VIFF 2021 Review: Drive My Car (ドライブ マイ カー)

A young Hiroshima chauffeur (played by Toko Miura) and the director she drives around (played by Hidetoshi Nishijimi) form an unexpected bond in the Japanese film Drive My Car.

Drive My Car is one of two Japanese films I saw at the VIFF on Saturday the 9th. It’s a film that turns out to be more than what one expect of it.

The film begins with Yusuke Kafuku and his wife Oto. They appear happily married at the start. Oto is a housewife while Yusuke is a stage actor, and doing very well. Oto frequently gives Yusuke story ideas which he could one day adapt and direct, even while they both have sex! They were parents to a daughter, who died at a young age 20 years earlier. They still hold a religious memorial for her on the anniversary of her death. He has just finished doing a play with rising young Japanese actor Koji Takatsuki. Soon after, he is given an assignment to do a directing job in Russia. Just before he is to board the plane at Narita, he’s told of a one-day delay. He goes back to his house, only to find Koji having sex with Oto, which they don’t notice. Days later, Yusuke has a car accident and learns of glaucoma in his right eye. Yusuke tries to recover, but soon, Oto dies of a hemorrhage.

Yusuke needed two years to recover from this all. It started affecting his work as he had trouble dealing with his first role after her death: the role of Vanya in Uncle Vanya. His first project is to co-direct a multilingual adaptation of Uncle Vanya with a Korean director names Lee Yoon-a. It is to be staged in Hiroshima during a theatre festival. One thing is that Yusuke meets a young woman named Misaki. She is to be his driver from hotel to theatre. Yusuke doesn’t like the idea of a driver. He wants to do his own driving. However festival insurance rules means having a driver for the directors is a must. One of their directors from years past died in a car accident during production. That’s why directors for this company have drivers. Yusuke reluctantly agrees to allow her to drive his Saab.

The drives to and from the theatre start without conversation. Misaki simply drives Yusuke to the theatre. Some friction starts when Yusuke wants to use the car’s tape player to recite his lines: something he commonly does as he rehearses shows. It starts with friction, but she complies. Yusuke and co-director Lee start the auditions for the play. They audition many actors from various parts of Asia and other countries. The languages vary from Japanese to Korean, Taiwanese and even Korean sign-language. One of those auditioning is Koji. Koji switch from television to theatre after his career was one tabloid scandal after another. You can tell Yusuke has feelings of contempt for him. Yusuke declines to be an actor himself in the production because of how emotional Chekhov’s works are too emotionally draining.

The film starts read-through rehearsals. Most are Japanese-speaking, but there’s also Korean-speaking, a Taiwanese-speaking American and the woman who does Korean sign-language. Koji has also been cast in the play. Both Yusuke and Lee go through the rehearsals. The friction is no bigger than your typical friction on a theatre set. Misaki continues to drive Yusuke and the two start to develop conversation. Misaki is a chain-smoker and just briefly tells Yusuke of the death of her mother in a landslide disaster.

As the play starts progressing to the physical rehearsals, where an LED screen above flashes the dialogue in many languages to the audience, the play gets its common friction. If there are any hostile feelings between Yusuke and Koji, Yusuke keeps it to himself. He has to get along with Koji as they are producing. One night, the director Lee invites Yusuke to dinner at his house. Misaki is also invited. Lee meets the wife, who is the actress who is performing in sign-language. It’s a happy marriage.

One night Yusuke and Misaki go into the town for drinks. They come across Koji. Koji is at the bars hoping to get away from it all. However people trying to get his photo annoys him even to the point he gets violent with one. Since Koji is too drunk to drive, he gets a ride with Yusuke from Misaki. During the time, Koji confesses his affair with Oto. He tries to give Yusuke words of comfort of what a wonderful woman Oto was. He even tries to suggest that it was through Oto they meet by fate here.

