To date, the summer of 2014 has seen the majority of mainstream Korean films fall into either of two categories: the noir thriller or the period blockbuster. While a handful of terrific genre pieces, namely “A Hard Day” and “Confession”, have succeeded in spite of this inertia, it’s been high time for something a little different. Along comes “Sea Fog”, a character-driven blockbuster set on a boat that is based on a play which is itself drawn from a real life incident.
A fishing trawler returns to port with a meager catch and when its captain is offered a pile of money to help some Chinese-Korean illegal immigrants sneak onto the peninsula he is quick to pocket the cash. He heads back out to sea along with his five-man crew and in the dead of night they make contact with another vessel carrying their payday. Soon the youngest crewmember forms an attachment with one of the smuggled girls, but as tensions between the crew and their passengers mount and when the Korean maritime police suddenly appear, things quickly spin out of control.
You can often count on Korean cinema to take a familiar setting and turn it on its head. “Sea Fog” brings other open sea blockbusters such as “Jaws” (1975) and “The Perfect Storm” (2000) to mind, but it is a great deal darker than what you would expect from commercial cinema, particularly a blockbuster of this size (at least by Korean standards). First time director Shim Sung-bo and his co-writer and executive producer Bong Joon Ho deliver a film that is as somber as the latter’s recent “Snowpiercer”. But with a far more realistic setting and less of Bong’s trademark wry humor, “Sea Fog” packs a thunderous emotional whallop.
Much like Bong was confronted with when shooting an ambitious film within the limitations of a train, Shim and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (also the DP on “Snowpiercer”) are tasked with running the audience through a gauntlet of thrills and emotions within the confines of a small fishing boat. The brooding weather, which veers from stark daylight and ominous night to thick batches of creeping fog, ably amplifies the foreboding tone of the film. Equally impressive is the claustrophobic interior lensing. Every shot is permeated with a dank warmth that acts as a refuge from the literal and figurative tempests that take place on deck before turning the space into an oppressive tangle of burning pipes offering no exit from the encroaching terror. Throughout, the fluidity between shots, which evolve as actors move within or in and out of frame with clear precision, makes the film’s visual tone rich and expressive.