What starts as a “conventional” drama set on a fishing boat (is there such at thing?) turns into something much darker by the time the credits roll.
The film opens with men working on a fishing boat. It’s South Korea, 1998.
Younger sailors take advice from the older ones, but the working-class men are quick to taunt each other. The film’s score tries to make their poverty noble, but fails. Even the older men are careless and dumb, one getting caught in a net. I didn’t think any of these people, at first glance, seemed heroic enough to be protagonist material.
Captain Kang (Yun-seok Kim) returns home after his boat, the Junjin, docks. He catches his wife in flagrante delicto. “You’re home early,” she manages after a quick scuffle, sending the lover out the wrong door. The casual embarrassment reveals the disdain husband and wife have for each other. Yet another shred of evidence that nobody in this film is very likeable.
At a meeting, the captain discusses his future with the owner of the boat: should they sell the boat and take the Government buyout? It’s free money for abusing a government program, at the expense of jobs for a dozen men.
Instead, they decide to set out on another expedition, but this time instead of trawling for fish, they’re going to accept some money from Chinese “investors” to help bring some human cargo into prosperous South Korea.
A night transfer from a larger ship to the Junjin has migrants hopping across a variable-sized gap between the two boats. Most of them make it aboard safely, but one woman, Hong-Mae, lands in the precarious gap between ships. A sailor — the mostly good-hearted rookie named Dong-sik (Yoo-chun Park), jumps in to save her from drowning.
Many of the other sailors see the presence of women on board as an opportunity for either coerced sex or outright rape. The engineer is a walking id, groping freely. Dong-sik is at least “a gentleman,” although he seems to have the expectant air of a ... well, of a romantic movie protagonist, who believes that so long as he’s a gentleman, he will win the heart of any female in the vicinity.
Luckily, the movie (or is it the performance by Ye-ri Han?) gives Hong-Mae a bit more dimensionality than that. She’d rather not have to have sex with any sailors, though she realizes she’s in a dangerous situation. If a “gentleman” sailor is willing to give her special treatment, more food, or better shelter, she’ll accept it without making him any promises.
The film to this point is fairly grim. The crew is unprepared for human cargo, and some of the “cargo” seem much more streetwise than the crew. That leads to escalated tensions.
And then there is the fear of the coast guard, some of whom are corruptible, which makes them all the more dangerous.
I don’t want to say too much, but I’ll say I was repeatedly surprised by how low the desperate characters were willing to sink.
Luckily for audiences, the “lowness” seems more attributable to the characters than the filmmakers. As awful as parts of Haemoo are, it doesn’t feel like an exploitative movie. It feels like a serious film about a bunch of characters, almost all of whom are badly flawed, and almost none of whom are likeable.
An unnecessary coda lengthens the movie. Luckily it doesn’t really spoil it.
The tone is sad and somber. Haemoo is not a horror film, but a melodrama and a tragedy. Long scenes hold you captive, as the characters make selfish or risky decisions.
The English title is “Sea Fog,” which matches the tone well. And after the migrants arrive on board, it seems like the rest of the film takes place in a heavy fog that permeates the very souls of those on board.
Is it powerful? Or is it just grim? I would say Haemoo falls somewhere in-between those two options. I was grateful that the film was steadfast in its ruthlessness ... even if that made the film harder to watch.
But I also thought the film could have been more clear about its intentions. I suspect other audiences will read the film much differently from how I did. They might have even taken the film to be sunnier than I imagined. And if so, I’m glad I didn’t see it that way, as I think that would have cheapened the grim and foggy depths.