Not content with dominating the rails with his recently lauded ferroquine sci-fi allegory Snowpiercer (2013), Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho has also sets his sights on the high-seas with nautical adventure Haemoo (2014). Co-written by Bong and director Shim Sung-bo, it showcases precisely why certain Korean directors are currently the toast of Hollywood, playfully lacing a sombre trawler-set stage play adaptation with social context, interesting characters and that off-kilter humour so redolent in the country’s genre fare. Whilst not uniformly successful in its execution, it provides ample excitement and never fails to keep the audience off balance with unexpected plot lurches amidst perilous sea fog.
The ‘Junjin’ is a fishing trawler that harbours in a small coastal town and is serviced by a limited local crew. When they return home from their latest trip empty handed after a machinery malfunction, Captain Kang (Kim Yoon-seok) has a difficult decision to make with economic hardship weighing heavily mind, and his livelihood on the brink. In desperation, he agrees to a lucrative but risky job for a local businessman transporting illegal immigrants from China into the country. He and his crew collect their cargo without a hitch, but events take a turn for the substantially worse when a terrible accident throws into the balance the lives of everyone on board. Bong is known for character-driven genre films and this screenplay is no exception with the motley crew the focus of the opening act and each given time to craft individuals.
The captain may be primarily surly, but there’s a more to his brooding than a mere single dimension. Elsewhere, Park Yoo-chun performs well as the newest addition to the boat, Dong-sik, and his flowering romance with one of the stowaways (Han Ye-ri) provides the films delicately handled heartbeat. There’s also humour – suitably wacky in parts- to be found amongst these assorted sailors and their bickering and misbehaviour. Where Haemoo lets itself down is its descent into familiar action territory during the closing stages. Tension is painstakingly built over the first two thirds of the film and it does a sterling job of hiding its hand until the perfect moment. The frayed nerves finally snap, however, and the atmosphere briskly dissipates in favour of frustratingly unoriginal blood-letting that abandons the fine groundwork laid before it. Shim directs well, but he lacks the verve for this to sail through on its visuals and although the denouement returns to the unconventional (discounting the unnecessary coda), the climax reduces the impact of what was otherwise an enthralling voyage.
This review of Haemoo was originally published on 6 September as part of our Toronto International Film Festival coverage.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson