This week’s movie is about…erm…people smugglers. And if that doesn’t get you interested then…I…uh…will hold off on mentioning the other issue.
Kang Jeol-joo is a Trawler Captain. Back in the day, he was riding high, and even spent around $2,000 at a bar in one night. Those days are long gone. It is 1998 and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) Crisis is hitting South Korea hard. Trawling is not what it used to be, but Captain Kang and his crew of five do what they can. On this day, they are about to catch a bunch of pomfrets, but the net gets stuck in the drum winch and young crewmember Dong-sik gets his foot stuck in the net. They have to cut the net to free his foot and the pomfrets are lost. So the crew returns to land early having caught pretty much no fish.
This is bad enough for Captain Kang. He has to go get a loan from the couple who owns the boat, while fending off arguments by the wife who wants to hand it over to the government for reimbursement. And to top it off, he returns home to find his wife, Jae-hwa, having sex with another man in her otherwise empty restaurant. The man tries desperately to run off, but Kang is too exhausted to even care to chase him and she does not care at all, mocking him for neither being around or bringing in enough money. So he goes back to the boat to sleep in his quarters. When Kyung-koo brings a prostitute onto the ship for, an already emasculated Kang scolds him for bringing a girl onboard (bad luck) and then throws him some money for a motel room.
Unable to get a loan to buy back the boat, a desperate Kang goes over to Yeo, a boss of a local crime ring. He asks Yeo if there are any smuggling jobs out of China. Gold watches or whatever. Yeo has another offer: Korean-Chinese immigrants. Cheap labor for an otherwise unsustainable economy.
Okay, so this takes place in Dolsan, which is in the middle of the southern coast of South Korea. It is around 600 kilometers away from anywhere on the Chinese mainland and nearly 900 kilometers away from anywhere where these particular group of immigrants are probably coming from, on the other side of North Korea. But, since they will be taking these people from another boat, then that is an issue for the other boat captain. Yeo gives him the coordinates for the hand off and that is that. As payment upfront, he gives Kang a pair of “gold” watches and an envelope of actual cash. Kang asks what to do if the authorities board the ship. Just put the people in the fishhold. What if the authorities find the people? Well, then that is for him and his crew to work out.
Now, the crew is not averse to bending the rules. The chief engineer, Wan-ho, hides in the fishhold when a police officer does a headcount before they leave port. But people smuggling is a different deal, which is probably why Kang waits until they are well away from land before telling them. They are unhappy that he would put them in this much danger without consulting them, but Boatswain Ho-young argues that he did this because he cares for them. Chang-wook’s only contribution to the discussion is wondering whether there will be chicks. Kang arrives and gives them cash advances, promising the rest once they unload the immigrants.
It is a dark and rainy night when they notice a boat not too far away. So, they get closer and closer, eventually tying the two boats side by side. There are around thirty people in total coming aboard. There is no way for the people to walk from boat to boat, so they have to jump over the side.
There are a couple of women in the group, which delights the pervy Chang-wook, but upsets a superstitious Kang. One of them falls into the water before she can jump, and Dong-sik jumps in after her, which really upsets Kang. Dong-sik manages to find her and the rest of the crew is able to get them out of the water.
The rain has stopped and the crew hands out bowls of ramen and water to the immigrants. Almost all of them dig in immediately, but one of them throws out his share. He suspects that, instead of going straight to shore, that the crew are going to hold them in the fishhold for days and the ramen bowls will serve as makeshift toilets. Additionally, he says that the ramen will only make them thirsty. Some listen. Others don’t.
Dong-sik finds the woman who fell overboard and brings her to the engine room, saying that, while noisy, it is nice and warm. She is hesitant and a little suspicious, but she ultimately comes in. His actions are rather…foolish and questionable, but he tries to act decently towards her. She does eventually thank him for saving her life earlier, which he brushes off as just doing his duty as a sailor.
