Dir/scr: Shim Sung-bo. South Korea. 2014. 111mins


Produced and co-written by one of Korea’s most prolific filmmakers Bong Joon Ho, Haemoo is a bleak but superbly orchestrated character-driven feature based on a true story that was made into a stage play about a group of fishermen who smuggle 25 Chinese-Korean immigrants aboard their boat that ends in bitter tragedy.

Cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo again further demonstrates his wealth of talent at capturing the limited space, while the exterior shots provide a beautiful yet an eerie backdrop.

The film’s dark narrative appears to have been too grim for local audiences given its rather disappointing theatrical run generating an underwhelming $11.4m for a high profile summer release. But, this engrossing feature directed by debut director Shim Sung-bo who also co-wrote Bong Joon Ho’s widely acclaimed Memories Of Murder is set to be warmly embraced overseas following its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival where audiences will be treated to what is arguably Korea’s strongest commercial film so far this year.

Beginning at sea, the film introduces the different members of the fishing boat crew as they carry out their duties with careful attention paid to the vessel’s interior and exterior structure, while Shim with the aid of the film’s cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo also beautifully captures the sea fog - otherwise known as Haemoo in Korean - that encircles the boat.

Once the boat returns to port with a meager catch, the captain (Kim Yoon-seok) is handed a wad of cash in exchange for his and the crew services in smuggling 25 Chinese-Koreans on board the boat. Things take a sour turn when tragedy strikes the illegal immigrants, which turns the already volatile captain into a monstrous individual, while the crew struggle to come to terms with what has happened.

Amongst the crew is also a young man (Park Yu-chun) who develops a relationship with one of the immigrants (played by Han Ye-ri) and seeks to protect her from the increasingly unstable members of his crew.

It’s tempting to see this film as a Bong Joon Ho feature as exemplified through the film’s well-crafted characters, dark tone and the expertly delivered mise-en-scène, but its lack of dark humour coupled with its venture into genre territory in the final hour reveals Shim’s tangible direction.

Comparisons to Snowpiercer are inevitable given Hong’s role in both films as the cinematographer along with the fact that both films take place in a confined space as Hong again further demonstrates his wealth of talent at capturing the limited space, while the exterior shots provide a beautiful yet an eerie backdrop.

Kim Yoon-seok (Hwayi: A Monster Boy) who is no stranger playing villainous and morally ambiguous roles is the ideal actor playing the crazed captain taking his character as far as one could go, but it’s the younger members of the crew that tend to shine. Park Yu-chun is another example of a K-pop star who can successfully stretch his talent to take on challenging acting roles while Han Ye-ri is especially impressive portraying the young Chinese-Korean.

Haemoo may have struggled to achieve the level of domestic success that other Korean blockbusters such a box office smash hit Roaring Currents have achieved this summer, but its international potential along with the overall quality of the film should help offset any disappointment with its domestic performance.

Production company: HAEMOO Co., Ltd.

International sales: Finecut, www.finecut.co.kr/renew/main.asp

Producers: Bong Joon Ho, Cho Neung-yeon, Lewis Taewan Kim

Screenplay: Shim Sung-bo, Bong Joon Ho, based on the stage play Haemoo by Kim Min-jung

Cinematography: Hong Kyeong-pyo

Editors: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum

Production designer: Lee Ha-joon

Main cast: Kim Yoon-seok, Park Yu-Chun, Han Ye-ri, Moon Sung-keun, Lee Hee-joon, Kim Sang-ho