Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Sydney Film Festival: Haemoo

Cold and frightened illegal immigrants huddle and cower together on the bow of a mid-sized fishing boat as the captain violently beats a complaining immigrant with a wooden broom. He turns to face them, the cameras focus slyly shifts from the captain to the human cargo and as his furious gaze washes over them they wince, physically and audibly. Writer and first-time director Shim Sung-bo’s confronting drama Haemoo (a.k.a Sea Fog) chronicles the disastrous first-attempt at people smuggling by a fledgling fisherman and his crew and is based off of a real life incident in South Korea in 2001. While obviously relevant for contemporary Australia, Haemoo involves the illegal smuggling of Chinese immigrants into Korea and the dangers and consequences of such an endeavour.

After a heart-pounding sequence set during a raging sea-storm, two dozen illegal immigrants find themselves at the mercy of the nervous crew of the Junjin. After an accident kills all but one of the immigrants, each member of the crew is driven mad in their own way. The execution of this insanity is brilliant, with each character’s mania being quietly foreshadowed and captured in heart-stopping, well-composed moments. Na├»ve, young shipmate Dong-sik forms an instant connection with the willful and demure immigrant Hong-mae and both are determined to ensure her survival, whereas Captain Kang is motivated by an inhuman determination to do anything to protect his ship and crew, and the other shipmates are driven by obedience, guilt and lust. The maddening guilt that overwhelms the elderly mechanic Wan-ho is particularly affecting in contrast to the cold dehumanizing logic of Captain Kang.  The tight direction of the engine room and fog scenes, the beautiful composition and colouring of disturbing night-time fog scenes on the ship’s bow and brilliant performances electrify a film teeming with social relevance and excellent dramatic tension.

Director Shim Sung-bo may lack the raw talent of other contemporary Korean thriller-drama directors, though with one of the most prolific and successful, Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer, Mother and Memories of Murder), on-board as producer certainly assists in helps Haemoo prove itself as a solid, thrilling human drama.

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