Haemoo’s premise suggests a promising fusion of Mutiny on the Bounty and A Simple Plan, as it features a rueful, charismatic seaman who’s followed his idealism to the brink of professional oblivion, and threatens to alienate his crew with a morally murky make-or-break decision. Captain Kang (Kim Yun-seok) is a fisherman in South Korea in 1998, which is, along with most of the rest of Asia, in the midst of a fiscal downturn that’s partially due to the influx of legal and illegal immigrants alike. It’s ironic then, when Kang, out of desperation, turns to a shady contact and arranges to smuggle a group of Chinese passengers into Korea for a sum of money that can temporarily sate Kang’s bosses, who’re tired of fronting him expenses for undelivered product.
The film’s early scenes emit an atmospheric charge: Director Shim Sung-bo savors the gorgeous oceanic vistas as well as the contrastingly quotidian details of the living arrangements aboard Kang’s boat, the Junjin. Kang’s crewman are memorably shown fashioning small bedrooms out of quilts, TVs, books, and nude pictures, as well as fastidiously cooking stir fries or tending to the various intensely physical tenants of their jobs. As in most films set aboard a seafaring vessel, the tools of the crew’s trade are fetishized in close-ups of hooks, pulleys, ladders, and various clanking gears. These details imbue the otherwise stock characterizations (each fisherman has a single trait, at best; there’s a naïve one, a horny one, a greedy one, and so on) with an element of verisimilitude, priming the audience for a confident, astutely textured thriller.
But the film fails to lift off from this sturdy aesthetic launching pad; it never allows the characters, however stock, to evolve in their respective dealings with one another, which is the primary source of tension and escalation for a thriller set in a confined place. Shim slips into a predictable alternation between a fatally dull hero, Dong-sik (Park Yoo-chun), and his forbidden Chinese love interest, Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri), and the various crewmen who turn, disappointingly, into a coterie of anonymous baddies. From roughly the midpoint of the film on, right after an amusingly tense and mercenary exchange between Kang and an equally corrupt international fisherman, every scene suddenly lasts twice as long as it should, as Shim continues to savor the pageantry of the boat, and the tedious purity of Dong-sik and Hong-mae’s blossoming relationship, at the expense of more interesting characters, particularly Kang, who’s finally accorded a wonderful exit after a mostly repetitive second half. The politics of the boat as it reaches calamity are mostly reduced to a singular urge to kill one character, and this progression registers as artlessly and inexplicably speedy after so much dilly-dallying with both the set design and Dong-sik, who’s so insufferably noble as to inadvertently compel one to sympathize with the marauders.