Desperate for money Captain Kang (Kim Yoon-seok) agrees to smuggle several dozen Chinese immigrants into South Korea using his dilapidated fishing boat, the Junjiho. After a dangerous rendezvous at sea in which one of the immigrants – a young woman named Hong-mae (Han Ye-rin) – falls into the water and nearly drowns before being saved by the Junjiho’s youngest crew member Dong-sik (Park Yu-chun), the ship is boarded for a customs inspection and Kang orders the illegals to hide in the Junjiho’s fish hold. After the customs man has departed Kang orders the hold reopened but inside a ghastly discovery awaits. Every one of the immigrants has died, suffocated by the gas from a burst freon pipe. All too aware of the consequences if he’s discovered by the authorities with a boatload of dead immigrants Kang order the bodies to be chopped up and dumped overboard. But when he discovers that Hong-mae has survived because Dong-sik took pity on her and hid her in the engine room the pair are plunged into a desperate fight for survival as the Junjiho drifts into a fogbank.
Granted, such a bald description of the ghastly goings on here makes Sea Fog sound like pure melodrama but as co-written by Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, Snowpiercer) this is another of Bong’s character-driven studies about a tight knit group of people whose true nature is gradually revealed after their attempt to transport a group of immigrants goes from bad to worse and, once the sea fog rolls in and leaves the ship stranded, into something that is truly the stuff of nightmares. It’s a terrific debut from director Shim Sung-bo who doesn’t waste any time in delineating the harsh nature of the crew’s work, the dangerous condition of the Junjiho, the ship’s hierarchy (with the brutish Kang at the top and Dong-sik, notably the only crew member with any education and sensitivity/empathy for others, at the bottom and the dire financial conditions that have reduced Kang to someone who prizes his ship above all else. You can tell just how inured Kang has become to human relationships when on his return home he sees his wife having sex with another man and doesn’t bat an eyelid (the story is set in 1998 at the height of the Asian financial crisis when South Korea was being bailed out by the International Monetary Fund).
All this is a recipe for disaster and so it proves when the crew of the Junjiho, having taken aboard their human cargo (a crackerjack sequence set in the midst of a rainstorm), are confronted by educated and truculent guests. The well-meaning but clueless crew members offer them ready meals but a spokesman for the group rejects them out of hand, “Don’t eat those” he says, “They’re heavily salted. They’ll only make you thirsty.” As suspicion and antagonism escalates between the two groups just how coarse Kang has become to suffering becomes clear when he violently attacks the illegal’s leader and orders the crew to throw the troublemaker overboard. Kang included, none of the characters here are much more than thumbnail sketches, basic types you might say. But the unfolding drama has such a primal feel to it that a cast of characters defined more or less by single traits seems perfectly appropriate and they quickly garner our emotional involvement. It’s easy to share Hong-mae’s fearful apprehension when she’s invited to shelter in the engine room by Dong-sik, just as we’re touched at the latter’s desire to protect Hong-mae from crewmates who only have sex with the two women on their minds. We equally understand the willingness of the group’s sole other – older and more knowing – female member to trade her body with the crew if it means getting out of the cold and into the warm engine room. We’re moved by the grief that overcomes one of the ship’s crew following the disposal of the bodies as he desires to atone by informing the relatives of the dead what happened to their loved ones. Needless to say, he doesn’t last long. By the time the fogbank rolls in it’s as if morality itself has gotten obscured, the ship’s lighting takes on a sickly, sulphurous tint and you can just feel the film turn into this elemental struggle for survival as Kang orders his crew to hunt down Hong-mae and Dong-sik.
It’s gripping stuff and Shim Sung-bo’s confident direction socks over moments such as Hong-mae peering bug-eyed over the rim of a cabin door at a crew busy throwing the severed limbs of her companions over the ship’s side or when Hong-mae and Dong-sik bond over differences in preparing a meal (something neatly referenced in the film’s final scene). Even a spot of love making between the two which could easily have seemed risible given the horrors going on around them actually works, both in terms of their convincing affection for each other and as the need for an affirmation of life over death. Hong-mae and Dong-sik are the emotional heart of the film and we really root for them not just to escape safely but to stay together afterward. I was really struck here by the way Sung-bo twists the survival theme into that of possession, as capturing Hong-mae becomes for the surviving crew members not merely about killing her but about having her physically. That’s a genre cliche to be sure but as with Kim Yoon-seok’s Captain, whose fate is to be dragged into a watery grave along with his sinking ship, Sung-bo manages to infuse such cliches with primal force. Even our last sight of Captain Kang evokes not so much satisfaction at a monster getting his just desserts as sympathy for a man broken because of circumstances beyond his control. A coda set six years later in which Dong-sik, now working at a construction job in Seoul, finishes work and in a cafe spots a woman sitting with her back to him who might just be Hong-mae, is a marvel of teasing ambiguity as the director shrewdly leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether or not Dong-sik has found his lost love. Highly recommended.