Haemoo (TIFF 2014 Review)

Dir: Shim Sung-Bo

Haemoo (meaning “Sea Fog”, the film’s original working title) is a hybrid of sorts – a fast-paced, allegorical seafaring adventure that takes a turn towards the grim and gripping around halfway through. The Korean actioner comes from first time director Sung Bo Shim, with producing and co-scripting duties handled by the celebrated Bong Joon-ho (of The Host and Snowpiercer fame). Unpredictability married to strongly wrought (but sometimes broad) characters are Haemoo’s stock-in-trade, and they serve the story well by creating a lasting impression that lingers long after the final reel ends.

Kim Yun-seok portrays the down-on-his-luck Capt. Kang, whose fishing boat, love life and luck have all run aground and seen better days. Desperate and debt-riddled, he makes a last-ditch deal with the local heavy to transport illegal immigrants from China to South Korea. Along for the ride is his ragtag crew, most of whom are given a single defining trait (i.e. naïve, conniving, sex-starved) but are gradually fleshed out over the course of the film. After the crew of the Junjiho is given their share of the earnings and brought into the fold by their captain, they hesitantly set about accomplishing their task. The human “cargo” is switched between boats at sea in a tense, rain-drenched night sequence that highlights the danger of such a journey and the desperation of those willing to take it.

With the immigrants now onboard Kang’s vessel, it quickly becomes apparent that the fisherman are ill-equipped to handle their new roles as human smugglers. The tension is quickly cranked up as a bad situation turns worse when an unforeseen blunder catalyzes the plot and sets the characters down a road from which there is no return. Throughout, the characters are given chances to define themselves through action, which makes the second half’s turn towards darkness all the more gut-wrenching.

Competently shot and with an ear for dialogue and even the occasional joke, Haemoo plays with genre conventions, switching from character comedy to rousing high-seas adventure to tense potboiler with real-world connections.  The story is taken from a play of the same name, itself based on a surprising true story (don’t Google it until after you’ve seen the movie). The film is also a period piece – it takes place in 1997 so that it can draw further tension and resonance from the IMF Crisis that crippled many Asian economies at the time.

The hairpin changes in tone may be too much for audiences not accustomed to Korean films, but the solid craftsmanship and swift storytelling should offset any whiplash. Haemoo details a descent into chaos (which devolves almost too quickly, stretching believability), and the way in which external circumstances can force good men to do bad things, and bad men to do worse things.

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