Haemoo (aka Sea Fog) (해무) is an exquisitely shot, beautifully melancholic tour de force and a welcome return to form for Korean thrillers by director Sim Seong-bo, here making his feature debut. Co-written by director Shim and film maestro Bong Joon-ho – who also takes a producer credit – Haemoo is a riveting account of a sea expedition gone wrong, and the depths to which humanity can sink when faced with calamity. While the story is a compelling drama for the most part, Haemoo wobbles in the final stages by slipping into traditional genre fare, with the tying up of loose narrative ends feeling somewhat tacked on. That said, Haemoo is still one of the most provocative and gripping films of 2014 so far.
What remains to be seen is how Korean audiences will react to the film. With the Sewol ferry tragedy still very much a sensitive issue within the social consciousness, Haemoo – with its story about macabre events at sea – may very well turn cinema-goers off which is understandable, although a great shame indeed. Foreign audiences will undoubtedly embrace the film however, particularly with the hype it’s receiving for its international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
After a long and laborious expedition at sea, the crew of a small fishing vessel return to port with a frustratingly meagre haul. As the men take a well deserved rest on land, Captain Cheol-joo (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석) is provided with an opportunity to make some serious cash – by transporting illegal immigrants from China into Korea. Hastily agreeing, Captain Cheol-joo gathers his crew, including young deck-hand Dong-sik (Park Yoochun (박유천), and set sail for open waters once more where they dock with a ship to acquire their human cargo. Following a near-death experience with pretty migrant Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri (한예리), the vessel begins the voyage home yet weather and the authorities seem to conspire against them, leading to a tragic event that sees their very humanity tested.
Haemoo opens with a wonderful montage featuring the crew toiling at sea, capturing the backbreaking labour and arduous conditions of life on the waves with tremendous vision. The attention to detail is absolutely superb – from the grimy, rundown equipment and rusting, dilapidated boat to the tattered old clothes and sweaty brows of the crew – as each scene conveys the daily routine of a fishing boat with confident authenticity.
The same deft technical precision is applied within the ship. The mise-en-scene in each location is constructed with such meticulous consideration that each arena becomes akin to a different realm, whether it be the hellish steampunk engine room or the cluttered yet cosy sleeping quarters, providing distinct interiors within which the action takes place.
Cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo (who previously worked on Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer) exploits the opportunities afforded by such locations with absolute relish, with his compositions continually stunning and one of the great highlights of Haemoo. Space would initially seem to be an issue with a film largely set in the confines of a small fishing vessel, yet his uncanny ability to capture arenas in alternative fashions never ceases to be visually striking.
While it may sound bleak, the camaraderie between the crew quickly makes for endearing viewing as they smile and tease while undertaking their grinding tasks, portraying the rugged ensemble as an unlikely family of sorts. That is, until tragic events occur that serve to generate incredible tension between them replacing the humorous juvenile antics with well-paced suspense that builds into abject terror. The cast are excellent in conveying the range of emotions required by the harrowing story and understandably so as Haemoo contains some of Korea’s most experienced supporting actors in the form of Moon Seong-geun (National Security), Kim Sang-ho (Moss), Yoo Seung-mok (Han Gong-ju) and Kim Yeong-woong (How To Use Guys With Secret Tips). Acting powerhouse Kim Yoon-seok (The Thieves, Chaser) headlines the talent on display and gives a respectable, competent performance although as he has been playing these kinds of roles for quite some time, Kim is never really pushed into new territory. Haemoo notably serves as a great showcase for new talent in the form of Han Ye-ri (Dear Dolphin) and Park Yoochun (Kpop’s JYJ). The duo, particularly Han, are remarkable in capturing the awkward relationship that arises between them and form the emotional center of the film, which is an impressive achievement considering the wealth of talent on display.
Where Haemoo falters however is in the final act. After a wonderful set-up followed by a compelling crisis, the story descends into standard genre territory in order to wrap up all the narrative loose ends. That is not to say that Haemoo’s finale isn’t exciting as director Sim displays great prowess in creating an effective thriller, but given the quality of what’s gone before, it’s something of a disappointment. This is particularly the case with the epilogue scenes which feel tacked on and offer very little to the story. Yet even with such criticism, Haemoo is still head and shoulders above other Korean thrillers released this year, and is very much recommended viewing.
Haemoo is a beautifully shot, extremely compelling film by first time director Sim Seong-bo, and is a welcome return to form for Korean thrillers. Based on a tragic true story, the film is a powerfully provocative exploration of morality pushed to the extreme, with the tense situations performed superbly by the experienced all star cast. Coupled with the gifted vision of cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo the story is consistently visually striking, and while it falters during the final act, Haemoo is undoubtedly one of the most gripping films of the year.