Director: Shim Sung Bo.
Starring: Kim Yun Seok, Park Yoo Chun, Han Ye Ri, Lee Hee Joon, Moon Sung Geun, Kim Sang Ho, Yoo Seung Mok.
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Synopsis: A desperate group of fisherman take on a job of transporting illegal immigrants, but things go from bad to worse during the lengthy voyage.
Shim Sung Bo, who wrote MEMORIES OF MURDER over ten years ago, returns to the big screen for his feature film debut as a director. He’s brought MEMORIES OF MURDER director and co-writer, Bong Joon Ho, along as co-writer and producer for his first effort, and Bong’s influences can be felt throughout. Fortunately Shim has enough of a voice not to be drowned out by his more familiar counterpart, but this still very much feels as though it takes place in the darkly humorous and bleak world the famous Korean serial killer flick.
Opening with a montage of a failed fishing excursion, Shim sets the scene for a bunch of fisherman living through difficult times. It’s a fast paced opening that quickly juxtaposes with the quiet and bland lives the men live on shore. With money a hard commodity to come by, Captain Kang (Kim Yun Seok), decides to take on a job transporting Korean-Chinese immigrants, without informing his crew until they are already out at sea. The drama that arises and social themes may be obvious to begin with, but the film takes a number of surprising turns throughout that truly start to question characters’ and audiences’ values.
The caring side towards the immigrants soon makes way for their demanding of fairer treatment, and as the fisherman begin to slide into crueler roles, we see the gradual breakdown of this once happy family of colleagues. The ulterior motives begin to shine through, but we also see a level of incompetence, displayed well when an immigrant questions the fact that they are given salty food, knowing full well they will have to go a long time with little water. The film does well to balance the necessity that the fishermen perceive their actions to be, while also showing what the cost is. The film is particularly powerful when addressing hatred towards immigrants, as we see the risks they are willing to take and the reasons they do so. The film may hit a nerve with audiences worldwide in fortunate countries.
An all star cast has been assembled for the roles of the fishermen, and each crafts a wonderful character. Kim Yun Seok is the dark and controlling captain, while Park Yoo Chun is the naive latest addition to the group who believes there can be a happy ending. This allows for an explosive final third in which the men turn on each other in an act many unfamiliar with Bong and Shim may see as exaggerated. It certainly is, but that’s the joy of it. They push their cast to the extreme in order to effectively get their points across, which also allows for a tense and action packed finale. Many smart films are scared away from excitement and entertainment, but here is an example of how to marry the two perfectly.
HAEMOO has been put forward as South Korea’s entry into the race for Best Foreign Language Picture, and it certainly stands a chance. The majority of the film should reach international audiences on some level, and the visuals are truly beautiful. The film looks crisp and gritty at every turn, as we go from fish hold to engine room. Although set on a small boat, the rooms themselves come alive and have much to say themselves. The engine room is both warm and welcoming, but also cold and industrial, so it’s no surprise that a lot of conflicting actions take place here. A fantastically crafted thriller that asks what average men do in extraordinary situations. One hint…it sure ain’t pretty.
(5 / 5)
Note: HAEMOO was shown at the London Korean Film Festival on November 13 & 15, 2014.