and her alleged Seoulite lover? Why did Myeon Jeong-hak leave Gu-nam in South Korea? He might as well kill him at home and throw his remains to the dogs as he did before with other victims. It would be safer to let him come home first and silence him than leaving a potential link to the mob boss, wouldn’t it?
    There are other questions that arose after watching the movie – but even if one can say that the script fails to give all the explanations, it is still a great movie with huge sensitivity to the social differcences between the well-of southerners and the needy joseonjok people. Not to mention the further qualities of the film…

    SC: Fortunately, it belongs to film noir, so it doesn’t need to answer everything. Thanks for your comment.

  17. Ty says:

    Massive Spoiler Alert – If you felt as confused as I did at the end of this film, have no worries. I believe I have the answers to the questions of who/why and more importantly WHEN certain events occurred that were only implied, yet will make the whole story much clearer. First, understand that there are three very important women in The Yellow Sea that all have very minor speaking roles, yet their actions were the catalyst for everything that happened. Rather than go through the whole thing chronologically, I’m going to tell each of the three women’s stories separately, and this should make everything clear.
    First we have the protagonist’s (Ga-num) wife, who went to Korea originally on a very expensive visa to send home more money, etc. After several months working at a lower paying job, she ends up hooking up with the Sushi Delivery Guy (henceforth known as Sushi Man), who gets her a better paying job. She stops sending money home and she ends up living with Sushi Man Driving the White Truck. This is the catalyst for Ga-num to become a hitman, since his daughter’s life is threatened and he has no means to pay back the debt originally incurred by his wife. When Ga-num confronts Sushi Man about the location of his wife, Sushi Man is beaten up, and humiliated by Ga-num. There is a time gap between when Ga-num and Sushi Man fight and Ga-num finds his wife’s apartment. It is inferred that after the fight between Ga-num and Sushi man, and while Ga-num is searching for his wife’s apartment/place of work, Sushi Man goes to the apartment he shares with Ga-num’s wife and confronts/has an argument with her. In his confession to the media/police he states that he felt angry, humiliated and betrayed when she said she wanted to go back to her husband. In an inebriated rage, he kills and dismembers her. The woman with the bank manager at the end of the film is NOT Ga-num’s wife as some mistakenly believe. (Details to follow). (more to follow in next post)
    (Spoiler Continued). The second, and arguably most important woman, in the film is who I’ll call “The Mistress”. The Important Man/Mobster named Kim Tae-Won who is trying to find and kill Ga-num throughout the film has a super smokin’ hot mistress. She is Helen of Troy’esque in that she is really what launched the whole chain of events. She is identified by being naked and being in a vigorous sex scene. She is not to be confused with the nightmares Ga-num has of his wife sleeping with some nebulous Joe. (Identified by foggy/unclear sex scenes with faceless men). We find out at the end of the film that Kim Tae-won ordered the hit on “The Professor” because the Professor supposedly slept with The Mistress in Kim Tae-won’s own home. Kim Tae-won hired the Professor’s driver and two thugs to kill the Professor. When Kim Tae-won later finds out there was an unknown assailant (Ga-num) involved, he wants to find and kill Ga-num before the police find him so that he can tie up loose ends and have no fingers pointed back at him.
    The last, and most surprising woman, is the Professor’s (murdered man) wife. We find out at the end of the film that a bank manager had supposedly hired Myun-ga, the Mob Boss that originally hired Gu-nam in China to kill the professor. Myun-ga was contracted to kill the professor, and cut off his thumb as evidence of the completed hit. Myun-ga passed that contract on to Gu-nam. Upon completion of the hit, Myun-ga also wants to tie up loose ends, and attempts to strand/kill Gu-nam. In the last scene, we see The Bank Manager who had put out the original hit taking money from a woman who turns out to be The Professor’s wife. (some assume this to be Gu-nam’s, wife, but look closely, it is The Professor’s wife.) Here is where I start to infer a sequence of events.
    My guess is that the Professor’s wife finds out about The Professor’s affair with The Mistress and decides to put out a hit of her own. If you go back and watch the film, after The Professor is murdered, and Gu-nam begins to hack off his thumb, the wife comes upon the scene and seems genuinely horrified. She is horrified not because her husband was just killed, but because she is confronted with a man performing the deed that she specified as part of the hit. (cutting off the thumb) When Gu-nam talks with her near the end of the film and tells her that he didn’t actually kill her husband, but that he would find out who and why, she doesn’t appear to be relieved, or positive in any way. She appears resigned if you go back and watch it again.
    So there we have it. One woman betrayed and two women who did the betraying were the genesis of this massive sequence of slaughter and death.

