by Jason Suzuki
We can place Haemoo (Sea Fog), the directorial debut from co-writer of Memories of Murder Shim Sung-bo: in the late 90s during the IMF crisis. Like the mentioned Bong Joon-ho film, a singular real-life incident is used for broad social analysis as well as broad entertainment. This is no knock against the film though as South Korean cinema has shown to be very skillful at combining the two. In her book The South Korean Film Renaissance: Local Hitmakers, Global Provocateurs Jinhee Choi proposes that some of the most popular domestic films are also the ones that with social and political issues. Couple this with a Hollywood blockbuster influence and new wave sensibility and you get finely constructed thrillers like JSA and The Host that are equal parts entertaining and socially vocal. Shim Sung-bo’s film film about a group of sailors who decide to help smuggle in Chinese-based Koreans back into their country doesn’t add up to be a landmark title like The Host but it comes very close.
If you want a feel for the mood of the film look up the other Korean poster for it. Where the crew of the ship are gathered around for a group photo, all smiling, arms wrapped around each other in standard displays of camaraderie. This is the opposite of what actually occurs in the film. A film marketing trope ends up providing irony for how things turn out in the film. Needless to say, it’s easy to guess that are going to go wrong on their first time smuggling immigrants in their beat up fishing boat. The depths of how bad the course of events turn and how poorly those involved devolve is what should be left to surprise.
With the won continuing to depreciate during this period of time you see how easy it is for Captain Cheol-joo (The Chaser’s Kim Yoon-seok) to be enticed by an offer to make some extra money. Money he’s not making thanks to a recent unsuccessful haul of fish. The captain sees this an opportunity to improve his boat, get his men some money, and get himself some extra money. The conceit does lack subtlety as a comment on social inequality and a more general effects of greed on people especially during times of economic crisis. This didacticism is not out of place with other, Korean films, but the absence of more complex character interactions and even social metaphors hurt the worthwhile nature of the film. It’s popcorn social critique.
What is consistent about the film is the high craft of the cinematography, done by Hong Kyung-pyo whose other recent work includes Snowpiercer. He has created a world filled with fog and darkness, able to use these elements to guide our attention and whenever he needs to, can shoot past the elements at a focal point before letting it get eaten up by fog. But there is one moment in particular that requires mention, and it has been the one image most heavily used to market the film. When the men are about the receive the immigrants, pulling up their boat alongside another, getting these illegal passengers to their bags over before tossing themselves across the space between the boats. The image of hands reaching out to one another is the rare display of human compassion, brilliantly conceived through the mist of the rain, the fog of the sea, and the chiaroscuro created by the searchlight. It’s a moment glimpsed only briefly because of the elements, but the image itself and the duration of its visibility all convey the soul of the film, encompassing it in a split second. With any luck this moment would become a text book example for how you can convey what a film’s about in just one moment. It’s truly beautiful and alone is reason enough to see the film.
Sea Fog plays Nov. 6, Nov. 7, and Nov. 8 at this year's Denver Film Festival.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.