Haemoo (or, sea fog) is based on a real incident in which an attempt to illegally smuggle immigrants from China to South Korea went terribly wrong. The film does not unfold in exactly the same way, but it is best watched not knowing a thing about the true events; this will make the plot twist that occurs partway through more shocking.
Chul-joo Kang (Yun-seok Kim) is the captain of Jeonjiho, a fishing vessel that has seen better times and better catches. Unable to purchase the ship from its owners, who wish to sell it, Kang agrees to take on human cargo. Young Dong-sik (Yoo-chun Park) is the only crew member to object, but like everyone else on board, he has few financial options. When Jeonjiho meets another vessel at sea, the sea is rough enough to make transferring the immigrants a hazardous task; Hong-mae (Ye-ri Han) falls overboard and Dong-sik jumps in after her, saving her life. It won’t be the first time he will have to defend her from harm.
A tragedy occurs about an hour in, and from there, the film becomes something else. It’s as though one terrible event is enough to make the crew lose their humanity. Perhaps that’s not so implausible, but the way their violent impulses escalate after they’ve had to act out of practical self-interest fills the story with one base act after another. Characters that the film has spent so much time humanising become monsters. Perhaps the exaggeration and melodrama common in Korean cinema is at play here, but it’s a real shame that Haemoo loses all subtlety and realism.
A couple of other things about Haemoo make some characters less sympathetic, in ways that don’t feel intentional and lessen its pathos. Firstly, the film does not give enough emphasis to how bad Hong-mae’s situation is: she’s one of two women making the journey, and the other is readily offering up sexual favours for better treatment. The captain doesn’t want any women on board at all. Hong-Mae is indebted to Dong-sik and he won’t leave her alone, and she has no real way of trusting him. On the other hand, being put into the fishing hold with the rest of the immigrants is being like sent into hell. Dong-sik’s motives are noble, but this scenario has a whiff of meet-cute about it, and it shouldn’t.
Secondly, Kang crosses the line from angsty protagonist to dangerous madman not too far into the film, but there are later times when we’re seemingly supposed to care about him. Once he’s beaten a whiny immigrant and tossed him into the sea without bothering to tell his crew to rescue the guy, he’s become one of the villains – and his behaviour gets much, much worse from there.
Haemoo can hardly be faulted on a technical level. We see the Jeonjiho on calm seas, in a violent storm, and lost in fog, and it’s all convincing. The engine room set is a standout, a mess of pipes and steam. The lighting is excellent, too, communicating through colour without diminishing the sets’ realism.
The acting is generally strong, even if some characters are underserved by script implausibilities. Yoo-chun Park deserves special mention: although he’s a pop idol, you’d hardly know it. He’s incredible, no matter where his character is pushed.
Haemoo is so sticky and rank that watching it is an experience difficult to shake. However, if it had not hammered away so hard in its attempt to make an impact, it could have said something more. Real people participated in an event that was almost as hideous as what we see here. In its manner of telling their story, the film seems to have taken the easy way out.