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‘Sea Fog’s’ Shim Sung-bo On Migration, Bong Joon-ho, Criminality

Shim's debut, "Haemoo," plays to upbeat receoption at San Sebastián.

Visceral action and intimate realist drama collide in the storm lashed, elemental thriller “Haemoo” (Sea Fog), South Korean screenwriter Shim Sung-bo’s directorial debut which played in competition in San Sebastian’s Official Selection and has been selected as the South Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. It now screens at the Marakech Festival.

Shim Sung-bo, one of Korea’s most acclaimed screenwriters, co-wrote “Memories of Murder” (2003), with that film’s director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Snowpiercer”), which won the Silver Shell and the Altadis-New Directors Award at the 2003 San Sebastian Festival, “Haemoo” was once again co written with Bong Joon-ho who also produced his collaborator’s first feature as director.

“Haemoo” is adapted from Kim Min-jung’s 2007 stage play, which was based on a real incident in 2001, when 25 Chinese illegal immigrants suffocated to death in the storage tank of a Korean fishing vessel and were dumped into the sea by the crew off the south-western port of Yeos.

In the film, after hiding the illegal stowaways on their trawler, the five man crew and the increasingly desperate Captain Kang Chul-joo (Kim Yoon-seok) sail into fog bound seas and begin an inexorable slide into chaos, madness and tragedy.

Shim’s drama explores the motives behind the crew’s actions in what is essentially a disaster movie with a social conscience.

What first attracted you to the subject of illegal immigration and human trafficking?  

What interested me in the beginning was how panic and desperation can turn normal human beings into criminals. I wanted to take a story of this nature from a thriller perspective or slant. This film is about how any normal, run-of-the-mill person can become guilty, feel fear and become radical and dangerous.

How did you approach making the real life tragedy into the drama? 

The real events truly affected me, the real story had great force but I thought I could add a touch of fantasy. In the beginning, some of the production team said this is like a fairy tale. I wanted to develop this story so the audience would understand it and find it acessible. For example, in the final scene the fog and the captain seem to come together which adds a little touch like a horror story.

The story unfolds on the high seas: How was the shoot?

Shooting the film was quite difficult, and it was my first time as a director. I wanted to shoot in enclosed spaces but also show the size of the boat. So I had to film on a real boat at sea and in a studio. The important thing was that the audience would not see the difference between the real and fake ship. Before starting I looked at many films set at sea, including “The Perfect Storm” and had to learn how to film at sea, as well as use special effects. But what I focused on was the characters, the six crew members and Chinese migrants. It is a film about human desires, loneliness and ambiguity.”

The chief villain in the film, Captain Cheol-joo, is played by veteran Korean actor Kim Yoon-sheok. How did his character develop? 

I don’t think there’s any true villain in this film. From the outset, in the script the captain is a villain, but I tried to introduce some more humanity to the the character during shooting. I wanted the audience to have empathy with him. And I wanted to avoid any villainous clichés. Kim, the actor, has played many villainous roles, including the devil. But he is a very sensitive, mild guy. And he also wanted to move away from the villains he has played in previous films.

Haemoo was a commercial and critical success when it opened in South Korea in August. How easy was it to finance?

This film deals with an issue that is not easy to finance, but I was very fortunate  because the producer, Bong Joon-ho, is very special and with him I only had to talk about the story and the film, and not worry too much about financing and budget.

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