Thirteenth Report | Fantasia 2015

Haemoo 75Haemoo begins in a realistic fashion, almost like a documentary of life aboard a fishing trawler, with an emphasis on the complete lack of glamour in the life of a professional fisherman.




haemoo 500

Things aren’t going well for Kang Chul-joo, captain of a Korean fishing trawler and the central figure in Sung-bo Shim’s Haemoo. The catch is not as good as expected, his boat needs repairs, his wife is screwing around, and even smuggling knockoff designer watches is not as financially lucrative as it might seem. Finding himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place, this essentially good man decides to do something he knows is wrong, agreeing to transport illegal immigrants from China to Korea. To Kang, engaging in the practice, known as “croaker fishing,” is a way to make some quick money, with the risk and wickedness of trading in human beings offset in his mind by the promise of a good payoff. The fact that the migrants are ethnically Korean, although resident in China, may play a role in his decision, but this is not emphasized in the film.

Kang’s crew members are not eager at first to take part in immigrant smuggling (one raises the issue of potential jail time), but they eventually allow themselves to be bought off with generous advances. Still, there are differences in attitude among them, with the most sympathetic being a young crew member named Dong-sik (K-Pop star Park Yoo-chun), and the least sympathetic a loudmouth named Chan-wook (Lee Hee-jun). Dong-sik shows his essential character early on, diving into the water to rescue a migrant who falls while transferring onto the trawler, and later acts as the protector of the same migrant, Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri). Not coincidentally, she is an attractive young woman, which adds another source of tension to the plot (sailors have been known to get horny while at sea) and also sets up the possibility of a romance between her and Dong-sik.

As in a film noir, a single decision in this film can lead to unimagined consequences, and so it is with Captain Kang and his crew. The migrants must be hidden from inspectors, kept under control (they outnumber the crew by several times), and offered at least minimal shelter. However, it’s not entirely clear what obligations the crew members owe the migrants, because while they are clearly human beings, their status as illegal migrants means that normal considerations of human rights really don’t apply. In this context, it’s less surprising that a decision that seems perfectly reasonable from the captain’s point of view ends in tragedy, nor that his primary attention will not be focused on the morally correct thing to do. Interestingly, the main event in the immigrant story happens at about the halfway point of the film, with the second half focusing much more on the fate of Hong-mae and her relationship with Dong-sik, as well as the changing relations among the crew members.

Haemoo, directed by Sung-bo Shim, is based on a play by Kim Min-jung, which was in turn based on the true story of a 2001 immigrant smuggling incident in South Korea. The title means “sea fog,” which refers not only to a meteorological condition that threatens the ship, but also to the moral fog that Kang and his crew find themselves in as one bad decision leads to another and another. The film is set in 1998, and the real story has been streamlined in Haemoo—for instance, the number of illegal migrants reduced—with correspondingly greater focus placed on the moral judgments of the captain and crew.

Haemoo begins in a realistic fashion, almost like a documentary of life aboard a fishing trawler, with an emphasis on the complete lack of glamour in the life of a professional fisherman. As soon at the migrants enter the picture, the cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo becomes more stylized, a trend that accelerates as the moral stakes become higher. The soundtrack by Jeong Jae-il also plays an increasing role as the film progresses, signaling the film’s shift from a realistic story of fishermen and migrants struggling to a more abstract moral fable about the unintended consequences of stepping off the straight and narrow path. | Sarah Boslaugh

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