Haemoo (AKA Sea Fog) (해무) – ★★★★☆

Sea Fog (해무)

Sea Fog (해무)

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.

The crew work hard in fraught conditions, but camaraderie prevails

The crew work hard in fraught conditions, but camaraderie prevails

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.

The composition within Haemoo is continually striking, both within the ship and without

The composition within Haemoo is continually striking, both within the ship and without

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.

Han Ye-ri is the break out star as migrant Hong-mae, and forms the emotional heart of the film

Han Ye-ri is the break out star as migrant Hong-mae, forming the emotional heart of the film

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.

★★★★☆

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Dear Dolphin (환상속의 그대) – ★★★☆☆

Dear Dolphin (환상속의 그대)

Dear Dolphin (환상속의 그대)

Dear Dolphin (환상속의 그대) was one of the big winners at the 14th Jeonju International Film Festival, scoring the CGV Movie COLLAGE Prize which includes 2 weeks of commercial release, a great boon for any independent film. The reasons for the victory are quite clear, as director Kang Jina (강진아) employs some truly lovely visual aesthetics in her exploration life, love and grief while utilising more traditional melodramatic conventions. Interestingly director Kang never lets the film become too ‘dark’ despite such weighty material, and as such it’s popularity with Korean audiences is entirely understandable. Yet Dear Dolphin is not perfect, featuring a haphazard narrative structure that creates distance between the audience and the central protagonists, while the creation of subplots that are later dropped is a source of frustration. However the story does well in examining the illogical sense of grief following the death of a loved one, and is a thought-provoking, attractive film.

Unable to come to terms with the death of his girlfriend Cha-kyeong (Han Ye-ri (한예리), physiotherapist Hyeok-geun (Lee Hee-joon (이희준) develops insomnia. Unable to work or function properly his life begins to fall apart, while his mental stability becomes strained due to hallucinations.  His grief and sense of guilt are also shared by Gi-ok (Lee Yeong-jin (이영진), Cha-kyeong’s best friend, who simultaneously hates herself for her involvement in the accident and also for secretly coveting Hyeok-geun. As their grief becomes ever greater, and reality and fantasy become difficult to separate, Gi-ok and Hyeok-geun must learn to overcome their emotional trauma lest it consumes them.

Hyeok-geun' begins to hallucinate due to his uncontrollable grief and insomnia

Hyeok-geun begins to hallucinate due to his uncontrollable grief and insomnia

Dear Dolphin excels when dealing with the subject matter of grief, and the variety of forms which it takes. The emotion is a problematic one to portray, yet director Kang succeeds in capturing the different complexity of each protagonist. Hyeok-geun’s internal strife is articulated through his continual self admonishment and his self-imposed alienation, while the insomnia inspired hallucinations of Cha-kyeong reveal his inability to accept her death. Gi-ok meanwhile cannot cope with the loneliness of her best friend’s passing, heightened by her guilt over desiring Hyeok-geun. Both characters blame themselves for not doing something – anything – to change the past, while Cha-kyeong’s family resent them for much the same reason. The emotional complexity of everyone involved is compelling throughout, as each person commits irrational acts without fully understanding why.

To stop the film from sinking beneath the increasingly fraught emotional tension, director Kang employs a non-linear structure that harks back to when the threesome were happy. The technique certainly brings levity to the story, as well as further conveying the sense of loss through the contrast between the past and present. Indeed, the director utilises her wonderful sense of colour and composition during the flashback sequences that feature vibrant warm reds and yellows, in complete opposition to the washed-out palette following Cha-kyeong’s death. Yet it also serves to usurp the character development in the here and now, as plot threads that took time to establish are often dumped only to later reappear, or to never return at all. The confusion that arises as a result of narrative jumping through time frames results in a distancing between the characters and the audience as it becomes difficult to fully engage and empathise with their respective situations. This is ultimately Dear Dolphin‘s downfall, as in a bid to keep the film ‘light’ with traditional melodramatic conventions, the powerful emotional resonance of each character becomes lost.

