There 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 (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.
Co-adapted 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.
Obviously, 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 every-man-for-himself anarchy.
Shim 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.
Regardless, 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.