(A.k.a. HAEMOO [original title])
A modest fish trawler called Jeonjinho sails across the open seas, its small Korean crew heading towards China in the hoping of catching a healthy lot of fish to sell. The crew of this vessel - grizzled captain Kang (Kim Yoon-seok), veteran fishermen Ho yeong (Kim Sang-ho), Kyung-koo (Yoo Seung-mok), Chan-wook (Hee-joon Lee), Wan-ho (Seong-kun Mun) and younger boatmate Dong-sik (Park Yoochun) - toil, bicker, laugh, eat and even watch sports on a portable TV below deck together.
The opening journey ends up being a good one: the men are able to return Korean shores early, such is the quality of their haul. On land, we learn a little of each man's backgrounds and the issues which help define them (cheating spouses; money woes; penchants for call girls; hiding from debt collectors; caring for elderly relatives etc).
Kang in particular is in the shit. He owes big on a loan, his takings for the last year were meagre, his wife has remortgaged their family restaurant behind his back, and despite his increasing debt he desperately wants to be his decrepit old boat Jeonjinho back from its current owner.
Before too long, it's time for Kang and crew to venture back out into Chinese waters. Ignoring the coastguard's warning that the weather forecast isn't good, and later radio reports of waves due that may reach up to four metres in height, the sailors know they each need to get out there and bring home some sellable fish.
Once out a sea, Kang drops a bombshell on his colleagues: he's agreed to smuggle thirty Chinese-Korean immigrants from China into Korea. His crew members are understandably resistant to this but ultimately agree to participate - partly out of respect for their captain, but more so (no doubt) after sizing up the huge case advance Kang places into each fisherman's hands.
That night, the Jeonjinho meets in raging waters with another boat and a handover of immigrants takes place, the illicit human cargo literally jumping from one vessel to the other. Among the stowaways are two women, which no-one expected - even Kang exclaims "Shit!" when he spies them on the neighbouring boat. The first, Yool-nyeo (Kyng-sook Jo) makes the leap onto Jeonjinho with relative ease. For Hong-mae (Ye-ri Han), however, it's a different story. She falls into the water and looks to be a goner ... until Dong-sik leaps in to the crashing waves to save her.
As things settle down and the sailors get their cargo in place on their vessel, Dong-sik and Hong-mae strike up a rapport. A chilled-out evening ensues with fishermen and refugees sharing stories.
The following morning is a different matter when a boat is spotted heading their way. The sailors panic and instruct the immigrants to hide in their vessel's fish hold - a below-deck storage facility which is pitch-black and filled with dead fish. Packed in like sardines, the stowaways are understandably relieved when the aforementioned boat passes and they're allowed back on deck once more.
Not for long though. The immigrants complain about being holed up in the fish hold. Kang cracks, beats their spokesperson and orders them all back in to the stinky pit. In the furore that ensues while they're ushered back down below deck, Dong-sik is able to sneak Hong-mae into the relative comfort of the boat's engine room. Oh yes, a romance is blossoming ...
But then, a maritime police boat pays Jeonjinho a visit and an altercation between Kang and its corrupt chief leads us to forget about the stowaways for a short while. When the lid of the fish hold is next removed ... well, tragedy awaits.
And the worst is yet to come.
SEA FOG is the directorial feature debut of Shim Sung-bo, writer of the phenomenal MEMORIES OF MURDER. Here, he's flanked by that film's director, Bong Joon-ho, who not only co-wrote this screenplay with Shim but also produces.
The film is adapted from a 2007 stage play, which itself is based upon an actual event from 2001 where 25 illegal immigrants suffocated in the storage tank of a fishing vessel named Taechangho.
It's a stylish, engaging and emotionally powerful piece, one which takes time to invest in its central characters during the first hour (synopsised above) and then brings on the dark drama during its second half. Always beautiful to look at, thanks to Hong Kyung-pyo's stunning photography and Shim's slick direction, it nevertheless haunts with its casual portrayal of man's willingness to profit over caring for fellow human beings.
Performances are great across the board; editing is tight and the way the film builds, with natural levels of pathos, humour and practicality throughout, is entirely feasible. The romance between Dong-sik and Hong-mae is a little contrived perhaps, a little TITANIC, but that's a really minor grumble, believe me.
Taking in prescient themes such as political corruption, economic crisis, racism, loyalty, faith and capitalism, SEA FOG is a genuinely involving, painterly piece which I highly recommend.
The film was South Korea's official selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Academy Awards. It never actually got nominated (the award went to Polish drama IDA).
I'm pleased to say that this movie has been brought to UK blu-ray by 88 Films.
SEA FOG is presented uncut and in its original 2.40:1 ratio. Its running time is 110 minutes and 53 seconds. The 16x9 transfer benefits from full 1080p HD resolution, and is housed as a healthily sized MPEG4-AVC file on this dual layered Region B disc.
Images are crisp and clean, the film's blue-hued colour correction during storm scenes gives it a naturally dark appearance which is handled well here: there is a clear, solid flow to movement and blacks, while compression issues are reassuringly absent. Early day scenes are alive with vibrant colours.
Korean audio is available in options of LPCM stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Both are good, offering finely balanced playback. The latter is the way to go for that more bombastic, emotional and altogether cinematic experience. Optional English subtitles are well-written and always easy to read.
The disc opens to a static main menu page. There is no scene selection menu.
Bonus features consist of a Visual Effects reel and a new featurette on producer Bong.
The FX reel uses a split-screen technique to illustrate how digital artistry helped make the film's action look so convincing. It's basically a before-and-after showcase with no actual insight into the skills applied to generate such results. Set to the film's deceptively soothing piano score, this runs for just over 2 minutes.
"All about Bong" is a new 10-minute interview with Jean Noh, the deputy East Asia editor for Screen International. Noh has an agreeable nature as she speaks with haste, taking us through the filmmaker's illustrious career - "every film he's made has broken the mould of whatever genre he's working in" she opines. When considering the likes of MEMORIES OF MURDER, THE HOST, MOTHER etc, it's hard to argue. This featurette is an enjoyable 10 minutes in length.
This release comes in a keepcase packaging, with an additional card outer slipcase.
One to watch.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by 88 Films|