Gu-nam, a reckless gambling addict is a Joseonjok—a group of ethnic Koreans who reside in Yanji, China—who lives in abject poverty. Having lost his job as a cabbie and heavily indebted to a local moneylender, Gu-nam is desperate for money. He is haunted by dreams of his wife—she had crossed over to South Korea in search of a better life—having an affair. When a local gangster makes him an irresistible offer, he agrees to travel to South Korea, kill a man and bring back his thumb.
Quite expectedly, the odds are stacked against Gu-nam, and he is forced to be on the run for survival, after his plans go south. Pitted against the police and two criminal gangs in an alien land, he has to outwit them all, and kill some to stay alive, however bleak his life ahead appears to be.
Yellow Sea begins with an opening text that reveals that half the Joseonjok population survives on some illegal activity or the other, and almost all of them lead a life of depravity. While making a tightly crafted crime thriller, director Na Hong-jin manages to delve deep into the toils and trials of a community that lives on the fringes, and their willingness to go to any extent in search of a better tomorrow.