Director: Shim Sung-Bo
Writer: Shim Sung-Bo, Bong Joon-Ho
Cast: Kim Yun-Seok, Park Yoo-Chun, Han Ye-Ri, Lee Hee-Joon, Moon Sung-Geun, Kim Sang-Ho, Yoo Seung-Mok
Running Time: 111 min.
By Kyle Warner
I think Memories of Murder deserves to be in the conversation of the finest films ever made. Dark, thrilling, funny, and almost poetic, it’s the movie that made me a fan of director/co-writer Bong Joon-ho, who did not disappoint when he followed up that masterwork with other great titles like The Host, Snowpiercer, and Mother. But one of the voices behind the making of Memories of Murder that never got the same level of acclaim that Bong did was co-writer Shim Sung-bo. Since Memories of Murder, Shim has directed a couple of short films, but has largely remained an unknown to most viewers. Now, with his feature directorial debut Sea Fog (aka Haemoo), Shim steps up and presents himself as one of the most promising new directors in Korean cinema. And, like that modern classic Memories of Murder, Shim shared the writer’s room with the great Bong Joon-ho to help bring the dark story to life.
Sea Fog is a story of desperation. The characters are desperate to make a living, desperate to escape hardship, desperate to evade the law, desperate to survive. It’s downbeat, has the heart of pitch black film noir, and takes you in directions you wouldn’t expect.
The fishermen of the boat Jeonji aren’t catching much these days. Captain Kang (Kim Yun-seok) has a wife who is cheating on him, his rusty boat is now owned by the bank, and he has to beg the boss for money to pay his crew. Without so much as consulting his crew, Kang agrees to use the boat to pick up illegal immigrants coming out of China and smuggle them back into South Korea. What begins simple enough takes a turn when the illegals challenge the sailors, who are obviously out of their depth.
When a horrible accident occurs, the fishermen try their best to cover things up for fear of facing jail time. It’s then that things shift from a dark (sometimes politically charged) drama to a thriller, as already desperate men lose their humanity and inch closer to madness. Captain Kang, who had once seemed like a sympathetic figure, becomes merciless and cold. Some of his crew, now reduced to their base nature, obsess over money or the women among the illegal immigrants. Only one crewman, Dong-sik (Park Yoo-chun) remains largely himself throughout the ordeal. Even so, the young Dong-sik must decide how far is to go in order to survive the increasingly desperate scenario.
Sea Fog is based on a stage play, which itself was inspired by a sad true story. Like many stage play adaptations, Sea Fog has one primary set. But unlike many stage play adaptations, we never really take notice of the limited sets and locations. The boat is big and it’s surrounded by that cold, black ocean. Filmed beautifully by cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (The Wailing), Sea Fog plays bigger than its surroundings might suggest. When the fog rolls in, strange colors shine through the mist, giving the film the surreal appearance of a film noir nightmare.
The cast is largely excellent. Kim Yun-seok (The Chaser) has made a career of playing anti-heroes and likeable villains, and Captain Kang fits somehow into both categories. It’s an intimidating performance, made all the better by the fact that Kim saves the major outbursts for the finale. Perhaps most impressive is Park Yoo-chun (Sungkyunkwan Scandal) as the innocent and inexperienced Dong-sik. Han Ye-ri (Commitment) is very good as the film’s central Korean-Chinese immigrant, giving her character enough individuality so that she is not just a damsel. And character actor Mun Seong-kun (Green Fish) is memorable in one of the film’s most showy roles, that of the boat’s old-timer engineer who starts losing his mind when the worst happens.
If the script lacks subtlety in the final act, then at least you can say that it might endear itself more to thriller/horror fans that’ve come to expect a certain level of the extreme from Korean genre movies. I did not mind this shift in tone to a bloodier, high-pitched thriller. I do have to question the ending, however. Sea Fog ends with an extended epilogue, which felt unneeded especially after what would’ve been an excellent final shot.
A film with dark moral dilemmas and increasingly raised stakes, Sea Fog is the sort of movie that’s almost impossible to look away from. It also unfolds in an unexpected way, taking you on strange detours from the storyline that you were probably expecting. It’s an excellent thriller for fans of co-writer Bong Joon-ho, who explores more of the theme of class warfare seen earlier in Snowpiercer. For writer/director Shim, Sea Fog is one hell of a feature debut, and is hopefully a hint of more good things to come.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 8/10