will be no shuffleboard for the passengers of this vessel. Nor will they find
any class solidarity with the impoverished crew. Instead, the ethnic Korean illegal
immigrants being trafficked from China will be treated with contempt,
hostility, and lethal negligence, but karma will come back around good and hard
as it always does in Shim Sung-bo’s Haemoo
which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.
by Shim and lefty auteur Bong Joon-ho from a 2003 play, Haemoo somewhat fictionalizes the real life 2001 maritime tragedy
that forced the Korean government to issue an apology to China for deaths of
twenty-five illegal migrants. Of course, the Chinese government might have
considered apologizing for creating the circumstances that made the hard
passage seem reasonable, but apparently that would be asking too much. In this
case, it is the Ahab-esque fishing captain Kang Chul-joo who takes on the trafficking
run, in hopes of making enough money to buy back his beloved but decrepit
trawler from its disinterested owners.
the boat is ill-equipped to handle large numbers of passengers. Tempers flare
when Kang hides them in the fish hold, but he silences protest with ruthless
efficiency. The attractive Hong-mae further destabilizes the situation,
inspiring lust and jealousy among the crew. However, she finds a surprisingly resourceful
protector in the earnest engineer’s mate, Dong-sik. Thanks to his efforts, she
will survive the initial wave of tragedy, but the ship soon descends into
and Bong (who also co-wrote Memories of Murder) unleash their inner B.Travens in Haemoo, combining class consciousness with close-quarters mayhem.
Yet, it is never as abrasive as Bong’s more overtly didactic films, such as The Host and Snowpiercer. This is really old fashioned noir, at its most
naturalistic and fatalistic. At one point, characters blame the IMF for their
despicable actions, which is relatively reasonable by Bong’s standards.
Kim Yun-seok commands with picture portraying Kang’s mounting mania with unnerving
intensity. He is a terrific villain-in-denial, combining psycho-elements of
Captain Queeg and Robert Ryan’s Slater in Odds Against Tomorrow. Han Ye-ri is also a terrific humanizing element, directly
expressing Hong-mae’s fear and resiliency. Unfortunately, Park Yoon-chun’s
Dong-sik looks rather stiff and awkward by comparison, but Moon Sung-geun adds
the perfect note of ill-fated dignity as the veteran engineer.
Despite its relevancy to current controversies, Haemoo works as a taut Then There Were None thriller, with Perfect Storm-like atmosphere laid on top
for extra added menace. This is exactly the kind of film Kevin Macdonald’s Black Sea should have been, but fell
sadly short. Recommended for fans of nautical thrillers who appreciate dark irony,
Haemoo screens this Friday (3/20) at
MoMA and Saturday (3/21) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s ND/NF.
Labels: Bong Joon-ho, Korean Cinema, ND/NF '15