TIFF Review: Haemoo (해무)

Image courtesy of TIFF
Image courtesy of TIFF

Haemoo (해무) was the fourth Korean film to score a spot in the Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) Gala Presentation program, the other’s being last year’s Cold Eyes (감시자들); The Housemaid (하녀) in 2010; and The Good, The Bad, The Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈) in 2008.  


Haemoo is a dark character-driven blockbuster set almost entirely on a fishing boat. Based on a true story from 2001 that inspired a play in 2007, and then adapted into a film which is set in 1998, not long after the IMF financial crisis of 1997. When the crew of a fishing boat comes back to port with less fish then they wanted, the captain decides to smuggle illegal immigrants into Korea from China in order to make more money and keep his boat.

But nothing goes according to plan from the heavy rain during the transfer of the illegals to the coast guard stopping them on their journey. However, it’s not until tragedy strikes that the film really takes a turn for the dark. Added into the mix is a budding romance between the youngest crew member, Dong Sik, and a young female illegal immigrant that he saved after she fell into the ocean and then decided to protect for the remainder of the journey.

My Thoughts

The film starts by quickly giving an indication of the crew member’s and captain’s characters which was interesting. In fact, the first 10-15 minutes or so of the film does such a good job of setting everything up. We not only get a glimpse of the characters and what drives them but it also quickly sets the stage for what’s to come. I might be extrapolating but I’ve started to notice that Korean films are adding little explanations or tidbits to their stories that make them easier for international audiences to understand and follow them.

In Haemoo, it was the mention of IMF and how it was influencing the Korean economy at the time. But I could also be seeing what I want to see as well (I’ve been known to do that). IMF may simply have been to mentioned to explain to all audiences why the captain took on a smuggling gig without making him simply look like a criminal.

Of course it couldn’t be simple smuggling trip involving illegal immigrants (is there such a thing?) so during the transfer from the Chinese ship to the Korean boat, the female lead – Hong Mae played by Han Ye Ri (한예리) – doesn’t make the jump and ends up falling into the ocean. This sets the stage for the youngest member of the crew, Dong Sik played surprisingly well by Park Yoochun (박유천), to rescue her… and fall for her. And that was just the start of the drama.

However, it wasn’t all drama and adversity in this dark, character-driven film. There were some lighter, funny moments as well, including one of the best lines I’ve heard in a while – “It’s just in Korea, girls have many kinds of oppas.” Turns out this line may have been foreshadowing for the ending but again, I may be reaching again.

[Editor’s note: “oppa (오빠)” means older brother in Korean and is used by females to reference guys who are older than them but not necessarily their brother as it’s also used for friends and boyfriends.]

While the deaths of the illegal immigrants were accidental, it also marks a turning point in the film. Even knowing that the illegal immigrants in the film were going to die (it was based on a true story), it was still a shock to see all the dead bodies when they opened the fish hold. Everyone died except the young girl. But if I thought that was a shock, nothing prepared me for seeing the captain start hacking up the dead bodies. I literally jumped in my seat. It was brutal, in large part because I wasn’t expecting it. The almost casual way most of the crew approached it was hard to watch. That being said, I liked the camera angles during this scene. In fact, the cinematography during the entire film was extremely well done.

I think one of the reasons I liked Haemoo so much was that it kept surprising me. Most of the main characters were at least slightly amoral – I mean, who can comfortably chop up a body, even a dead body, so casually? – except Dong Sik and the engineer, so it was hard to connect with them. But the story, the story rocked – it was dark, compelling and kept me from being complacent. Just when I thought I wasn’t going to be surprised again, something else would happen. And while I didn’t like seeing them chop up the dead bodies (notice I keep mentioning it), that was nothing compared to seeing the captain almost casually kill his engineer – someone he knew and worked with for quite some time.

But I think the biggest surprise was when Hong Mae left Dong Sik on the beach. After all they went through… really? 

Yet, of all the Korean films I saw at TIFF, Haemoo inspired the most conversation about its ending. Everyone had a different interpretation of the ending and what it meant. I found it intriguing how many different ways the ending was viewed. As for me, I think the ending can be tied into the “oppa” comment… and she was heading to Korea to be with her boyfriend, not her brother as she said. That she used Dong Sik and was already pregnant (the seasickness) when she started the affair with him for protection. 

Final Thoughts

Regardless on how I saw the ending, any film that inspires so much conversation afterwards is a good one in my books. Haemoo is a well-acted, dark, compelling film that will suck you in and not let you go until the final scene. Definitely worth a watch! 

Have you seen Haemoo? What did you think of it? How did you see the ending?

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday – this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it’s taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I’m the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

3 thoughts on “TIFF Review: Haemoo (해무)

  • September 22, 2014 at 10:54 pm

    I’m so glad you reviewed this film. I’m really curious about it. I’m still not sure if I can stomach watching. But no english subtitles yet anyway so I don’t have a choice.

    Great review!

    • September 22, 2014 at 11:58 pm

      Thanks! 🙂 It was good but only hard to watch during a couple of scenes. I hope you get a chance to see it.

  • March 22, 2015 at 5:14 am

    I had goosebumps reading your review regarding hong mae. I ac2ly had the same thinking about her. Im glad that there is someone who is having that understanding about the story.


We want to hear what you think!

%d bloggers like this: