Film begins as Ku-Nam (Ha Jung-woo), a drunk, gambling, taxi driving Joseonjok (Korean living in China), squanders what physical currency he can attain in an attempt to pay off his mounting debt. Turns out his wife hopped a train to South Korea with promises of a quick and lucrative return, but her less than speedy homecoming means that Ku-Nam is hampered with her visa fees, frequent attention from shady debt collectors, and the constant insistence from everyone he knows that she is a cheater and/or a whore and is never returning. Fortunately, the daily loan shark wake-up calls give way to a handy devil’s bargain: crime lord Myun-Ga (Yun-Seok Kim) will give Ku-Nam a fresh start if he just pops over to South Korea for a good old contract kill.
Sea is deliberately paced, but its fairly complex plot, large supporting cast, and nervous, shifting energy make it riveting throughout. Ha Jung-woo delivers an understated, moving performance and carries the film well. His Ku-Nam skillfully balances cleverness alongside ignorance, and apathy alongside desperation. The film really awakens, though, when Yun-Seok Kim shows up. His Myun-Ga is a glorious asshole–fantastic at killing people and better at emasculating them. He also exemplifies this film’s secret strength: its dark, dark humor. The rest of the cast, while filling far less meaty roles, is good.
The camerawork here is skilled and original. The film’s faded palette is beautiful, and handheld shots are fluid and evocative. Na has a refreshingly simple approach to his fight scenes, and while not all that stylish or impressive, they have a human weight to them. Unfortunately, the success of Na’s handheld approach really falls apart during a couple of the action sequences, wherein nothing is clear and everything is dizzying. Though it’s far from a deal breaker, it is frustrating that the climactic action should be a low point in a Korean gangster film. But that’s disingenuous anyway, as Sea never embraces that, or any label. Na simply aspires to show a portrait of a man caught adrift, alone, between two countries… with a knife.
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