Fantasia Festival: Haemoo [Review]

This bleak box office smash from South Korea lives up to hype surrounding it, tossing the viewer about as if you were on the boat itself leaving you nauseated and chilled to your core.

Haemoo (translated as ‘Sea Fog’) tells the real life story and adapted screenplay of a sea-based human trafficking job from China to South Korea. Produced and co-written by Bong Joon-ho who is responsible for critically acclaimed Korean films such as Mother, The Host and Memories of Murder, alongside Shim Sung-Bo making his directorial debut under Bong’s guidance, it is no wonder this film has seen widespread success.

The story takes place in the late 90s, in the midst of the IMF Crisis in South Korea where the country was in significant debt (£37bn/$58bn) and on the verge of bankruptcy. We open to a fishing boat going about its daily routine, only to see the disappointment and despair on the crew members faces as their haul comes up short. The captain of their tired boat Kang Chul-joo (Kim Yoon-seok) is told that he must sell it, just as many Koreans had to do with their own prized possessions for the good of the country. In this environment, it would be expected that your judgement is often impaired by outside factors, and with that the captain agrees to take on the job of smuggling people in from China.

Up until this point the film maintains a flat and often comedic tone, inconsistently providing the audience with typical Korean humour as the crew members squabble back and forth over stupid and petty things. Haemoo is uneven to begin with, but this only makes the slow decline into depravity and mayhem that much more hard-hitting.

The tension had been fairly non-existent until it actually comes to picking up the people from China, as Shim Sung-Bo uses this moment to create an unbearable scene that is equal parts captivating and shocking. In the middle of the night, during a storm, they pile over the edge of one ship onto the tiny fishing boat, desperate to get away. The magnitude of the situation finally hits home for all involved, and from here on out it becomes an increasingly difficult watch.

The depiction of human greed and actions under intense times of pressure is raw and unforgiving. Kim Yoon-seok shines as the captain, descending into a mortifying portrayal of a man with no options left. The supporting cast are varied, some seem so far-fetched and over-acted that they are almost unnecessary by a certain point, not really serving a purpose nor fitting in with the serious nature of the story. Contrary to that you have an excellent performance from Han Ye-ri as the scared immigrant, an unsuspecting yet brave woman at the mercy of those in control of the boat, entwined in a gradual romance with one of the crew members.

Haemoo offers up some of the bleakest scenes I have ever seen on film, owed largely to the cinematography from Hong Gyeong-Pyo. Managing to convey the sense of confinement trapped on a small boat while simultaneously reminding us of the vast unknown that is being out at sea. The sea mist that creeps in creates an eerie backdrop to the events that unfold, chillingly executed and adds a sense of unpredictability to the story.

While some of the characters appear superficial and lack any real form of back-story, it does not stop you investing in the film. Often you do not need a depth to the characters to invest in them; these are humans being transported like cargo, that should be enough to care for them. It is an incredible depiction of the lengths individuals will go to once their inhibitions are tested, and ultimately forgotten. Unknowingly each member of the crew sinks deeper and deeper into a dark place for a prize that I’m not sure they even remember. The sea mist has not only clouded their ability to see, but all of their judgements and consciences too.

By the end I felt sick, I had goosebumps and wanted to get off the boat. A South Korean ‘epic’ truly deserving of the title.

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