Directed by Shim Sung-bo. Starring Kim Yun-seok, Park Yoo-chun, and Han Ye-ri.
One of the reasons why the South Korean new wave has been so popular in North American subculture is its ability to take reliable narrative tropes and absolutely smash them to pieces. Take Haemoo for example. It’s the story of a ragtag fishing crew led by Kang (Kim Yun-seok), a captain who inspires loyalty by always looking after his men, even in hard economic times. When the financial climate turns especially desperate and his beloved boat is in danger of being seized, Kang takes on the risky but lucrative enterprise of smuggling illegals from China to South Korea.
With a setup like that, a regular film would hit upon the following: a cold-hearted captain who sees the immigrants only as cargo; a fierce storm that puts the ship in danger; bonding between passengers and crew (maybe a sacrifice too); the captain, realizing no amount of pay is worth a human life. Haemoo has no such sentiment. Instead a cruel, irreversible tragedy occurs midway through and suddenly what seemed to be an epic nautical adventure turns into a claustrophobic deliberation on madness and violence. The turn is so jarring, full credit goes to the screenwriters - director Shim Sung-bo and Bong Joon-ho - for having the bravery to pull it off.
But for all its brilliance, the screenplay has one damaging flaw. This involves Hong-mae, one of the few females smuggled onto the boat. Han Ye-ri does a wonderful job with the role and her presence is one of the film’s high points; it’s the reactions of the characters around her that’s problematic. There’s nothing wrong with exploring the sexual implications of a lone woman on board a boat full of men. Some might argue the script is an indictment of narrow-minded alpha male behavior. But Haemoo dumbs down the issue by sheer repetition.
The worst offender is crew member Chang-wook (played by Lee Hee-joon), who only opens his mouth to remind everyone how badly he wants to get laid. It’s as if his character stepped out from a parallel sex farce called Hey, What’s Everyone Doing in the Engine Room? Near the end, Chang-wook is literally waist deep in water, about to die, and he’s still lamenting how he wants to be the first to have sex with Hong-mae. Haemoo also boasts one of the most implausible love scenes ever. If you were hiding in fear on a boat only to watch a stranger get brutally murdered, would you be able to have passionate sex right after in the same room? We hope you never have to find out, but we’re guessing your answer would be no.
In a regular film these kinds of shortcomings might be forgivable but because the rest of Haemoo is so stellar, its blemishes stand out even more. The atmosphere and sense of being aboard a vessel is truly outstanding, framed by superb cinematography from Hong Kyung-pyo. And of course that midpoint genre flip is just plain mind-blowing. If only the screenplay had been tightened up, Haemoo would’ve been a much more solid ride from start to finish.