The year is 1998, and Captain Cheol-joo (played by Kim Yun-seok) is facing an increasingly deleterious financial situation. He ends up resorting to smuggling in order to try to make ends meet, but mostly Cheol-joo just wants to save his boat. This takes on increasingly ironic undertones as the film goes on, because in many ways the boat is killing Cheol-joo and destroying his plans, both literally and figuratively. This is clearly a metaphor for...something.
"Haemoo" boasts a strong cast and excellent production values, but unfortunately this is a movie that's trying to sell itself on making a serious statement regarding the human condition, and on that front, "Haemoo" is less than successful. Part of the problem is simply that the characters aren't very clearly defined. Only Cheol-joo and Dong-sik (played by Park Yoo-chun) get any kind of serious character arc, and neither is particularly organic. Indeed, the entire dramatic thrust ends up focused on the crisis point that pops up midway through, which ends up sabotaging any meaningful attempt at character study.
And even then, Dong-sik's character arc, at least, is less than inspiring, and at times even borders on misogynist. Dong-sik is a nice guy. He'd never do anything as uncouth as actually ask a woman for sex, but Dong-sik will offer kindness and do favors for an attractive woman for no apparent reason except that he's obviously hoping to be rewarded with sex. And when he is rewarded with sex...that entire scene is so bizarre I'm honestly still having troubling process it. I've never been in that situation personally, but man or woman I can't imagine that this context would put anyone in an erotic mood.
What makes matters worse is that Dong-sik is the perspective character. "Haemoo" attempts to delve into the topic of what evil lurks in the hearts of men but its characters are increasingly segmented into neat little categories of basically nice people in difficult situations and violent rapists. The film never forces the audience to ask what we'd do in that situation, because Dong-sik more-or-less acts as morally as possible, clearly feels guilt, and is rewarded with a consensual lay for being so obviously sensitive.
Given the general inability of the film's thematic elements to hold up on closer narrative analysis, that leaves spectacle to carry the day. And for what it's worth, director Sim Seong-bo definitely knows what he's doing in that department. "Haemoo" makes excellent, subtle use of its filmmaking technique to depict a disaster at sea. Atmosphere is created more through gentle swaying than obvious special effects, so that when it's time for the big setpiece, there's plenty of budget left over.
Unfortunately I doubt mainstream audiences will be much impressed by the story, which isn't just incredibly negative but also pretty pointless. To some people it may well come off as insulting. This is the tale of a group of working class seamen as told from the perspective of educated gentry, and it shows. Again, don't go into this expecting you're supposed to sympathize with anyone who's not the slightly more educated Dong-sik, because "Haemoo" simply isn't the broad-minded intelligent thriller it claims to be.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Busan International Film Festival Movie Review] "Haemoo""
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