Beautiful, cherished memories of the threesome become like poison

Beautiful, cherished memories of the threesome become like poison

As empathy becomes increasingly diluted, it therefore falls to the actors to keep the emotional intensity sharp in the present. In this respect it is Lee Yeong-jin who gives the standout performance as Gi-ok, as the actress appears evermore fraught with guilt, stress and grief. The anguish on Gi-ok’s face as she reaches out to Hyeok-geun for emotional and physical support is sincere, while the continual rejection of her advances become heartbreaking as she sinks lower and lower. Lee Hee-joon and Han Ye-ri give competent performances as Hyeok-geun and Cha-kyeong, but they are lacking the chemistry and passion that are sorely required when exploring the death of a loved one. As such the film quickly becomes Gi-ok’s story as it is her emotional distress that is the most fully developed, and is her resolution rather than Hyeok-geun’s fragile mental state that takes precedence.

Luckily director Kang also injects the film with some stunning cinematography in relation to scenes involving Cha-kyeong and Hyeok-geun, particularly when employing the water symbolism that is so inherent to the narrative. The scenes are absolutely gorgeous and appear more like a painting than a film. Ironically the surreal and otherworldly sequences further complicate the narrative, but when scenes are this beautiful it’s hard to complain. Often accompanied by an ethereal soundtrack, the conveyance of water as a source of life, death, and even purgatory are lovely to behold, and it is these scenes that resonate long after the film and provide thought-provoking moments on the nature of loss.

The potent water symbolism runs throughout the film

The potent water symbolism runs throughout the film

Verdict:

One of the big winners at JIFF 2013, Dear Dolphin is a very attractive film that deals with the issues of love, loss, and grief. Director Kang Jina explores such weighty topics well by constructing the fragility of each protagonist as unique according to their psychology, but the decision to employ non-linear techniques dilutes the emotional intensity of the story. Yet with a great performance by Lee Yeong-jin, as well as some truly beautiful sequences involving potent water symbolism, Dear Dolphin is a thought-provoking film on the nature of life, death, and spirituality.

★★★☆☆

Jeonju International Film Festival (제14회 전주국제영화제) Reviews
Camaraderie initially proves difficult

As One (코리아) – ★★☆☆☆

As One (코리아)

As One (코리아)

The divide across the Korean peninsula has provided history with some of the most fascinating and horrifying accounts of human endeavour. Both the North and the South have flip-flopped between moments of sheer brutality against each other yet have also achieved poignant moments of recompense. While terrorist attacks and threats grab headlines, the strong underlying sense of nationality and ‘brother/sisterhood’ has spurred other stories of joint enterprise, family reunification and co-op sporting events that are smaller and more intimate in nature, hinting at the potential future for a united people; they are, after all, Korean.

One such tale of triumph over (ideological) adversity was obtained during the 1991 International Table Tennis Championships in Chiba City, Japan, where South Korean and North Korean table tennis players partnered to compete against the rest of the world. Brought to celluloid by director Moon Hyeon-seong (문현성), As One (코리아) flirts dangerously close with being an average TV movie for the majority of its’ running time yet manages to become an engaging and effective sports drama in the final act.

Facing off in the semi-finals during the 1990 Asian games, South Korean table tennis player Hyeon Jeong-hwa (Ha Ji-won 하지원) confronts her Northern rival Lee Boon-hee (Bae Doona 배두나), both determined to win not only for themselves but for the pride of their respective countries. Narrowly defeating her opponent, Jeong-hwa moves on to the finals but is bested by the Chinese champion (Kim Jae-hwa (김재화), nicknamed ‘The Great Wall’. As the teams prepare themselves for the 1991 Championships in Chiba City, the governments of the North and South make a surprising statement – they will combine their athletes to create a ‘Unified Korea’ team. Forced to play alongside each other, Jeong-hwa and Boon-hee must train to overcome the ideological differences between them and defeat their Chinese rivals once and for all.

