Breathing Underwater (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): The life and death of the women of the sea

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South Korean documentary “Breathing Underwater” is about an interesting group of women in one small island. For earning their living, they dive into the sea without any special equipment except a few rudimentary tools, and the documentary touchingly observes how their life has been connected with their deep blue workplace where they have to work with considerable risks.

To me and many other South Koreans, ‘haenyeo’, which means ‘the woman of the sea’, is one of the most familiar words representing Jeju Island, a big volcano island located in the far south sea region of South Korea. Many women in the island worked as haenyeo in the past, and Udo, an islet located near Jeju Island, has been known as the origin of this old occupation. Because it is not easy to grow any crop in this islet because of its tough earth and rough weather, its people naturally depended on whatever could be harvested from the sea, and that was how women came to work at the sea. They often had to support their families for themselves due to the absence of their men who usually died in the ocean, and it surely helped that their female body gave them more biological advantages in diving.

As the documentary looks around a group of haenyeos living in Udo, the narration tells us how haenyeos are divided into three classes based on each own breathing competency. While low class members work in the shallow areas of 3-meter depth, middle class members operate in the deeper areas whose depth is around 5-9 meters, and high class members have the farthest areas whose depth is around 15-20 meters. Once how long they can hold their breath in the water is determined during their early career years, there is not much chance of class upgrade because, well, that inherent limit of our human body is not something which can be easily surpassed no matter how much we try.

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We see how this categorization is related to their average earning per one day. Due to their less bountiful harvest areas, low class members cannot harvest much compared to middle class members, and the areas belonging to high class members surely look bounteous with many precious things to be harvested. We learn that high class members can earn around $ 36,000 per one year, and we meet a middle-aged woman who has her own skillful way of underwater work as the very top of her class. She may not hold her breath longer than her peers, but she can instinctively find good places for her harvest, and we see her being helped by her colleagues when her harvest during one day happens to be too much to be carried by herself alone.

We also learn about how dangerous and demanding their working condition is. For example, they have to work at the sea for at least 8 straight hours per one day, and they even do not eat or drink during their working time. Besides the external dangers including shark attack, they must be always careful about their little precious underwater time inexorably determined by their deep breath before diving, but, as they casually admit during their interviews, they are often tempted to stay longer in the water than they can – especially if there is a good chance of earning more money right in front of their eyes.

Such a risky action like that can lead to the fatal situation of getting water into their lungs, which is called ‘Mool-soom’ (It means ‘breathing underwater’). For avoiding that danger, they must go back up to the sea level as soon as possible before it is too late, and we see them making their distinctive whistling sound while they breath air deeply and quickly as trained for many years. This is the assuring sign which reminds them that they are still alive and well, and then they are soon prepared for their another diving into the sea.

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However, they are often reminded that the possibility of death is always around them during their work. During an annual shamanist ritual, they pray and hope that nothing bad will happen, but accident can happen to any of them, and there is a sad moment involved with the unexpected death of one of their prominent senior members. When we see the meeting of the youngest members, we cannot help but notice that they are all around 40s or 50s; they may be the last generation of their profession which has been inevitably faded into the past thanks to the advance of modernization.

Nevertheless, these ladies keep moving on with their life as actively taking care of themselves and their families. The director Koh Hee-young, who was born and grew up in Jeju Island, worked on her documentary for 7 years for getting a closer look at her human subjects, and her respect and affection toward them can be clearly felt from the final result. The underwater footage shots from haenyeos’ working hours look vivid and beautiful with those gorgeous marine sceneries full of various sea animals and plants, and Udo looks terrific along with the wide aerial shots of the surrounding sea.

Although “Breathing Underwater” often feels like one of those average TV documentaries in its modest appearance, it has enough good things to watch and appreciate during its rather short running time. As seasons come and go, these remarkable women who are as feisty as those old female fighters in “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) continue to go to their sea as they did many times before – and nothing can stop them as long as they can dive and swim for their ongoing life.

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