Maritime Mishaps – Haemoo / Disappearance at Sea

On the 7th of October 2001, 25 Korean-Chinese immigrants being smuggled into South Korea suffocated to death in the storage tank of the fishing vessel transporting them. Their bodies were dumped into the ocean by the crew in an unsuccessful bid to cover up their smuggling activities. This incident served as the inspiration for a 2007 stage play titled Haemoo (which translates into English as “Sea Fog”) before being adapted into a feature film by Bong Joon-so and Shim Sung-bo, who had previously collaborated on the script for the critically acclaimed true crime film Memories of Murder [Sarinui chueok] (2003) (previously reviewed here). This time around Bong stuck to the production side, giving Shim the opportunity to make Haemoo (2014) his feature directorial debut.

Shim devotes the first 20-30 minutes of the film to establishing both the boat’s crew and the social and financial pressures affecting them. In the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the restructuring imposed by the International Monetary Fund had caused household incomes to drop and unemployment to increase. Captain Kang Cheol-joo (Kim Yook-seok) commands the Jeonjinho, a fishing vessel well past its best days which he refuses to abandon, even though government incentives would allow him to replace it with something much better. Returning early one day when troubles with the boat force him to abandon the day’s fishing, he discovers that his wife (Yeom He-ran) is cheating on him. When he tries to secure a loan to repair his boat, he learns that she has already mortgaged their restaurant without informing him. Stubbornly insistent on repairing the boat, he resorts to visiting underworld figure Yeo (Jo Duk-je) to obtain more lucrative work “croaker fishing”, i.e. smuggling illegal immigrants from China to Korea. The first his crew learns about their new job is when he briefs them onboard (and distributes their cut) immediately before casting off, allowing them no opportunity to have second thoughts and speak to the authorities.

Second in command is Boatswain Ho-young (Kim Sang-ho), a pragmatic and competent middle-aged man who spends much of his time managing the behaviour of the younger Kyung-koo (Yoo Seung-mok) – a big spender who likes to sneak prostitutes onto the boat when it’s docked – and Chang-wook (Lee Hee-joon) – an immature and entitled man who envies Kyung-koo’s sexual exploits and attempts to spy on them. Chief engineer Wan-ho (Moon Sung-keun) is a good-humoured older man who lives concealed on board in order to hide from his creditors. Youngest crew member Dong-sik (Park Yoo-chun) is a dim but well-intentioned young man still learning the trade who lives with his grandmother (Ye Soo-jung) and was inadvertently responsible for the boat’s premature return from its most recent fishing trip.

Setting out into impending bad weather, the crew’s rendezvous with the freighter carrying the immigrants is a fraught affair, as turbulent seas force them to make precarious leaps across the gap between vessels in order to board. Dong-sik, naively credulous of Chang-wook’s idea that this is a great way to meet eligible women, attempts to help Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri) aboard but she eludes his grasp and falls into the water, prompting him to dive in and rescue her (sending the crew into a panic as they struggle to find him again). Although she is nervous about his solicitous attentions after their rescue, they soon establish that despite his interest he’s not the sort to take advantage of her (although she does have to shut down his well-meaning but patronising attempts to explain Korean society). In contrast to Hong-mae, the more worldly Yool-Nyeo (Jo Kyung-sook) is more than willing to trade sexual favours for a warm spot in the engine room, but the boatswain quickly puts paid to Kyung-koo’s willingness to take advantage. Meanwhile Wan-ho bonds with a teacher (Jung Dae-yong) travelling to Korea in search of a better paying job so that he can afford to support his family back in China.

The first signs of trouble come with one refugee’s (Kim Han-joon) attempts to assert some control. Although he initially proves to be better informed than the ship’s crew about the realities of people-smuggling – advising the others not to eat the salty food they’ve been given and to save the containers for use as impromptu toilets – after a short time in the fishing hold with the other transportees it’s clear that he was unprepared for the reality as he is unable to cope with the smell and attempts to rally the others to his side. This earns him a savage beating from the Captain, much to the shock of the rest of the crew, and it’s only Dong-sik’s willingness to put himself in the middle that saves him from being beaten to death. Despite this intervention, Captain Kang has the man thrown overboard as a warning to the others, eventually relenting and having him hauled back in with a life preserver.

During all of this confusion, Dong-sik spies an opportunity to hide Hong-mae in the engine room, securing the willing support of Wan-ho to allow her presence and keep it a secret. This timely intervention saves Hong-mae from the tragic fate of her fellow travellers when a freezer malfunction causes freon to escape into the fishing hold, resulting in the occupants’ deaths. Desperate to destroy the evidence, the Captain forces his crew to help him chop up the bodies and throw them into the sea – leaving Hong-mae’s unsuspected presence as a ticking time bomb with the potential to divide the crew and push them into darker acts.

