'Haemoo': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
  A possible riveting nightmare fogged up by concessions to blockbuster conventions.

Bong Joon-ho produced and co-wrote first-time director Shim Sung-bo's thriller about a fishing-boat crew's descent into red mist after a botched human-trafficking operation

Quite a few recent Korean movies are obsessed with representing China as an external threat to security and order at home. There's a Korean-Chinese mob wreaking havoc in Seoul in the high-octane thriller The Yellow Sea, for example, and The Thieves' über-villain is a Chinese underworld kingpin. With Haemoo, screenwriter-turned-director Shim Sung-bo subverts this long-running equation by revealing the possibilities of Koreans being in the wrong when people from the two cultures collide, as he adapts Kim Min-jung's play about the real-life incidence of a Korean fishing boat crew casting the bodies of 25 Chinese illegal immigrants aboard after a botched smuggling operation.

It's not as if Shim hasn't dealt with this theme of crime and guilt before: His screenplay for the 2003 hit Memories of Murder, co-written by the film's director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), is a powerful suspense thriller which doubles up as a j'accuse about the moral void giving free rein to the neo-liberal, authoritarian excess of the U.S.-backed South Korean military dictatorship in the 1980s.

With Bong returning Shim the favor by serving as co-writer and producer, Haemoo (or "Sea Fog" in Korean) certainly boasts a similar sensitivity of turning a genre flick into a more substantial social allegory. Once in the directorial chair, however, Shim has shown himself to be more attuned to straightforward sensitivity than Bong. Subtlety and reflection are not Shim's strongest suit, with Haemoo subscribing to many of the conventions of both disaster epics and revenge drama, and the over-dependence of a central seaborne romance (complete with a below-deck sex scene) actually veering the film towards Titanic territory.

It's a gripping ride through the storm, nevertheless; with powerful imagery, a simple and accessible story and a stellar performance from Kim Yoon-seok (the star of The Yellow Sea and The Thieves, no less) as a captain slowly spiraling towards madness, Haemoo has become a commercial and critical triumph since its release in South Korea in August. Its bow as a gala presentation at Toronto and then a competition title at San Sebastian would certainly secure this big-budget vessel with an ever more respectable coating, and Bong's participation would probably lead to a niche release and/or ancillary action outside Asia.

The term 'IMF noir' has been used to describe films — among them Bong's The Host and also Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy — which explore how ordinary South Koreans realize their fate as being dictated by the ebbs and flows of political and economic forces from beyond their home country's boundaries. Haemoo certainly qualifies as a fellow traveling show: set in 1998, three years before the real-life incident actually took place, the film's journey into darkness begins when trawler captain Kang Chul-joo (Kim) finds himself broke (and broken) beyond repair, his fortunes hit hard by the fallout of the Asian financial crisis.

Desperately trying to secure cash to save his creaking boat, Kang agrees to take on a 'croaker-fishing' commission, a phrase used to denote the trafficking of Korean-Chinese immigrants over to South Korea. It's a trip of no return for Kang and his crew as their harmless veneers begin to crack once the job goes awry. As deadly mayhem sets in — just at the very moment when a heavy fog renders zero-visibility around the boat — chaos reigns with all hands on board going crazy, including the bald, bumbling boatswain Ho-young (Kim Sang-ho), the swaggering handyman Kyung-goo (Yoo Seung-mok), the chief engineer Wan-ho (Moon Sung-keun) and his sex-crazed deputy Chang-wook (Lee Hee-joon).

The only faint light of humanity is personified here in Dong-sik (Park Yoo-chun), whose love for one of the immigrants emboldens him to rebel against this Kang-led rising tide of red mist. It's a crowd-pleasing trope no less — Park is a pop idol and soap opera star whose fame stretches well into China and Japan — but this romantic subplot derails the film's possible trajectory into fantastical eerie horror. When the girl, Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri), tells Dong-sik about her wish to head to an address in downtown Seoul once she arrives in Korea, you can really figure out how the story will pan out and who's going to survive all this.

Nevertheless, Haemoo offers a spectacle to behold: The camerawork from Hong Kyung-pyo (Snowpiercer) and Lee Ha-joon's production design are effective in highlighting the differences between the lands of vast, cold port and the unforgiving environments of the sea and cramped insides of the fishing boat. Kim Sang-bum and Kim Jae-bum's editing also helps the film set sail — their opening-sequence montage, showing the boat crew going about their daily business with bright bonhomie, is a clever signpost warning of how this camaraderie would inevitably give way to the emergence of their darker inner psyches.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations); also San Sebastian International Film Festival (Competition)

Production Company: Haemoo Co., Ltd

Cast: Kim Yoon-seok, Park Yu-chun, Han Ye-ri, Park Yoo-chun

Director: Shim Sung-bo

Screenwriters: Shim Sung-bo, Bong Joon-ho, based on a play by Kim Min-jung

Producers: Bong Joon-ho, Cho Neung-yeon, Lewis Taewan Kim with Yu In-soo

Executive producers: Kim Woo-taek

Director of photography: Hong Kyung-pyo

Production designer: Lee Ha-joon

Costume designer: Choi Se-yeon

Editors: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum

Music: Jung Jae-il

Sales: Finecut

In Korean

No rating; 111 minutes

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