Sea Fog (Haemoo)
Korea (2014) Dir. Shim Sung-bo
Illegal immigration is a hot topic at the moment and contrary to what we may believe in own national press about it being a problem exclusive to us, it is something that affects many other countries too. This directorial debut from Shim Sung-bo, writer of the crime thriller Memories Of Murder, presents us with a rather grim version of events, based on a true story.
Set in the year 2000, a fishing boat named Jeonjiho, captained by Captain Kang (Kim Yun-Seok), isn’t meeting its fishing targets thus its profitability is causing nightmares for its owners who want to sell it. Kang wants to buy the boat himself but finds financing a problem so in order to raise the money he agrees to smuggle twenty-five Chinese Koreans into the country.
Kang and his small crew – Kyung-gu (Yoo Seung-mok), Ho-young (Kim Sang-ho), Wan-ho (Moon Sung-keun), Chang-wook (Lee Hee-joon) and Dong-sik (Park Yoochun) – are tight knit group and roughly in the same situation as far as financial insecurity goes. When Kang presents his plan for his off-the-record job they are aghast but the healthy advance they each receive is an effective sweetener. Unfortunately the job doesn’t quite go to plan.
Shim Sung-bo steps into the director’s seat with backing from his mentor and co-writer of this film Bong Joon-Ho, from whom Shim has clearly learned a lot. In terms of intensity, pacing and mindless violence it is both accurate yet somehow derogatory to say Sea Fog is a “typical” Korean thriller but the evidence speaks for itself, thus it already has a hook to snare many Asian film fans with.
This story is based on a 2007 stage play of all things, which in turn is based on a real life incident that occurred in the sea southwest of Yeosu in 2001. Obviously the play and Shim have spiced things up a little to make it a more palatable and worthwhile drama but the central tragedy remains to illustrate the risk taken by immigrants in trying to flee to pastures new.
When the night of the job comes the weather isn’t favourable which makes the handover of the immigrants a bit tricky. One young woman, Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri) falls into the sea but is saved by Dong-sik. As the two youngsters on the boat Dong-sik makes it his duty to look after Hong-Mae, taking her down to the engine room to keep warm while the others freeze on deck.
The journey hits a snag when Marine Police Chief Kim (Yoon Je-Moon) halts the boat for an inspection, forcing Kang to hide all the immigrants in the fish hold. Kim leaves after a bribe but when the hold is open again the immigrants are al dead, poisoned by leaking gas from the dodgy radiator. To cover his tracks Kang orders the bodies to be cut up and dumped in the sea but they all forgot about Hong-mae who saw everything.
It would appear that the old adage proclaiming “worse things happen at sea” is valid if this film is any indication. Granted this isn’t a subject to be glib or make light about but Shim doesn’t paint a pretty picture of it either, turning an unfortunate disaster into a bloody nightmare. This may have been designed to make this a more exciting prospect for film goers but the “reap what you sow” message comes through loud and clear as things get out of hand.
What happens next changes the tempo from sombre tragedy to tense filled madness, exacerbated by the participants stuck within the confines of a boat at sea. Shim uses this limited space to great advantage in creating a chilling sense of claustrophobia and fevered desperation as the options for safety ebb away for Hong-mae and Dong-sik. The camerawork shifts from steady and wide open shots to intimate hand held chaos with bodies falling over each other in the name of survival and paranoia.
Of course nothing is straightforward and the methods of self-defence become more extreme commensurate to the increasing madness of the rabid crew. To quote AC/DC “If you want blood, you’ve got it” and anyone familiar with this branch of Korean cinema will know exactly what type of carnage to expect, and Shim doesn’t scrimp on it at all. After only intimating the carving up of the dead bodies the arrival of this graphically violent third act has greater shock value, suggesting Shim has learned well from Bong Joon-Ho on how to control his audience’s expectations.
However the drama aspect is the film’s weakest point insofar as the romance between Dong-sik and Hong-mae being a contrivance. Hong-mae’s presence as the de facto totty is telegraphed as she is wearing a bright red skirt while her fellow immigrants are dourly dressed; her falling into the water solidifies this. The fact the couple can even afford a brief sex scene (not wise when the rest of the crew are trying to kill you) feels like one concession to the commercial conventions too far.
Making up for the short comings are the fabulous cast, headed by gruff veteran Kim Yun-Seok of The Chaser fame in fine scowling bad ass mode. The others are the familiar faces whose names you may not know but are always reliable hands, while the relative youngsters hold their own admirably in spite of their cheesy scenarios.
For a first time effort as director Shim delivers a solid and confident film, demonstrating a keen understanding of the medium as well as how to bring his script to life. Some of the more conventional facets as discussed above threaten to take the edge of the darkness and bleak reality of the central story but overall this is a competent debut.
If Shim is to continue directing hopefully he will be able to develop his own style but for now, Sea Fog is a promising start, providing a solid and grisly action thriller for Asian film fans to enjoy.