South Korean cinema has a special way of smacking you upside the head as soon as you settle in and feel like you’ve gotten a grip on its characters and the story’s direction. Take a look at any of the most popular films out there, particularly from internationally renowned masters Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, and you’ll see what we’re talking about. This year, a single South Korean film, directed by relatively unknown Shim Sung-bo, found its way into TIFF’s prestigious Gala program (usually reserved for the glitziest star-filled movies of the season). In fact, it’s Shim’s debut feature as a director, with only a couple of writing credits under his belt. So how did “Haemoo” end up sailing its way into the significant international waters of Toronto, exactly? Having Bong producing and co-writing your project certainly helps, but making South Korean cinema still feel fresh and vital with its genre-swerving storytelling practically seals the deal.
Set in 1998, during the aftermath from the IMF financial crisis of 1997, “Haemoo” follows a ragtag trawler crew, scraping to survive as fishermen in economically desolate times. Captain Kang (Kim Yoon-seok) is the kind of man who considers his rusty, old and half-broken ship ‘Junjin’ a family member, stubbornly ignoring everyone’s suggestions to do away with it. Meanwhile, when he comes back home and catches his cheating wife in the middle of the act, he merely express his annoyance with a tiresome sigh. With a five-man crew under his leadership, including a wise old engineer who comically hides from debt collectors, and 26-year-old Dong-sik (Park Yu-chun) who prides himself in being a sailor, the walls are closing in on Kang because there’s no catch big enough to fish his way out of the financial woes that are drowning him and his brothers-at-sea. With his back up against it, Kang sees no way out other than to accept an illegal smuggling job from a local shyster known for transporting contraband from China. The cargo? Chino-Korean immigrants.
The unraveling of the plot begins when one of the immigrants, Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri), accidentally falls into the water mid-transfer. After a second’s hesitation, Dong-sik jumps into the water and saves her, silently vowing, it seems, to be her protector from there on out. Meanwhile, at the sight of two women among the frightened and confused group, Kang mumbles to himself how having women on board his ship is bad luck. Yet, even with these ominous signs and foreshadowing, including a near-fatal incident in the opening sequence of the film, nothing truly prepares the audience for what Bong and Shim have in store once the sea fog (the literal translation of ‘Haemoo’) sets in. Adventure, action, romance, horror and comedy of the darkest kind reign simultaneously once the shocking incident occurs. To reveal this incident would spoil the gumption shown by the filmmakers, but suffice it to say that “Haemoo” becomes an all-together different kind of beast. For better, and for worse.
Never in a million years would someone be able to watch this film for the first time and guess that it’s a debut feature. So assured is the direction, so purposeful is the camera that frenetically follows the characters on the boat, so optimally bleak are the wide shots of the isolated ship, aimlessly stuck between the darkness of the ocean and the darkness of the thundering skies above. The cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo truly deserves accolades for imbuing the picture with a ghostlike atmosphere that makes any Tim Burton picture look like a Skittles commercial. Add to this the character of the ship itself, thanks to the screenplay’s intelligent scattering of episodes across various locations on the vessel, and you’ve got yourself a picture of truly epic dimensions. Bong Joon-ho’s influence is felt from rhapsodic start to somber finish, and it’s clear that the two men have built a good working foundation from their first collaboration, Bong’s brilliant “Memories of Murder,” which Shim co-wrote. Mind you, once the titular fog envelops the ship and all the hearts and minds on board along with it, the tone of the film obscures any genuine attributes these characters may have possessed in the first half of the film.
About two-thirds in, a realization creeps in that this is a carefully crafted story with characters that can only exist in fiction. The effect is one of dispelled movie magic, not unlike Bong’s recent “Snowpiercer”. People begin to lose their minds, and human desires flare up, in comically nightmarish fashion that’s much too quick to properly absorb and admire. This unwelcome feeling still doesn’t stop one from enjoying the devilish fun when one of the crew members calms everyone down by saying “we are all in the same boat. Literally!” The performances from the three leads, Kim in particular relishing his role with subtle viciousness similar to Humphrey Bogart in “Treasure of Sierra Madre”, also anchor the film so that it doesn’t get too lost in the tonal twists and turns. And once the fog clears, despite the questionable pace along the way, Shim has much to be proud of.
South Korea’s peculiar brand of cinema is doubtlessly thrilling when done right. Similarly though, it can tip the genre scales a little too forcefully at times, making for a nauseous ride. “Haemoo” is bit of mixed bag in that sense, and a certain time-jumping decision at the end will leave many international audiences scratching their heads, while it may very well resonate with a more understanding South Korean crowd. In any case, “Haemoo” is a picture worth seeing for its thrills, scrupulous tension-building and mischievous genre twists that will have you gasping one second, and laughing the next.