AFI Fest 2014: ‘Haemoo’ is a harrowing film with blockbuster conventions

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Haemoo
Written by Shim Sung-bo and Bong Joon-ho
Directed by Shim Sung-bo
South Korea, 2014

Contemporary Korean films have made a reputation of being the most grim experiences out there, replete with unabashed violence, incest, social inequality, and crime – Haemoo has three of those things! Adapted from a play by Kim Min-jung, it’s about a real life incident that occurred when a Korean fishing crew got mixed up in a botched human trafficking operation. Screenwriter-turned-director Shim Sung-bo’s adaptation is a harrowing film riddled with nail-biting suspense and easily accessible blockbuster conventions.

The film takes place in 1998, when the IMF Crisis made life hard for ordinary South Koreans. The owner and captain of a beat-up boat, Kang Chul-joo accepts a high risk job smuggling ethnic Koreans from China in exchange for enough money to save the ship he’s so desperately attached to. Kang doesn’t bother to reveal his desperate plan to his fellow fishermen until they’re out on the treacherous sea, entrapping them in an inevitably doomed arrangement. While everyone seems on board with the plan thanks to the persuasion of a hefty sum, it only takes one of the crew, Dong-sik (Park Yoo-chun), to fall in love with one of the immigrants, leading him to rebel against Kang and his shipmates.

As a pop idol, star Park Yoo-chun’s venture into acting is an equally distinguished achievement. To be honest, I’m a (secret) Yoo-chun fan-girl, and his benevolent, tortured performance as the baby-faced Dong-sik is one to root for. Fans may love his romantic subplot, but it sadly weakens the overall story with predictable clichés.

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Helping to produce and handle co-writing duties is Bong Joon-ho. His collaboration with Shim is another hit, considering how well they worked together on Memories of Murder. It’s clear that these two filmmakers share the same penchant for powerfully gripping thrillers. But whereas Bong may succeed with his clear vision, Shim’s style prevents depth and reflection within the characters and their plight. Not only do the male characters have little to work with, but the female counterparts are undermined and are merely accessories. It’s a shame that most of the film’s characters lack any real character arc.

Haemoo is South Korea’s official submission for the Foreign Language Film category at next February’s Oscars, and their chances of winning are slim due to a film that sticks to conventions without breaking the mold. Bong’s stamp of participation may end up being the only draw for native and global fans alike. In addition, the story’s unintentional ties to the tragic Sewol ferry event may create some backlash and apprehension. Nevertheless, Haemoo (‘Sea Fog’ in Korean) is an exhilarating ride with pervasive dread and a story that is ferocious and bloodcurdling till the very end.

– So Yun Um

Visit the official website of AFI Fest.

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