There are few countries in the world cranking out films with the consistency of quality of South Korea. Over the last fifteen years, filmmakers like Chan-wook Park (Old Boy), Jee-woon Kim (I Saw The Devil), Joon-Ho Bong (Snowpiercer), and others have turned the country into one of the finest cinema factories in the global market. After Haemoo, a new name can be added to the list in Sung-Bo Shim. Well, even though he’s new to directing, he’s not really new to this world having previously worked as Bong’s screenwriting partner (Bong also serves as producer here). Yet, for any director to deliver a project as moving, thrilling, unpredictable, morally complex, and just plain entertaining as Haemoo with one swing of the bat is still a remarkable achievement. Haemoo is a wonderful piece of work and yet another reason why South Korea has fast become one of the great movie centers on the planet. Hit the jump to find out why.
Despite coming from a background in genre film as a screenwriter, Haemoo clings to no tropes or established thrills. Instead it tells a contemporary tale, with all of the action, emotion, and drama of some of the most heightened Korean genre films. Reduced to its most basic element, Haemoo is a movie about a boat. More specifically, it’s about a fishing boat with an impoverished crew who agree to smuggle some illegal Chinese immigrants into South Korea out of desperation. It’s clearly a sketchy situation from the start, combining two separate collections of desperate lost souls into a claustrophobic setting and then waiting for things to go horrendously wrong. Inevitably that wrong happens, yet in such a shocking, dramatic, and movie-shifting manner that it would be unfair to get into specific details. Suffice to say the film quickly shifts out of mild swashbuckling and smuggling into something far more horrifying.
The plot comes ripped from a true story and while Sung-Bo Shim and his writing partner Joon-ho Bong are respectful to the material and careful to at least explain everyone’s motivations, it’s not a placid docudrama unafraid to embrace it’s genre elements. The film is a big wild ride, filled with the radical tonal shifts that Bong is known for. Haemoo can feel like a comedy in one scene, a romance in the next, and then turn into action movie moments later without ever coming across as tonally inconsistent. Shim is always steadily in control, with his eye aimed on eventual tragedy. The way the co-writer/director shifts his film on a dime halfway through is an undeniably impressive bit of storytelling. The shock effect is undeniable, and the sudden transformation into a deeply dark thriller from that point on (and does it between characters whom we’ve come to embrace) elevates the movie instantly. Shim may never have stepped behind the camera before, but he already has a gift for subverting expectations and manipulating conventions without ever sacrificing the reality of the piece.
He’s also a more than capable visual stylized, creating some beautiful imagery out of a single cramped location and easily weaving between well over a dozen characters through perpetually moving cameras without a moment of confusion. His film walks a delicate line between visceral cinematic thrills and complex emotional trauma, yet never seems to struggle at balancing the two. It’s a remarkably effective debut and if my description of precisely why seems vague, that’s purely because it deserves to be experienced through unfamiliar eyes. That’s when you’re putty in Shim’s hands and by the time he’s done, you’ll stumble out of the theater an emotional wreck. But at least you’ll know you’ve seen something special, vital, and of the moment. Hopefully Shim will be just as productive a filmmaker as his preceding countrymen, because he already added a welcome and fresh flavor to the South Korean cinematic stew.
Click here for all of our TIFF 2014 coverage. Click on the links below for our other TIFF 2014 reviews:
- Force Majeure
- The Humbling
- Mr. Turner
- The Tale of Princess Kaguya
- What We Do in the Shadows