As Kang stops the boat to wait for a signal, Dong-sik goes to get some ramen for the woman. He asks if they have this in China. They do, sort of, not exactly like this. After some more back and forth, she tells him that her name is Hong-mae and she is going to Seoul to find her oppa, whom she has not heard from for six years. Dong-sik tries to subtly ask whether she means oppa as in older brother or oppa as in boyfriend, which initially confuses her, as she is probably ignorant about South Korean slang. She stands up to go back upstairs. Dong-sik offers to talk to Wan-ho about allowing her to stay inside. Hong-mae, though, does not feel right being there while everyone else is cold outside. She thanks him for the ramen and goes outside.
Hong-mae hangs out with the older woman, who assumes, as probably everyone else does, that she had sex with Dong-sik in the engine room. She tells Hong-mae to get a marriage certificate as soon as they arrive, so that she will not get deported, but Hong-mae tells her to stop it with that talk. The other woman leaves to relieve herself. Dong-sik finds Hong-mae sleeping and puts a blanket over her. Meanwhile, Kyung-koo approaches the other woman and brings her to the engine room for sex. Chang-wook peeps in, hoping for his turn. Ho-young arrives and puts a stop to all of this, kicking Kyung-koo several times and pushing the woman back outside.
Wan-ho and Dong-sik approach a man reading a book. Wan-ho asks him what he does. The man says that he was a grade school teacher. He says that he can make ten times more working Korea than he could in China, which makes Wan-ho chuckle. The man says that all of them are going to work and send money back home in China. He shows Wan-ho and Dong-sik a picture of his wife and daughters.
It is morning, and a boat approaches. The crew wakes up and Ho-young tells the immigrants to get into the fishhold. Dong-sik secretly offers to take Hong-mae to the engine room, but she refuses. The other woman accepts, but Hong-mae grabs her. So, the thirty people are trapped in the cramped, dark, and smelly fishhold as Captain Kang waits for the other boat to pass. They are gasping for air and many are gagging as they get back on the deck. Hong-mae vomits off the side. The passengers will not so willingly go back in there if there is a next time.
This movies is an adaptation of a stage play from 2007 that was itself loosely based on a true story from 2001. Right there, you might notice that the story is set a few years earlier, when South Korea was deep in the financial crisis and there was no sign of recovery in sight. This does provide an extra layer of desperation and decline to all of the characters. Some are just doing what it takes to survive, turning to more and more ethically and legally dubious methods. Others try to act like everything is fine or that everything will be fine if they just hold out a little bit longer. And others still are teetering on the edge of an indulgent despair.
This air of decay helps to explain why the characters are able to act so badly towards each other while also anticipating the worst. Everyone feels powerless, but will use what little power that they do have to get what they want, because they don’t know when they will get this chance again. This does not apply merely to purely practical matters. As the situation becomes more and more dangerous, some people give up on mere survival and their worst instincts start to take over. When bad goes to worse, the things that they hold dear take precedence over even their own safety, nevermind the safety of others. Sometimes seemingly normal people act abnormally during times of crisis, and traits that one had dismissed as quirks take over. You never quite know what people are capable of or incapable when the chips are down until they are down. Who are you when it seems like your world will end? Who are you when it seems like your world will end soon? Who are you when it seems like your world is ending? Who are you when it seems like your world has ended?
As a drama and a thriller, I quite enjoy this movie. Unfortunately, the romance subplot was clumsily shoehorned in, had little time to develop naturally and had somewhat uncomfortable undertones that would come across to me as cruelly ironic after I learned that Park Yoo-chun, who plays Dong-sik, was the subject of multiple sexual assault allegations in 2016. I believe that the charges were dropped, whatever that implies, but it leaves a bad taste regardless. It definitely does not help that he plays one of the few people who actually makes an effort to maintain his sense of human decency in these trying times. You could theoretically just pretend that the character is played by Song Joong-ki, who has been involved in no major scandals that I have heard of and had been originally offered the role before having to do his mandatory military service. That would be a lie, but…y’all, I don’t know. I was more than halfway through typing this up before I learned of this.
Awww…man, that took the wind out of my sails. I thought that I had more to say about this movie, but I guess that I don’t. Or I just no longer do. It is a good one, though.
WTF ASIA 117: Interrogation (India: 2015, approx. 116 minutes)
WTF ASIA 118: Robokon (Japan: 2015, approx. 118 minutes)