Just a week before the show is about to start, it was learned that Koji is under investigation for committing manslaughter from that night at the bars. The play continues rehearsals despite the temporary detainment of Koji. After the rehearsal, Yusuke allows Misaki to go to the area where the landslide that took her mother happened. They go to the area. Misaki starts letting out her feelings and breaks into tears. There, Yusuke also confesses his failings to Oto after the death of their daughter. He too is in tears and they embrace together. Uncle Vanya is then staged with Misaki watching from the audience. She watches the ending scene with intensity where the actress playing Sonya signs about the need to stoically carry on living in the face of crushing disappointment. The film ends in a questionable way.

This is a rare story. This is a case of a director of theatre being escorted by a young driver who’s the same age his late daughter would be. We don’t notice it at first, but both are hurting inside and both need healing. Over time, they are mostly silent. Then over time, they strike up an unlikely friendship that eventually takes them to where they grieve together. One is first tempted to think around the middle of the film, Yusuke would soon be romantically interested in Misaki, but that’s for you to judge for yourself.

It’s not just about Yusuke and Misaki. It’s also about Yusuke trying to make peace with himself as the husband who failed. Maybe he blames himself for Oto’s premature death. It’s also about making peace with Koji, Oto’s ‘other man.’ In a lot of ways, it’s about Yusuke criss-crossing with a lot of people as he’s on his journey to heal and make peace. He’s a man trying to heal from his failed marriage and his driver is trying to heal from her mother’s death which she blames himself for. Yusuke is a television actor who quit television for theatre after his daughter’s death. Koji, the ‘other man,’ quit television for theatre with the scandals of his behavior plaguing his life. Yet they find themselves working together in the film. It could be a case where the fates are a case where Oto brought them there to forgive each other, as Koji suggested.

The mixing in of the story of Uncle Vanya being done in multilingual fashion adds into the story. I think that’s the point of the story. I believe it’s to show how art is universal in its feelings and connections. Art transcends language barriers to deliver the feelings of love and hurt we all share. Even the detail of the play that’s being staged in Hiroshima has a bearing of importance in this story.

This is a smart film about a director who is trying to make peace over the sudden death of his adulterous wife. The inclusion of a ‘chauffeur’ who herself hasn’t fully come to terms with her mother’s death in a disaster and the young actor in his play who was one of his wife’s ‘other men’ adds to the story of the healing process for both the director and the driver. One glitch about the film is that it goes for a long period of time. Possibly too long. Even at the start, forty minutes of story go by before the opening credits roll. The story in itself is almost three hours long. It’s a very good story that deals with universal human emotions intertwined with art, but it is drawn out for too long of a period of time. You’re left wondering if all that time was really worth it.

This is a very good film for director/writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi. He’s had renown before for his filmmaking like Wheel Of Fortune and Fantasy and Happy Hour. Here he creates a smart film of three people that need healing and how it’s through the power of art that they are able to make it happen and be given the will to live despite all that’s happened. There are some noticeable mistakes like the length of the film and the ending that gets you wondering, but it’s still a good film to watch. Hidetoshi Nishijima does a great performance as Yusuke being a man that needs healing, but doesn’t show it on the outside. Toko Miura is also very good as Misake. Just like Nishijima as Yusuke, she does a good job of playing a character with hurts she tries to keep hidden until it all comes out that moment together. Masaki Okada is also very good as the troubled Koji. You can tell despite the ego on the outside, he has some personal feelings underneath.

This film has already won an excellent amount of awards. The film won the Best Screenplay Award and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was a nominee for the Palme d’Or. The film was also a nominee for the Best Feature Award at the Chicago Film Festival and a nominee for the Audience Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. The film was recently selected as Japan’s entry in the category of Best International Feature Film for this year’s Oscar race.

Drive My Car is a film of two individuals who meet by fate, but help each other heal. It does a good job of mixing the story line with the art of theatre and the mixing of languages, but it’s too long of a film. A good story, but too elongated nevertheless.

Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: Parasite ( 기생충)

Parasite
Parasite is the story of the Kim family trying to break out of poverty by scamming their way together into serving an upper-class family.

NOTE: This review originally published January 27, 2020 has included many edits done on February 17th after watching this film again.

