Sea Fog (Haemoo)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/09/14 12:36:33

"Tension and horror on the high seas."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT FANTASTIC FEST 2014: This one has received a lot of notice in part because of Bong Joon-ho's involvement as a producer and co-writer for long-time collaborator Shim Sung-bo, and if that helps it out, that's great. It's a nifty little movie, the sort of thriller that South Korea seems to do better than anyone else right now - the type that plunges the audience into much darker than expected territory and still keeps one on the edge of his or her seat out of genuine excitement.

It takes place in 1998, and times are tough in the port city of Yeosu, South Korea. Kang Chul-joo (Kim Yun-seok), the captain of a small fishing boat, has just been told that the owners intend to sell the old ship for scrap, putting him and his crew out of work. He would like to buy the Jeonjiho, but fish won't let them make that sort of money fast enough. Smuggling people in from the North will do it, but it's a job for which these grizzled fishermen are ill-suited; they almost lose young and idealistic hand Dong-sik (Park Yoo-chun) when he dives into the sea to rescue Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri), one of just a couple women in the group. Still, what happens when a Coast Guard ship stops them for an inspection is far worse.

Haemoo is based upon a real incident, and comes to the screen by way of the stage, but those looking for an introspective film built around the characters talking about the moral dilemmas they face are in for a few shocks. There is not much opportunity for big, memorable speeches at all, and if Bong & Shim have done much to make the dialog of their (generally) unrefined working-class characters snappier, it doesn't make it to the subtitles. And that's probably good, because the film becomes a quite starkly horrifying thing in the blink of an eye, and it would not do for a glib or self-satisfied impression to come through.

That's not what one gets from the cast. Park Yoo-chun is able to pop enough early on that the audience knows to keep an eye on Dong-sik as things stat to develop, even if he is surrounded by a fine roster of character actors playing rougher-hewn sailors; there's a nobility to him that's never artificial fueling the character's later desperation. When cracks appear later, they feel real and terrible. Han Ye-ri spends a lot of her time paired with Park, and while it might be easy to discount her a bit because of the character's quite reasonable circumspection, she does a lot to let the audience see what's going on through different eyes, and even her scenes with Park have a slight tension, as if she genuinely likes this boy but always has a defector's precarious position in the back of her head.

Kim Yun-seok goes the other way as Captain Kang, and his take on desperation is something else again. Kang is in a hole from the start, although it's the sort that tends to garner audience sympathy, and Kim does a great job in building him up as the sort of outburst-prone loser with his heart in the right place that we've seen in a lot of movies, but winds up taking him in a very different direction. Kang becomes outraged and winds up on a dark path, and Kim is able to transform his fear into something monstrous, pushing the pugnacious qualities the audience admired him for beforehand across a line while also cooling just enough to seem like a more dangerous adversary.

The film looks great - I joked a little earlier this year that someone in South Korea built a tank for shooting maritime movies and intends to get their money's worth - this, The Admiral, and The Pirates hit Korean multiplexes in rapid succession this summer - but I can't complain about the results. Especially nifty is how Shim makes the sea fog of the title a major presence, letting it really set the scene when the movie gets into murky territory; it makes the ship a world of its own, and Shim uses the geography of that world - it's vertical, it's got niches, parts are very cramped and dangerous - extremely well. He sets up unflinching violence and tension, sometimes crossing the line between ugly-but-powerful to just nasty, but making an impressively tense picture.

"Haemoo" isn't quite the movie I expected going in - it sounded more like a straight tragedy than a thriller, but wound up being a real nail-biter. Fortunately, that doesn't make it lightweight at all, and fans of Bong Joon-ho should not be disappointed that he lent his name to his co-writer's directorial debut at all.

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