    SC: It will be helpful to many viewers. Thanks for your detailed explanation.

    • David says:

      This was probably the best and most clear explanation. Thanks!

      SC: You’re welcome – and thanks for your comment.

    • Lenny says:

      Thank you for this informative comment. This one clears up the plot conundrum quite a bit. But there is one detail, perhaps I’m reading too much into it, that doesn’t quite fit. When the Mob boss is dying, he says — “The bastard (Professor) was messing with his woman in his house.” Yet in an earlier part, he clarifies to his driver to drive him NOT to his house, but to the building (where he proceeds to screw his mistress). Is it possible that the Professor was screwing his wife (never shown) and not his mistress?

      SC: As far as I can remember, the professor was having an affair with the Mob boss’ mistress, and that was why the Mob boss wants him to get killed.

  18. ma says:

    Thank you for your explanation, Ty. ,Yes, we came to the same conclusions as for the roles of the three women. But still, there are a few points left unanswered in the story – at least last time we watched the movie with my cousins we couldn’t find the reasonable answers. Today I’ve watched the film again (for the 38the time….) and now I think I’ve found some explanations. Firstly, the question that was tantalizing me was why Myeon Jeong-hak betrayed Gu-nam leaving him alone in South Korea. Why did he not bring him back to their home where he could have put him away without any problem? If the police or the maffia cath Gu-nam, Myeon Jeong-hak can be identified easily. Even if this doesn’t mean a real threat for him, it can harm his business in Korea, am I right? Since he didn’t know who had given him the commision – probably he supposed that it was a mob boss who wanted to kill another top dog -, he wanted to make money on Gu-nam twice. First, he got money for the hit. Second, dealing with joseonjok people was his territory, he knew that if the hit-man (Gu-nam) survived the maffia wanted to catch and eliminate him so that all links to them could be canceled. This is why he was so easily traced by the gang of Kim – he was expecting his “visit” and was happy to offer him his service to find Gu-nam. I think it was only a comic misunderstanding the two mobsters – Kim believed that Myeon Jeong-hak was only a “broker” who meant threat as a link between him and Gu-nam. Myeon Jeong-hak, on the other hand, was sure that president Kim was the one who had given the commision for the hit. I don’t think Kim hired the two other guys. He only hired the judo master’s driver via his right-hand, Choi. The driver later passed the commision forward to other two hit-men. Choi and his boss, Kim believed that 3 men were hired for the job. (The driver couldn’t speak after his fall.) Later in the story there is a scene when Myeon Jeong-hak seems to have figured out something important – at the point he calls Kim to meet him, but he send a death brigade instead. I suppose, Myeon Jeong-hak realized that there were more than one commisioner. But I’m not sure about this.
    The other unclear thing is what happened between the the sushi-guy and Gu-nam’s wife. Seeing the mess andd the blood stains in her room one must believe that she was dragged somewhere without her consent. (Even if a woman has to escape from somewhere in a hurry, she won’t leave her baby’s picture broken on the floor.) A few days later a mutilated female body is found along with the perpetrator who seems to be the same sushi-guy. But I think this scene was left obscurous intentionally – we don’t see the killer’s face, we know his name, but it isn’t write on the business card, only the name of the shop. The vagueness is emphasised by the scene in the morgue when the man (how did Gu-nam find him???) is unable to identifiy the body. There are at least three explanations – 1. the last scene with the arrival of Gu-nam’s wife is only imaginary (I don’t think so), 2. the sushi-guy attacked Gu-nam’s wife for the street incident, then left her alone and the woman later went home, 3. the man who killed the other joseonjok woman was not the sushi-guy. (Or the sushi-guy, as he was a really handsome “ladykiller” had more than one joseonjok mistresses and he killed “only” one of them – I”m just kidding.)
    Anyway, as many times I watch this film I find it more and more enchanting for its way of storytelling, the cast and its black humour.