Foreign-language films have a habit of becoming catchy when you least expect it. This year’s hit foreign film comes from South Korea. It’s titled Parasite and done by renowned director Bong Joon-ho and it’s quite a telling story about the classes.

The Kim family have it hard as they live in a basement shack in a rough area of Seoul. Father Ki-Taek had good restaurant opportunities, but they all folded. Mother Chung-sook used to be a good hammer thrower. Son Ki-Woo is trying to get into a good college and their daughter Ki-Jeong is unsure of her future. They struggle with working menial jobs, have to roam near the windows for free Wifi, have a lot of bugs in their place and sometimes have no choice but to watch drunks urinate outside their window.

Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk visits with him before he leaves for college. Min-hyuk has been working as an English tutor for the daughter of a wealthy Park family. Min-hyuk recommends to Ki-woo he take over and even fake university credentials. Min-hyuk trusts Ki-woo way more than those other ‘drunken college boys’ to replace him in the tutoring job. Ki-woo is able to make a successful forgery and he’s hired to be the English tutor to the Park’s daughter Da-Hye. The Kim family hope to get jobs within the Park household. The Parks are hugely admiring about their 7-year-old son’s drawings and are looking for an ‘art tutor.’ Kim Ki-jeong, the daughter, is able to pose as a student from Illinois under the name of Jessica. Ki-jeong is hired and even able to successfully convince the mother something’s psychologically wrong with the son. Now that Ki-jeong is hired, it looks like there aren’t any more positions. Not unless they get the chauffeur and the maid fired. Which is exactly what the Kims do! The limo driver is ordered to drive Ki-jeong close to her block but without him knowing, she takes her panties off and leaves them to get him framed for having sex in the car. It works and the father Kim Ki-taek is hired as the limo driver. Then there’s the maid Moon-gwang. She’s a good servant, who even served the original tenant of the mansion who was the architect. She makes her allergy to peach aware which is perfect! The Kims shave peaches and throw it when she’s around to get her to think she’s come down with tuberculosis. Moon-gwang has to quit and the mother Kim Chung-sook is hired to replace her.

Although all four have jobs in the Park household, they have to disguise they’re not family. That’s not easy as the Park’s son, Park Da-song, notice they all have the same smell. Also all have to make their exact whereabouts secret to them not just so that it’s unknown they live in the same place, but so the Parks don’t know they live in a rutty area. Soon the Parks leave for a camping trip, which they will be using their own car and entrusting Chung-sook as the maid and leaving the others off. As the Parks are away, it’s perfect opportunity for the Kims to have their own party at the place. And they have every reason to. They all made it!

However during their fun on a rainy night, something unexpected happens. They have a visitor at the house. It’s the former maid Moon-gwang. She said she left something important in the bunker. The Kims didn’t know the Parks had a bunker. It’s a bunker a lot of rich people have either to avoid loan sharks or in case nuclear war happens. This bunker was ordered to be built by the first house-owner and something even the Parks don’t know about, but Moon-gwang does. In that hidden room at the bottom of the bunker, Chung-sook discovers Geun-sae, Moon-gwang’s husband, is in it. He has been hiding down there for years to avoid loan sharks over his failed restaurant. When the other Kims discover Moon-gwang and Geun-sae a fight ensues after Moon-gwang threatens to expose their scam. The family and couple use technology to fight for control. However the fight ends when Chung-sook learns the family is coming back sooner than expected because of the heavy rain and they expect ‘ramdon’ with cubed beef. Party’s over, right?

Not quite. The Kims have to hide and Chung-sook kicks Moon-gwang down the stairs for which she receives a fatal head blow. Chung-sook serves the Park family the ramdon after they arrive with the other Kims hiding under the furniture waiting to escape. It’s a long process as the parents sit on the sofa watching Park Da-song play ‘indian’ in his tent out in the rain. The Parks even get sexual on the couch and even talk about the smell of Kim Ki-taek, unknowing that he’s underneath the sofa and hears it all. The three Kims escape the mansion and return back to their home in the rain, only to find it’s almost completely flooded and they’re one of many people from the neighborhood that have to sleep in a makeshift shelter in a gymnasium. The next morning, Ki-woo and Ki-taek have a heart-to-heart talk about life and plans.