The champions from the North and South unwillingly join forces

The champions from the North and South unwillingly join forces

Contemporary Korean films have a reputation for being remarkably even-handed in their representation of Northern protagonists, and As One is no exception. In fact, it’s largely thanks to the balanced approach and ideological banter that the film continues to be compelling during the incredibly lackluster first and second acts. For every quip about human rights comes a retort regarding misogyny; for every representation of stoic obedience is a portrayal of thoughtless misbehaviour. Interestingly it is the Northern athletes, led by Boon-hee, who are the most sympathetic and accommodating protagonists, while those from the South are often rude, aggressive and stubborn, as exemplified by Jeong-hwa. Such a concoction of characters offer predictable pleasures, but are entertaining nonetheless.

However the contrivances of the narrative appear all too frequently and reduce the athletes into one-dimensional caricatures often found in Korean TV dramas – yet without the possibility for development – with only Jeong-hwa and Boon-hee narrowly escaping. A true story such as this means the finale is inevitably predictable, yet the decision to include a supporting cast of stereotypes with stereotypical scenarios is perplexing and detracts from the overall enjoyment. Also halting the engagement of the audience is the soundtrack, which rarely naturally enters the film. With the exception of the final act, the music is continually a distraction and is often disjointed from prior scenes.

Luckily As One manages to redeem itself during the last moments as the final matches of the tournament are thrilling. Director Moon Hyeon-seong (문현성) makes wonderful use of editing and slow-motion techniques to deliver exciting and suspense-filled moments that are riveting and adrenaline-inducing. Strangely he constructs the penultimate match as more thrilling than the final itself, with Yoo Sun-bok’s (Han Ye-ri (한예리) underdog tale an incredibly compelling part of the film, yet also employs enough different filmic techniques to make the final a powerfully emotive viewing experience. The trials faced during the final also allows for the introduction of melodrama which is wonderfully capitalized on as the two teams are forced to part ways. It is here that the acting prowess of the two talented lead actresses finally appears as their parting is both poignantly sincere and heart-wrenching, exhibiting a quality that is a testament to how important the event was for all involved.

Camaraderie initially proves difficult

Camaraderie initially proves difficult

Much has been reported regarding Ha Ji-won’s table tennis training by the very champion she portrays, and how her skill level potentially rivals world class athletes. Sadly, due to the rapid editing and stylization, the actress’ skill level does not fully translate into film. That said, Ha Ji-won’s passionate, determined and stubborn performance is articulated well throughout As One with her reluctance to accept her long-term rivals as partners convincing. The characterization often gives her little room to manoeuvre, however during the final act Ha Ji-won is utterly enthralling as she bids farewell to her close friend as her evolving level of grief portrays incredible emotional turmoil.

Bae Doo-na shares a similar fate as Boon-hee, who gives a more stoic-yet-understanding performance and as such is the more endearing protagonist. Her weight loss, in attempting to portray the same physique as the real Boon-hee, is quite a shocking visual as her thin frame conveys a frailty and tenderness not ascribed to others. Bae Doo-na’s physical dedication also adds potency to the trials she endures throughout the narrative, while her level-headed and thoughtful acting style present a mature and contemplative counter to Ha Ji-won. Due to Bae Doo-na’s performance the final parting conveys penetrating sincerity, making it virtually impossible not to be moved emotionally.

Out of all the supporting cast only one actress rises above the stereotypical roles bestowed upon them – Han Ye-ri. Her turn as anxious novice Yoo Sun-bok is entertaining and poignant, particularly during the penultimate game. Unfortunately her tale is somewhat faded into the backgrounded as team dynamics and political tension receive focus, yet Han Ye-ri gives a highly capable performance as the underdog achiever.

Jeong-hwa and Boon-hee achieve the unthinkable on and off the court

Jeong-hwa and Boon-hee achieve the unthinkable on and off the court

Verdict:

Thanks to the true story on which it’s based, As One has plenty of potential for an incredible sports drama yet only manages to partially capitalise on the events that unfolded. While the ideological differences are balanced and entertaining, and the final matches are thrilling and exciting, the choice to fill the narrative with one-dimensional stereotypes and scenarios is detrimental to the film overall. That said, the strength of what transpired is moving and will undoubtedly remind audiences of the power of sports in uniting disparate people, and will certainly hold particular resonance for those of Korean descent.

★★☆☆☆

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