Turning a real-life human trafficking tragedy into a comment on social inequality and the cost of survival, “Haemoo” dramatizes a stark nautical ordeal fraught with tension. Produced and co-written by internationally recognized Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho (“Snowpiercer,” “The Host,”) this directing debut by helmer-scribe Shim Sung-bo echoes Bong’s trademark cynical vision of human nature, but the characters lack dimensionality and psychological depth. Still, the meticulously crafted production has generated widespread critical acclaim and healthy domestic B.O., even if the subject may spark associations with the Sewol Ferry Incident. Bong’s name could be the wind beneath “Haemoo’s” sails where fest play and niche arthouse play are concerned.
The movie’s title translates as “Sea Fog,” a phantom agent of peril that halts the ship from moving homeward and symbolizes the protags’ moral obscurity. Adeptly transferring a stage play to th escreen, Shim (who co-wrote Bong’s “Memories of Murder”) achieves a highly cinematic effect despite the confined mise-en-scene, partly by emphasizing physical drama rather than dialogue, and partly thanks to lenser Hong Kyeong-pyo’s evocative closeups.
The film takes place in 1998, when the IMF Crisis made life hard for ordinary South Koreans, but the marine setting imbues the action with an elemental, timeless quality. Five fishermen under Capt. Kang Chul-joo (Kim Yoon-seok) set sail from their hometown, Yeosu, but they return empty-handed. The owner of their beat-up old trawler, Junjiho, wants to trade it in, but Kang is more attached to it than to his wife, whom he catches in flagrante with a Chinese-Korean. To save the ship, he decides to smuggle ethnic Koreans from China.
Braving unusually rough weather, they meet the skiff ferrying the stowaways from China. Shim creates an unforgettable scene of frenzied danger as they scramble to leap from one vessel to the other on a pitch-black night, driving home how desperate they are. A young woman, Hong-mae (Han Ye-rin) falls into the sea, and though the crew is ready to abandon her, the youngest deckhand, Dong-sik (Park Yu-chun), dives in to save her, cementing a bond that forms the story’s emotional backbone.
The squabbles that break out serve as pointed social commentary, demonstrating that the fisherman’s underclass status doesn’t make them any more sympathetic to these huddled masses, whom they treat as mere cargo or catch. When a stowaway complains, “How can you treat fellow Koreans worse than the Chinese do?” one sailor answers, “Fellow Koreans? You’re low-life scum!” In fact, Kang’s suppression of a rabble-rouser is shocking in its brutality, and hints at a violent streak that comes in flashes, then is fully unleashed when calamity strikes.
Despite the harrowing plot, Shim adopts an omniscient gaze and a somber, dispassionate tone throughout. He doesn’t veer too far from realism; nor does he cross over into genre territory by ramping up the violence and gore (at least until the slightly overblown last act), portraying the protags as grassroots workers struggling under harsh living conditions, unconsciously pushed toward selfish behavior.
While Kim doesn’t exactly reprise the role of crazed, predatory sea captain already recycled in countless nautical adventures from “Moby Dick” to “Jaws,” he withholds much of the sociopathic intensity that he let rip in other works like “The Yellow Sea” and “Hwayi: A Monster Boy.” The result is a flesh-and-blood character whose diminishing humanity springs from the practicality of a seafarer always at nature’s mercy. Han, such a striking presence in “Commitment” and “As One,” more than holds her own among the gruff male cast, radiating physical vulnerability as a woman surrounded by sex-starved men, but also real mental strength beneath her country-girl innocence.
Supporting performances are forceful in an in-your-face way, though the characters remain archetypes rather than layered personalities. Especially grating is sex maniac Chan-wook (Lee Hee-jun) who’s too savage to be played for laughs, yet too obsessive to be taken seriously. Other sailors Ho-young (Kim Sang-ho) and Kyung-koo (You Seung-mok) may sport different traits, but their dramatic function is ultimately limited to brawling with Chan-wook. Only the engineer Wan-ho (Moon Sung-geun) elicits empathy as the one crew member who befriends his passengers and feels guilty about their fate; Moon, who is often typecast as judges, professors and tycoons, displays likable earthiness in the role.
Apart from a wily, middle-aged broad (Jo Kyung-sook), most of the stowaways are denied speaking parts and presented as a group entity, with little description of their Chinese-Korean background. Though Shim and Bong’s deftly structured script builds Hong-mae and Dong-sik’s love around three sensuous scenes of embrace, set in different locations and culminating in a bittersweet coda, their romance is weakened by Shin’s nondescript appearance and mediocre performance, whose lack of emotional heft is especially apparent compared with Han’s passionate turn.
Craft contributions are outstanding. Kim Chang-ho’s lighting sets a Stygian tone with oppressive darkness indoors and brooding shadows under the mantle of sea fog on deck. Hong, who lensed Bong’s “Snowpiercer” and “Mother,” as well as blockbusters like “Typhoon” and “Taeguki,” provides crisp, starkly beautiful compositions, contrasting claustrophobic human activity with the ocean’s vastness. Jung Jae-il’s melancholy score is used sparingly enough not to overwhelm the action.