All appears not to be lost. The Parks are having the birthday party for Da-song and the staff are invited. All four Kims can assume their guises again. It’s based on the ‘indian’ theme that Da-song loves. It’s if party with family and friends. Ki-taek is to participate with Park Dong-ik in an ‘indian attack’ skit with the birthday cake and is reminded he’s a paid servant. The party goes well but just as Ki-woo returns to the bunker with the scholar’s rock, he encounters an angry Geun-sae. Geun-sae has had it that he’s been down there for so long and that he just lost his wife because of the Kim’s stupidity and selfishness. Geun-sae wants revenge and Ki-woo is first to get it as Geun-sae uses the scholar’s rock to hit him over the head. Then Geun-sae goes out in the yard where the party is and stabs Ki-jeong in the heart. That provokes a seizure from Da-song which Dong-ik orders Ki-Taek to drive him to the hospital. That leads to even bigger chaos as Chung-sook fatally stabs Geun-sae, but Geun-sae is alive long enough to look Dong-ik in the face and shout ‘respect.’ Angry with it all, Ki-taek stabs Dong-ik and runs away out of everyone’s sight.

The aftermath is that Ki-jeong died and Ki-woo was in a coma for weeks. Ki-woo came out of it, but it left him with a brain injury that causes him to laugh unexpectedly. He and Chung-sook were convicted of fraud and impersonation and Ki-taek is at large missing without a trace. The Park house has been resold to a German family who just arrived. Despite the deaths of Moon-gwang, Geun-sae, Kim Ki-jeong and Park Dong-ik, it sold. Even with new owners, Ki-woo notices a light from the bunker flash on and off. Ki-Taek is alive and hiding in the bunker and flashes a message of Morse Code every day hoping his son will see it. Ki-woo has a message of Morse code for his father he hopes to deliver one day. A message of a hope that they can be a family again and how they can live prosperously in that house, and done fairly.

The interesting thing of this film is that it’s very creative in showing the biases poor people have of rich people and the biases rich people have of poor people, and biases both have of certain peoples in general. For all intents and purposes, the Parks hired the Kims who disguise themselves as unrelated workers. The Parks appear to treat the adult Kims as people, but will also treat them as the hired hands they’re supposed to be, so there has to be a limit. With that, all that happens seems to send a message of the biases. We see it in the Park family as they common talk about the smell of poor people, especially Mr. Kim. It seems like poor people have a smell only the Parks can sense. We also see how the Parks seem to think the smallest instance of something wrong is a big problem and the wife believes whatever the Kim’s tell her! We see it in the Kims how they have the belief that the rich are very naive and all four are ready to take full advantage of it. Even at the ‘Kim party’ and how they talk of money being a solve-all.

The film also shows how both the Kims and the Parks can expose their own weaknesses. We see it at the beginning as the Kims think their only way into a better life or even a life of wealth is to scam their way into wealth. We see how Park Da-song likes to fantasize about being an ‘indian’ and the Park family toys around with Native Americans. We see it at events like the birthday party, we see it during the rainflood, we see how Mr. Park has a framed article from an American magazine where he’s named ‘Nathan Park.’ We sense it in the use of English words and phrases, English names and association with the United States like all these elements suggest something about class structure and importance. Even how when Mrs. Park hires Ki-woo, she wants to give him the name ‘Kevin.’ We even see how despite the Parks neglect Moon-gwang and Geun-sae, Geun says ‘respect’ to him. The rich Parks appear to marginalize, but the Kims and the couple still have regard to them. Even seeing how Ki-taek can’t mourn at his daughter’s urn but mourns at an obituary of Nathan says something.