Shim & Bong have done a fine job expanding the contained environments of the stage play to suit the broader expanse of the big screen. Shim clearly establishes the layout of the boat early on, allowing the audience to understand the flow of the action onboard even in the midst of raging storms, tossing waves and clinging fog. Particularly good use is made of the engine room, which offers a range of nooks and crannies for hiding and provides a versatile space which could not have been realised in the same way on stage. The simple fact of seeing actual vessels on the water, and the ability to vividly depict the more hostile aspects of their natural environment, also offers a level of reality which emphasises the hardships experienced by immigrants reduced to pursuing illegal travel options, undermining any suggestion by hostile politicians that anybody would go these lengths without a compelling motivation. This aspect of the story is largely set aside for the final part of the film, which draws more from the crime genre in its depiction of the violent disintegration of a small and formerly closely-knit team, although Shim & Bong have added an epilogue set six years later which returns the audience’s attention to the unspoken motivations of immigrants, subtly depicting a non-verbal chance encounter which suggests a different possible interpretation of earlier dialogue but allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

Kim Yun-seok provides the most compelling performance as the driven Captain whose dedication to his crew ultimately takes a back seat to his concern for the continued operation of his vessel. K-pop star Park Yoo-chun, previously a member of boy bands TVXQ and JYJ, makes the transition to lead audience identification figure effectively in a role which saw him win eight awards and two nominations for Best New Actor, plus the Korea Film Actor’s Association Popular Star Award. Most worthy of note among the smaller roles is Jo Kyung-sook, who had played the victim’s mother in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother [Madeo] (2009) – her world-weary portrayal of a woman resigned to offering sex in exchange for comfort suggests an entire backstory which remains unspoken throughout her few scenes.

Haemoo earned Shim Sung-bo one award and two nominations for Best New Director, although in the seven years since the film’s release he has yet to consolidate on his success with a follow-up. Although it was well regarded enough to be selected as South Korea’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at that year’s Academy Awards, it didn’t make it to the final list of nominees. The film’s hybrid nature leaves it open to criticisms that it doesn’t fully commit to whichever aspect of the film the critic would most like to have seen featured, but I’d argue that its shifts make it a more rounded, accessible film and that any such attempts to narrow its focus would run the risk of fatally unbalancing the material.

Keeping to the maritime theme, I seized my last opportunity to watch Tacita Dean’s Disappearance at Sea (1996), a 13 minute avant-garde exploration of light and refraction on 16mm film which is normally only available for gallery installations but which was briefly made available via MUBI during the recent UK COVID-19 lockdowns. Shot in and around a lighthouse, it consists of seven sequences of a locked-off camera observing the lamp room and its view, accompanied by field recordings of the surrounding natural ambience. It opens on a close-up of the rotating unlit double bulbs within the lamp housing during daytime, as they pass and are distorted by the concentric circles in the glass which focus and project the light. The seemingly static bulbs rotate through a series of distortions, while the light of the sun begins to impinge at certain angles to provide unexpected bursts of colour.

The second sequence switches to an external view of the landscape and sea from the top of the lighthouse, with the lamp filling the left side of the screen. From this perspective, the distorted patterns of light created by the rotating lamp appear like ripples of water, creating the illusion that the lamp room is submerged. Next we see the rocky seashore of encroaching evening as the light pans slowly across the craggy protuberances from left to right. A thin ribbon of red separates the deepening purple of the sky and sea, while a ship moves slowly into sight from behind the promontory. The perspective flips back to the lamp room, camera pushed right up against the dark V-shaped slats standing out boldly against the rotating light source, creating a mysterious illuminated space in which the concentric circle lenses appear almost like owl-like eyes interrogating the darkness. That darkness overwhelms the screen for the final sequence, alleviated only by the pale, almost inadequate spotlight sweeping periodically across the night but revealing only hints of rippling waves.

If you’re looking for a narrative or some cohesively expressed artistic thesis, you’ve come to the wrong place, but if you’re looking for a meditative experience of shifting light and seaside ambience (which is more or less what I’d hoped for) you should come away satisfied. I’m not certain that the work sustains the interpretation that Tacita had in mind when she made it – the solitary psychological disintegration of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst who died while attempting to circumnavigate the world – but it’s certainly possible to get something out of it without understanding her intentions.

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