Even though the Vancouver International Film Festival is officially over, I still have four films left to review. Now on with the fourth-last. I have a habit every VIFF to see at least one national entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category for this year’s Oscars. Here at the VIFF I saw Haemoo: South Korea’s official entry. I’m glad I did.
The film begins with Kang Cheol-ju, a captain of a fishing ship the Jeonjinho that’s old, crumbly and is catching less than ever. Because of the low catches in the fishing industry and the difficulties with South Korea’s economy, Kang is in danger of losing his ship and his livelihood. In the meantime one of his crewmen Dong Sik has just joined the boat. He doesn’t see himself pursuing a livelihood as a shiphand and is contemplating construction.
Kang has just received an idea of how to make money for his ship, big money. He’s been offered a deal to go into the illegal trade. He’s willing to involve himself with anything to get him ahead, whether it be illegal jewels or even illegal immigrants. He knows it means going into international waters and possibly get arrested by the coast guard but he believes it will work.
One day after going into international waters they spot a ship full of illegal immigrants from China and North Korea. They have to make the tricky transfer from their ship to the Jeonjinho. Yes, walking across. Thirty or so men and one female make it. However there’s one young frail woman who fell into the water. Dong Sik doesn’t think. He rushes out to save her. After saving Hong Mae from drowning, she along with the other immigrants are fed hot ramen at first. However the police are suspicious of Kang and what his boat is up to. Kang’s already under suspicion for a long history of evading loan sharks. Every time a coast guard boat comes by, he has to hide all the illegals in the fish tank, risking them to suffocating and unhealthy conditions.
The immigrants are unhappy about their treatment but Kang makes an example to the crowd by throwing one in the water and showing them who’s boss. Dong Sik knows that Hong Mae shouldn’t have to deal with such harshness so he finds a safe spot for her. Soon the two fall in love and Dong promises her safety. However it becomes threatened when the immigrants are all put back into the fish pit as a loan shark makes a visit. Dong Sik keeps Hong Mae from entering. After the shark’s visit, it’s discovered all of the immigrants in the pit are dead. It only boosts Kang’s lust for power as he wants them chopped with an axe before being tossed out at sea and their personal belongings burned. One of the crewmen tell him off for what he did only to be killed by Kang.
Hong Mae has seen all that happened and has no trust for anyone, not even Dong Sik at first. Nevertheless Dong Sik promises her safety. He knows Hong Mae will be seen as a lust object or a womanizing sailor and as a threat to Kang as she’ll know the truth. Things only get worse for the Jeonjinho as the power is completely out. Then it’s given away about Dong Sik’s hiding of Hong Mae. As expected Kang feels she’ll land him in jail and the sailor animalistically wants a go at her. Dong Sik knows he has to protect her from the two despite how challenging it is. He knows he will have to kill some of them. However it’s after the Jeonjinho collides with a freighter that solidifies the fates of all and paves the way for an ending that’s unexpected and keeps you thinking long after the movie.
One thing I have to say is that the script is unique for a lot of surprising things. At first you think the film’s protagonist will be Kang because the focus of the story first appears to be about him and his ship. Instead it ends up being about Dong Sik even though he is focused on very little at the beginning. Another unique thing is how the deaths of the immigrants made animals of some of the key shipmen on board. One example is of how Kang first appeared to be a typical authoritarian jerk to the immigrants but soon his lust for control would just make a ruthless animal of him. Even the ship mechanic who was just simply a womanizer made like a mindless dog to Hong Mae and had nothing else on his mind but to have sex with her. Another surprising thing is how the ship is doomed to sink but Kang is determined to keep it afloat despite it being hopeless. It’s almost like Richard III’s “My horse. My horse. My kingdom for a horse.” In the end, the ship becomes the judge, jury and executioner of Kang. And for those who saw it, you’ll know the last surprising thing was the ending. It’s an ending that will leave you asking your own questions. I know it left me with my own questions.
The one thing is that it is a very good movie but it did have its noticeable flaws. First thing is that it makes a good honest effort of making a love story in a scenario that’s hard to stomach. For those who don’t know, this film is based off of an actual illegal immigration case from South Korea in 2001 where a fishing boat carrying illegal immigrants accidentally left 25 dead. The difference between Haemoo and the actual case is that the ship never sank, there were many more surviving illegal immigrants and all the crewmen were brought to justice. Nevertheless it makes the romance too awkward because of the testy subject matter. I know I’ve seen films before that have made what would normally be unwatchable material end as a triumph of the human spirit but I sensed some unevenness in it. Nevertheless this is a very brave attempt.
The biggest accolades for this film should go to director Sung Bo-Shim. Lately South Korean directors are starting to make a name for themselves internationally. The most notable being Boon Joon-Hu who directed the critically acclaimed 2009 Korean film Mother and this year’s English-language film Snowpiercer. This time Boon co-writes the script with Shim in his feature-length directorial debut. It’s an excellent debut. The biggest of the standout actors is Kim Yoon-Seok. Even though he was not the protagonist, he was the scene-stealer as the power-hungry Kang whose lust for power would eventually destroy him. Multitalented Park Yoochun was also impressive as the young Dong Sik who was the only one on the ship who appeared to have any conscience to what was really happening. Han Ye-Ri was also very believable as the young Hong Mae but her best part was definitely the end. The special effects and action parts added to the intensity of the film and the score composed by Jeong Jae-il fit the movie excellently.
Haemoo (Sea Fog) is not a flawless movie or a flawless story. Nevertheless it is an excellent debut from a promising South Korean director. We’ll have to wait until Oscar time to see how it fares.