Even without the theme of the wealth gap, this film is also interesting of how the story is constructed. At first you think the film will follow a basic linear path in therms of telling its story. There are even times in which even after one incident happens out of the ordinary, it appears it will still end in normal fashion. However it doesn’t. What you anticipate might be a good ending actually ends up being something totally bizarre. The first half of the film appears like a massacre is the last thing to expect the film to end with, but you’ll be surprised. One source mentions that it ended that way because Korean movies are known to be big on blood and gore, just like a lot of Japanese movies. However it does make one think whether the film and its scenes were done right or not. Sometimes you think it could have been done better if this was done that way. Then you think if it did, this would have to be left out. In the end, you’re left convinced the film was done the right way. Including the massacre scene when Kim Ki-jeong is killed, but Park Dong-ik cares about his son’s seizure instead. Even the scene where Moon-gwang falls and recieves her fatal concussion seems like the right thing to have. Also the aftermath looking like it ends the film right as a redemption of humanity at the end and actually makes you feel for the surviving Kim family, despite Ki-woo’s message of an against-all-odds hope.

I’ll also this film is a welcome reminder of the rich-poor gap in South Korea. If you remember years back, I saw a film called Nameless Gangster. That film showed the conditions of South Korea in the early 1980’s and the protagonist struggled with a limited wage as a fisherman. That’s why he chose to be an organized crime don. Because he felt it was the only way he could get ahead. The film also showed how things became better for South Korea as democracy was implemented just before the Seoul Olympics. I was left with the impression that life for residents got way better since democracy was introduced. Parasite reminds me it is, but there are still people in South Korea that slip through the cracks. On top of that, the gap of rich and poor is just as present in South Korea as it is in any developed nation.

Top accolades for the film go to director Bong Joon-ho. Bong is actually South Korea’s first director to break into North America. He had a good reputation in South Korea, but he expanded into North American film after people take note of 2009’s Mother. His English-language breakthrough came with 2013’s Snowpiercer and critics were impressed. Even after returning back to Korean films, Bong has still caught a lot of attention with films like Sea Fog (which he was producer) and Okja. This is possibly his best work.

This film is very complex as Bong’s not just simply working with a complex story he co-wrote with Han Jin-won, but even working with a lot of complex styles of scene. Bong got the idea from this story from an actual murder of rich people by their servants. It was 1933 in France and the two servants that killed their master were sisters. Bong does a good job in making a great story sending a message about the division of the classes. The little elements that add to the theme of the rich-poor gap like the ‘poor person smell,’ the use of English when they have something significant to say, the storm which makes the Kim family face the music about what they’re doing, the scholar’s rock which goes from a good-luck object to something Geun-sae attempted to kill Kim Ki-woo with before the massacre, the use of Morse Code, Nathan’s constant talk of crossing-the-line and the talk of plans between Ki-woo and Ki-taek, they all help add to the color of the story and to the theme.

Already there are a lot of videos on YouTube that talk of various elements of the film like the multi-leveled house and how the Kims are always beneath the Parks, the use of sunlight in the Park domain, the ending seen as false hope, and the use of bugs during certain scenes. There are scenes that get you wondering as well. Like the scene where Park Da-hye has sex with Kim Ki-woo. Some could say it’s sending the message the two classes aren’t that far apart. Others could say it’s where the rich like to screw the poor. You be the judge! Also you figured halfway into the film that the scam of the Kims would eventually be uncovered, but I bet you didn’t expect it during a massacre at a child’s birthday party!

The acting from all ten actors involved was excellent to see as they all had something to add and they did it all as one team rather than a single actor standing out. If there was anything close to a standout, it had to be Song Kang-ho as the Mr. Kim. He did an excellent job as playing a man who appears to be the one most caught in the middle. Choi Woo-shik was also good as the hopeful but insecure Kim son who starts it all and ends up the voice of reason at the end. The production design was also very good. It was excellent in showing off the modern rich-poor gap of the three classes very well. The cinematography of Hong Kyung-pyo was also excellent. The music from Jung Jae-il also added to the storytelling too.

Parasite begins in normal fashion, leads to a comedic middle, leads to the conclusion in bizarre fashion, and ends on a somber note. It does seem like an odd construction of a film, but Bong makes it work. Plus he has a lot to tell about the gap between rich and poor. It’s a gap we see all too well in our own lives.

