South Korean film “Heamoo” feels so real at times that it did not take much time for me to get involved in its shabby main characters and their dark, harrowing drama. I could sense their gloomy life with no bright future on the horizon, and I sometimes felt like smelling something bad from the dim, damp corners of their small ship on the sea. While the plot gets thickens, their seemingly simple voyage becomes more ominous, and then they find themselves stuck in a situation more desperate than ever as it takes an unexpected turn which affects all of them in one way or another.
To Cheol-joo(Kim Yoon-seok) and the crew of his trawler ship, everyday is another struggle they have to go through. There was a time when his trawler ship usually came back to the port with heaps of fishes, but it has been hard for everyone in their area because of the economic depression caused by the South Korean financial crisis of 1997, and the owner of the ship is seriously considering selling Cheol-joo’s ship as a part of downsizing. Cheol-joo is naturally not pleased with that news, but he cannot deny that his catches are being decreased while his old ship needs to be repaired – or to be sold and then dismantled, perhaps.
To stay in the business with his crew while earning enough money, Cheol-joo eventually goes to one of his friends, who has been brokering the entry of Korean-Chinese illegal immigrants to South Korean behind his back. While there is a certain risk of being caught by the local marine coast, the job looks pretty simple with the promise of a big reward; all Cheol-joo and his crew have to do for getting paid is contacting a ship from China in the middle of the ocean and then bringing those illegal immigrants to the shore while not noticed by anyone.
His crew members follow his decision with no question. Ho-yeong(Kim Sang-ho), the boatswain of the ship, is ready to do anything for his captain, and Wan-ho(Moon Seong-guen), the chief engineer of the ship, agrees to Cheol-joo’s decision as a poor, debt-ridden guy who has nowhere to stay except Cheol-joo’s ship. Chang-wook(Lee Hee-joon) and Kyeong-goo(Yoo Seung-mok), a couple of sleazeballs on the ship, have no compunction to spare, and Dong-sik(Park Yoonchun), the youngest crew member on the ship, go along with others because he needs the money to support his aging mother.
They begin their voyage in the disguise of their another fishery operation, and then they meet the ship in question at night, which is filled with Korean-Chinese illegal immigrants ready to be transferred to Cheol-joo’s ship. The cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo, who did a terrific job in Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer”(2013), did another excellent work here in this film; the camera rarely loses its focus on the individuals on the screen as looking around the whole situation during this tense sequence, and we are gripped by the dynamic mix of confusion and suspense as the illegal immigrants attempt a risky jump from one ship to the other ship in the middle of night with the dark, tumultuous sea churning below them.
Everyone is safely transferred to Cheol-joo’s ship in the end, but the potential of another trouble is increased as the ship is returning to the shore on the next day as planned. They can be caught by the marine police at any point, and some of Korean-Chinese people do not trust Cheol-joo and his crew much. At one point, nearly all of Korean-Chinese people are forced to hide themselves in a very unpleasant place below the deck just because there is no other suitable place to hide besides that place, and Cheol-joo sometimes becomes quite ruthless to show them who is the boss on his ship.
The situation becomes a little more complicated when Dong-sik comes to have some feelings toward a young woman named Hong-mae(Han Ye-ri), whom he fortunately saved when she accidentally fell into the sea during the previous night. He sincerely wants to be nice to this young Korean-Chinese lady, but she has a good reason to be suspicious about this kindness of a stranger. In the case of one of her fellow passengers, she is willing to use her body for getting any more advantage, and some of Dong-sik’s colleagues cannot possibly say no to her as the guys who are fully loaded with a certain basic male need.
The director Sim Seong-bo, a screenplay writer who made a directoral debut with this film, previously collaborated with his co-screenplay writer/producer Bong Joon-ho in “Memories of Murder”(2003). Although “Haemoo” is not as memorable as that great crime movie directed by Bong Joon-ho, it is a solid work with a number of strong points to distinguish itself. I have not seen the South Korean stage play with the same name which the screenplay is based on, but the movie does not feel static or stagy even when it frequently emphasizes the claustrophobic environment encompassing its main characters, and it is also effective in accumulating a certain feeling of dread along with the increasing anxiety and tension among them.
While Kim Yoo-seok, who has continued to impress me since his breakout roles in “Tazza: The High Rollers”(2006) and “The Chaser”(2008), is good as usual as a man who is driven to the edge while making a number of drastic choices as the captain of his ship, the other actors in the movie are also distinctive as the parts of the story. While veteran South Korean actors Kim Sang-ho and Moon Seong-geun are dependable as the nicer crew members of the ship, Lee Hee-joon and Yoo Seung-mok are the main source of morbid humor in the film, and Park Yoochun, a K-pop singer I am not so familiar with, is believable during his scenes with Han Ye-ri, who is simply wonderful as a sole warm spot in the film we come to care a lot about.
The third act of the movie is literally filled with sea fog as announced by its title, and that is when the movie becomes less convincing than before. There are a couple of gut-wrenching moments to jolt us, but its climax part feels rather contrived compared to the organic storytelling shown during the rest of the movie, and I think some of its main dramatic moments could be more effective if the movie paid a little more attention to character development.
In spite of that visible weakness and other flaws, “Haemoo” is a compelling movie to watch, and it still could hold my attention even while it stumbled several times around its climax part. It is a smaller film than I expected, but it is packed with enough skills and emotions to engage us, and the gray heart pulsating behind its dark story is something you cannot forget easily when it is over.