AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Korea’s Best Foreign Film Oscar Submission ‘Haemoo’ Review
On his 2009 stand-up album, “Midlife Vices,” comedian Greg Giraldo has a running gag using “…but in this economy” as the punchline. He talks about how thankful Americans were at the time if they were still employed, no matter how much they may have hated their jobs. It then devolves into a guy who gets anally raped while all his possessions were torched, “but in this economy” he was happy to even have stuff to burn.
The 2008 economic crisis has been covered by many American films, such as Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” and Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” All those movies happen to focus completely on, well, Wall Street. In 1997, the Korean government was in a similar situation, requiring $55 billion in bailout money – mainly from the International Monetary Fund – in order to restore financial order. The entire country felt the brunt, as unemployment within the nation’s borders nearly tripled. “Haemoo” takes place during the heart of this economic climate. Though it has nothing to do with anyone who controls the money, it’s about how such hardships can warp moral character.
While things on land are in a state of disrepair, things at sea aren’t doing much better for Captain Cheol-joo (Kim Yoon-seok). His fishing vessel is old and broken down, but more importantly the fish just aren’t leaping into the nets at any rate which would allow him or his crew to provide for their families. In order to make ends meet, Cheol-joo agrees to smuggle a large group of Korean-Chinese immigrants from China into South Korea. The crew is not particularly excited about the idea, but with their financial fate in their captain’s hands, money is money.
Anxiety is high on the seas, with the illegal activity and constant threat of being caught by the coastal authorities, added to the general nature of the ocean making its inhabitants sick, both physically and mentally. When an unforeseen disaster occurs, all the characters cope and react in different ways.
The title of the film translates literally as “sea fog,” and co-writer/director, Shim Sung-bo (the other co-writer is “Snowpiercer”’s Bong Joon-ho), makes this natural element just as dangerous to his characters as John Carpenter or M. Night Shyamalan managed. The “haemoo” (I’m going to assume I’m using the word correctly) infects the seaman aboard the floating coyote transport to the degree where when bad things happen, bad choices are made.
Like a mixture of “Titanic” and “Lifeboat,” Shim’s film contains a forbidden romance in the midst of tragedy, which grounds some of the more reprehensible actions which take place with something a little more relatable. Though it’s Shim’s first time in the director’s chair, he’s no novice within the medium, having written Bong’s great serial killer drama, “Memories of Murder.” The writing is where the film stands out like a light amidst the fog of other dramas. It’s a beautiful marriage of a fictional concept tied to a true-to-life event, which still happens to retain a bit of that beautiful Korean bloodletting.
As Giraldo has proven, tragedy plus time equals comedy. Though there’s nary a laugh in “Haemoo,” it proves an equation just as potent: tragedy plus time plus Shim Sung-bo equals fantastic filmmaking. Though I wish ill on no one, if something terrible befalls South Korea, like an economic collapse or a crazed serial killer, it may be worth enduring to later experience Shim’s spin on the subject.