VIFF 2017 Review: Forest Movie

ForestMovie

This year seems like the year I’ve seen more experimental film at the VIFF than ever before. The latest experimental feature I saw was Forest Movie. It was shot all in  Vancouver and it does a lot with the 65 minutes it has.

The film begins with images of a forest and then phases into a young woman sleeping. The young woman was actually dreaming of the forest. She sends a text message to her friend that she can’t meet up: she’s sick. The friend accepts.

What she does right after is put on a jacket and bring along her bag and portable chair. She simply leaves from her apartment suite near Powell St. and Nanaimo St. and walks to a forest inside the city. The visit is simple as she walks across the paved trails over the rocks and branches with her cellphone turned off. A complete getaway. There are times she takes breaks like for when she eats something or feels she needs to write poetry or prose in her notebook. Other than that, just simply walking through the forest.

Then she finds a grassy spot that’s open and surrounded by the trees. She uses that spot as a place to set up her chair and relax. There’s a twenty-minute shot of the area of the forest she witnesses from her chair. It just consists of that view, changes of sunshine or cloud, and the surrounding sounds of the outdoors or her dealing with her chair, bag or notebook.

Night soon falls. She actually fell asleep during her time sitting in the forest. Night approaches. She’s all alone in the dark relying on her cellphone as a flashlight. She rushes to find the exit to the forest, but is lost. Images of her attempt to exit consist of her cellphone light shining or complete darkness with nothing but sound. Morning breaks and we see her walking back to her apartment as if nothing dreadful happened.

No question this film can be defined as experimental. The film is what it is. It’s a story about a young woman seeking tranquility in a forest and is willing to deal with whatever comes to her. The director Matthew Taylor Blais was in the audience and would later hold a Q&A after. Before the film started, he said: “No two people will have the same impression of this film.”

I got what he was after in this film: he wanted us to create our own thoughts, impressions and opinions about this film. That explains why actress Ana Escorse is given no dialogue at all in this film. The film is all about what we see and what we hear. I was open to this. The film gives us images and scenes that try to get us to form our own opinions. For starters, I actually thought the woman really was sick from the texts she sent. I though she went to the forest possibly for natural healing therapy. That scene in her apartment that shows an Aboriginal dream catcher could may have made some, including myself,  believe she’s into Aboriginal spirituality and may see the forest as the medicine she needs. Even the scene where you see trees just outside a condo leads you to think this is an urban forest close to downtown Vancouver in Stanley Park, when it’s actually shot in Pacific Spirit Regional Park close to UBC.

Later shots add into the opinions we form about this film. The scenes where she takes out her notebook and writes or draws might get one to think she’s using the forest for creative inspiration. That twenty-minute shot of the forest’s view is an attempt to get us to rely on the background sounds to form our own opinions about what’s happening from this view. The end scene of her trying to leave the forest at night is also one that gets us to rely on our thoughts of what’s happening. The scene with the biggest impact is the scene where the camera makes like we see her escape through her eyes. It consists of the background sounds and the cellphone light cutting in and out. It’s actually the scene with the most drama as one would wonder will she make it? Will she get lost?

Matthew Taylor Blais does a very good job with this film. I was more welcoming with the experimentation in this film than I was in PROTOTYPE. I think Blais’ intro before it began helped me to be more welcoming.  It’s an experimental film that pays off and allows the audience to create their own impression. It allowed me to create mine. However it is to say that it does take some creative risks that would be questionable. I welcomed that twenty-minute shot of the forest scenery, but some were not so welcoming. In fact I saw a few people leave the theatre during that scene, including a group of four. That’s one of the risks of creating an experimental film like this. Not everyone is as welcoming as me to such experimentation.

Forest Movie is an experimental film that allows the audience to exercise their imagination and make their own judgements about what’s happening in the story. This is experimental film that pays off greatly.

VIFF 2014 Review: Haemoo (Sea Fog – 해무)

Haemoo (Sea Fog) is a story of romance in the midst of an illegal immigration expedition.
Haemoo (Sea Fog) is a story of romance in the midst of an illegal immigration expedition.

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.