Genre-bending is a real Korean specialty. From the family drama monster movie hybrid of Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host to the madcap martial arts western of Kim Jee-Woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird, films like these turn on a dime. You just never know what to expect. One big Korean film at the Toronto International Film Festival this year is Haemoo, directed by Shim Sung-bo. Relatively unknown, the first-time director co-wrote Memories of Murder in 2003 with Bong Joon-Ho, who returns the favour here producing and co-writing Haemoo. Not bad having the director of Snowpiercer in your corner. It isn’t all smooth sailing with Shim Sung-bo’s debut, though. Climb aboard, matey, and I’ll tell you the tale.
Based on a true story and adapted from a play, Haemoo follows the captain and crew of a Korean fishing vessel smuggling illegal immigrants from China to Korea. Kang (The Chaser‘s Kim Yoon-seok) captains the aging trawler and its salty crew, but the honest work of fishing is barely keeping them financially afloat. When an opportunity arises to smuggle a group of ethnic Koreans leaving China for new lives back at home, Kang seizes the lucrative chance out of desperation. They pick up their passengers from a Chinese vessel on rough waters, and the journey gradually spins out of control from there. Two women are among the immigrants, and Kang holds to the belief it’s bad luck for a woman to set foot on his boat. His superstition is almost immediately proven out, as the younger woman misses the jump to the deck of the trawler and falls into the churning water below. An inexperienced young sailor Dong-sik (K-pop star Park Yu-chun) plunges in to rescue her. Having saved her once, he feels he must protect her, hiding her in the engine room while the others are left to the dangers of the increasingly unstable crew and the ship’s dank fish-hold.
Often tense and beautifully shot, the film drags even as the stakes crank higher. Early scenes play straight drama with alternating moments of goofy humour, and the film’s later lurch into violence and madness doesn’t gel. The action trappings of a high seas adventure don’t sit quite right with the migrants’ grim plight, either. The actors are all excellent, but we stay too long in their over-familiar conflicts. After a terrible accident, the ship is becalmed in an unnavigable sea fog. The gruesome turn of events and the enveloping mist send the entire crew over the edge with a suddenness that stretches believability, while Kang’s descent into deranged Ahab goes too far as well. Maybe it’s the subject-matter, that the harsh treatment inflicted on the innocent migrants merits a more distanced, realist approach. When Shim Sung-bo goes that way, the film is gripping and involving. But he only does so half the time. When Haemoo strives for action or thrills, or descends into somber horror, it feels lost at sea.
Haemoo has its international premiere in the Gala section at TIFF tonight, Tuesday, September 9th, at 6:30pm at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. The film will play twice more during TIFF, on Wednesday, September 10th, 12:00pm and on Sunday, September 14th, 12:00pm, both screenings at the Ryerson Theatre. For more info see here.