Life and death at sea make for a gripping tale from first-time director Shim Sung-Bo.
Haemoo (ND/NF Review)
A nautical thriller with a surprisingly nasty mean streak, Shim Sung-Bo’s Haemoo is an impressive debut feature for the South Korean screenwriter. Shim, who has a working relationship with director Bong Joon-Ho—Shim co-wrote Memories of Murder, and Bong shares a writing credit on Haemoo with Shim—doesn’t reach the same levels as his masterful collaborator, but Haemoo shows Shim has plenty of potential to reach those same heights one day.
Taking place in the late ’90s, shortly after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Haemoo immediately establishes a tone of desperation with its characters. On the old, rundown fishing ship “Junjin,” Captain Kang (Kim Yoon-seok) finds himself in a bit of trouble. With his crew not catching enough fish on their most recent trip, and his boss trying to sell off the boat to earn some quick cash, it won’t be long before he’s out of a job. With little to no options left for Kang and his coworkers, he takes a deal to smuggle Chinese-Korean immigrants on “Junjin” in order to stay afloat.
With that relatively brief set-up, Kang and his crew head off to pick up their illegal cargo. Kang’s crew is where Shim has the most trouble with his film, reducing the majority of the supporting cast to annoying, one-note characters. The only exceptions would be Dong-sik (Park Yu-chun), a young crew member who doesn’t seem to fit in too well, and Wan-ho (Moon Sung-keun), the ship’s elder and chief engineer. The rest of the crew is reduced to childish horndogs, excited about the trip for the chance to hook up with some of the female immigrants on board.
After an intense sequence showing the immigrants trying to jump on Kang’s boat during a storm, a small romance begins blossoming between Dong-sik and Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri), a young woman Dong-sik rescues from the sea after she falls in during the transfer. Chemistry between the two feels forced, but that’s kind of the point; Dong-sik’s feelings for Hong-mae resemble those of a high school crush, and Hong-mae certainly isn’t having any of it. Shim begins profiling some of the immigrants on board—including an agitator trying to cause a mutiny, and a woman sleeping with crew members in order to get better treatment—setting up what looks like an odd couple story between the ship’s hard-nosed crew and their wily cargo.
But anyone familiar with South Korea’s recent cinematic output, or any of Bong Joon-Ho’s films, knows that subverting expectations is this country’s bread and butter. Things take a shocking turn around the halfway mark, and suddenly Haemoo becomes a whole other film. As a sea fog rolls in—“Haemoo” literally translates to “sea fog”—the foggy haze covering the boat becomes symbolic. What was once clear is now hard to see, and under the cover of the fog, Kang and his crew succumb to their immoral, selfish survival instincts.
Surprisingly, given Shim and Bong’s previous writing credits, the biggest issues with Haemoo come from the screenplay. Both writers have an excellent handle on pacing, with the second half steadily ratcheting up the tension as things continue to take a turn for the worst, but their handling of characters leaves a lot to be desired. The forced romance between Dong-sik and Hong-mae transitions into a real one rather suddenly, leading to an incredibly awkward sex scene after one character is murdered in cold blood right in front of them. The underdeveloped supporting cast only get more grating once the stakes get higher, functioning as nothing more than barriers preventing the protagonists from reaching a happy ending. The poor characterizations wind up clashing with the mostly excellent structure and plotting of the screenplay, producing a final result that’s frustratingly flawed.
The same can’t be said for Shim’s direction, as he shows a remarkably assured hand behind the camera. He handles the film’s sharp tonal shifts with ease, and with the help of cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo sustains an eerie mood once the thick sea fog envelops the boat and its surroundings. Park does a serviceable job as the young Dong-sik, but Kim Yoon-seok is the cast’s MVP as Captain Kang. Kim, who some fans of South Korean’s new wave might recognize from The Chaser, makes Kang a likable yet intimidating force, a man fueled purely by his need to survive. And while the film has more than a few issues with its screenplay, Haemoo is still a fun ride for the most part. It’s yet another example of how South Korea continues to beat Hollywood at its own game, combining different genre elements into something appealing, entertaining and refreshingly mature.