Haemoo – South Korean for “sea fog” – is a deceptive film; despite initially presenting itself as a people-smuggling drama, loosely based on a 2001 real-life tragedy, it’s in fact smuggling a carefully-crafted tragicomic thriller. The initial framing of its smuggler protagonists as desperate souls soon gives way to overt, melodramatic villainy – rape, violence and a total absence of human sympathy.
Villainy necessitates heroism, of course, incarnated in the form of one Dong-sik (Park Yoochun), the youngest crew member of the shipping-turned-smuggling vessel and, apparently, the only one with a working moral compass. Haemoo offers a scathing commentary on those who would prioritise profit over human compassion – a political perspective that resonates strongly in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis – but is just as interested in personal drama and brutal action.
Shim Sung-bo, captaining his first feature film, confidently navigates the screenplay’s choppy narrative waters, adapting his aesthetic to suit the often-jarring changes in tone. As the extent of the tragedy unfolds, for example, the lightness drains from the picture for a deep, all-consuming darkness amongst the titular fog. Those tonal shifts make for a peculiarly uninviting experience, however; I found it difficult to keep my footing in these tempestuous seas.