Movie review: Sea tragedy Haemoo let down by poor ending

Rookie Park Yu Chun, who stars opposite actress Han Ye Ri (both above), is convincing in his big-screen debut as a country bumpkin. -- PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES
Rookie Park Yu Chun, who stars opposite actress Han Ye Ri (both above), is convincing in his big-screen debut as a country bumpkin. -- PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES

Review Drama thriller

HAEMOO (M18)

111 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***1/2

The story: During the Asian financial crisis in 1998, fishing vessel captain Kang Chul Joo (Kim Yoon Seok) is faced with the bleak prospect of losing his trawler and his crew their livelihood. Desperate times call for desperate measures - so Captain Kang and his crew agree to smuggle illegal immigrants for more income. Inevitably, the furtive sea mission ends in tragedy. Inspired by real-life events in 2001, when the bodies of 25 illegal Chinese immigrants were dumped into the sea after they died on board the Korean fishing vessel Taechangho.

This sea-faring tragedy was too hard for South Korean audiences to stomach, given the recent Sewol ferry sinking in April. Media outlets in the country reported that the movie suffered at the box office when it was released in August.

Still, the movie has earned critical acclaim and has been selected as South Korea's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming 87th Academy Awards.

Credit is due for key members of the cast - from veteran actor Kim Yoon Seok to rookie actor Park Yu Chun of boyband JYJ fame - for carrying the provocative and controversial story well.

In particular, Kim, who earned multiple best actor awards for playing a serial killer in The Chaser (2008), delivers a spot-on performance as the fatherly sea-weary captain whose composure eventually cracks under pressure.

His boyish co-star Park makes his big-screen debut in a role that is a radical change from his leading-man characters in idol dramas such as Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) and Rooftop Prince (2012).

Yet he betrays no whiff of being a fresh-faced K-pop star as the youngest crew member Dong Sik, a regular, nondescript country bumpkin.

In fact, he showcases his versatility, easily evolving from bashful admirer of Korean-Chinese immigrant Hong Mae (Han Ye Ri) to fearsome protector of his love interest.

Not all of the characters are well scripted, though. The black sheep among the crew is the one-dimensional deckhand Chang Wook (Lee Hee Jun), whose only concern is to get his sexual needs fulfilled, even at the most inopportune and unrealistic of moments.

Unfortunately, the movie veers off course with its melancholic denouement when it should have ended in the same gripping way as where all the action took place - out on the high seas.