    SC: At least you were able to enjoy the movie…

  19. David says:

    Thanks for this exhaustive blog. (I’m now officially exhausted). But I’m also glad that my confusion wasn’t a result of my age. It’s sad to me that so much effort is put into a project like this which ultimately has such a diminished view of the human prospect. Have said that, the director is copping a true film noir attitude which current American film noir can’t quite seem to find its way back to. Things haven’t gotten that bad yet in the states I guess. One thing we kept remarking on: no guns. Is gun control really that effective in South Korea or did the director just want the violence to be primal for maximum impact.

    SC: At least we are safe from guns.

  20. britta says:

    Thank you Seonyong for that! I wasn’t quite sure about the plot (watched the original with English subtitles) and found your blog.
    And @ David: Indeed, same question in my mind: Is South Korea that effective in gun control? I’ll continue googling.

    SC: The gun control is very effective in South Korea. Like Japan, we seldom hear about crimes involving guns.

  21. breen says:

    I have one major confusion: I don’t know where people keep on getting that the Professor’s wife was having an affair with a bank teller and that they were behind the original hit. All I saw in the last scene was Gu nam watching the Professor’s wife sitting down with some random bank teller doing fairly mundane customer work. The bank teller and the Professor’s wife see Gu nam and he just walks away. That’s it.

    SC: I don’t think so, considering the wordless exchanges between them.

    • breen says:

      But the interaction between the wife and the teller was pretty mundane. He asks her to sign something, the clerk sees Gu Nam, she sees Gu Nam, and Gu Nam just walks away. I don’t see how a love affair or a scorned wife theme is being inferred.

      SC: The teller was the guy who hired Gu Nam through Myeon-ga and then hired other two guys later for eliminating Gu-nam

  22. Tone says:

    The movie is great!

    However, what the hell is in the box at the end? I understood everything besides that. Could it have been someone’s head or a gift for his daughter?

    SC: The urn containing his wife’ ashes.

  23. Zippy says:

    The ending(from the director’s cut) is split into two, the first part is Gu Nam dying in the boat on his way to China(that’s what he asked the old fisherman to do) with the urn carrying his wife’s ashes while holding the photo of his daughter in his right hand. Then if you go past the initial credits which take roughly 15 seconds, you get a scene where his wife arrives back in China. But, while she’s walking away you start to hear what sounds like a boat’s engine getting louder and louder, which means that it’s just Gu Nam last thoughts before he passes away that he has got his wife back to China.
    Well, at least that’s how I like to think it works.

    Another brilliant movie Na-Hong Jin, there’s this attention to detail and scattering of subtle clues about what’s going on in the story. It’s like one really long quality video game.

    SC: Isn’t it too complicated to be called ‘long quality video game”?

    • Farangset says:

      The sound of the boat… Thank you for pointing that up, I was kind of wondering what to think of that last scene. Totally makes sense, utterly subtle.

  24. Pingback: Korean Blogathon 2012

  25. Pascal says:

    IMHO the bank teller and the professor’s wife have had to hire the two “wannabe killers” (to the end of the movie) to get rid of Gu Nam, because he was about to find out that they ordered the assassination of the professor. And that’s why they act so surprised and terrified when they see him at the bank (because he should be dead and he’s obviously not).
    Therefore, we can assume that they were lovers.

    And for the final scène of the movie (the train), the fact that we hear what seems to be the sound of a boat engine during the entire sequence suggests that it happens in Gu Nam’s mind, while he is sinking into the ocean (maybe in an obscure state between life and death)

    SC: Thanks for your explanation/interpretation.

  26. Javier says:

    Gracias por ayudarme a entender algunos puntos del guión. Thanks for help me to understand the plot.

    I watch this movie because I find The Chaser on Netflix. It was a great movie but it failed to move and hit me as The Chaser did.

    I think that The Chaser ir a Masterpiece for several reasons, but Do you mind to suggest another south korean movie similar to The Chaser ?

    SC: Unfortunately, most of them are cheap imitations.

    Check this film, by the way.

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