Adi Iskandar dives into the unseen to discover the unknown.
Can the case be made for the one-film auteur? Though ‘Sea Fog’ is the directorial debut of Shim Sung-bo, a significant part of the promotional efforts have focused on its producer, Bong Joon-ho. Bong has garnered for himself a lot of goodwill with consistently strong efforts over the years, ranging from the likes of ‘The Host’ to ‘Snowpiercer’, his English language debut.
We go back, however, to Shim. Going beyond that, we take a trip in the DeLorean and go back to 2003, revisiting memories of ‘Memories of Murder’. He was the writer for that Bong-directed text, and in that regard, some similarities could be drawn between these two films. For now, though, let’s put a pin on the auteur-shaped thought for now.
‘Sea Fog’ tells of the crew of Jeonjinho, a huge boat with very little fishing returns. Times are tough, the crew returning from the sea with ever diminishing returns. Its captain, Cheol-joo (Kim Yoon-seok), decides to correct things with incorrect things: by agreeing to smuggle illegal immigrants into the country. Unfortunately, as things are wont to happen on such endeavours, they don’t quite go to plan, having to overcome obstacles such as the state, its elements and the elements at large.
Back to that pin, then. In both ‘Sea Fog’ and ‘Memories’, there are strong political connotations (and denotations) that could be drawn to link one another. In ‘Memories’, correlations are made between the political regime du jour in the setting, offering a glimpse of life in 1980s Korea. To be more specific, references were made to the Gwangju massacre, which elucidated some of the finer points of a serial killer story. The fact remains, though, that that story was set in a time of great uncertainty and no small lack of faith, especially in the major institutions of authority.
‘Sea Fog’ has a similarly cynical view in that regard. In one scene, a naval inspector boarded the Jeonjinho as they were caught drifting into international waters. Upon closer inspection, we are led to believe that the boat’s more clandestine operations would be uncovered, and that they are doomed for. However, Cheol-joo just about manages to swing the situation with a little bit of cash. More to the point, he also uses very threatening manners as a way of kicking off the inspector of the boat. Though part of this is showboating (if you can excuse that pun), this is the performing of a certain role he saw for himself, as that of a dictator.
A later scene affirms this. Discovering that Dong-sik (Park Yoo-chun) had been keeping Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri) in the engine room, he completely lost control of himself as a way of keeping control. This paradox created an aura of fear, one that was challenged by Dong-sik. However, Cheol-joo does not take to this challenge kindly, and promptly ordered for the outright murder of Hong-mae. Dong-sik tried to appeal Ho-young (Kim Sang-ho), tasked with carrying out that order. All of that failed spectacularly, however; as Dong-sik pointed out how this is a murderous and illegal act, Ho-young simply replied, without skipping a beat: “I know.”
What I think I know, then, is that this film is partly an attempt to deal with some kind of trauma that lingered from some years ago. I am not sure how entirely correct this assessment is, but in watching again a number of Korean films, I am particularly struck by the incredibly hyper characterisations. In particular, portrayals of gender and sexuality seems to have moved beyond the red limit, with violent and physically aggressive males acting out an extreme level of what they consider to be masculine.
This is not a perfect example, but in watching ‘The Berlin File’ recently, I am struck by how helpless Jeon Ji-hyun’s character, Jung-hee, is. This is an actress who broke new ground with the film ‘My Sassy Girl’, whose female protagonist/antagonist made life that bit more difficult for many Korean males everywhere, especially when it comes to expressions of romance.
The point I am making here is that gender becomes highly polarised on Korean silver screens, with women being reduced to little more than damsels in distress to be rescued. That is also the case here with Hong-mae; in other scenes the female body was traded as sexual currency for warmer confines in the engine room. Sex and its emasculating powers are nearly everywhere, affecting even the captain’s sense of self-esteem. On an earlier trip in the film, he returned home with little to show for his efforts. Walking into his home, he finds another man banging his wife. She didn’t even attempt to hide or deny anything once she was caught, carrying with her an air of devil-may-care attitude, perhaps one fostered by being married to a financially challenged man.
It was this that prompted Cheol-joo to embark on such a mission to begin with. Set against the background of a crippling economy (a television report talked about the IMF crisis which occurred in the late 90s; unless, of course, they meant Tom Cruise’s band of rogue secret agents instead of the International Monetary Fund). He didn’t really want to traffic people over illegally, but the fact remains that the situation forced his hand. A case could be made, therefore, that there is a link in the weakening of the economy to the emasculation of male power in the film, which are therefore expressed by way of extreme reactions as evidenced above.
The fog, then, is not simply a metaphorical tool used to designate the clouding of the minds of men (as it descended, the crew members fall deeper and deeper into the abyss). On a literal and visual level, it becomes a haze that makes things more ambiguous. Where did they come from? Where are they now, and where do they, not only as men, but as a nation and people, go from here? This uncertainty, enhanced even further by the presence of the gendered other (“A woman on the boat? That’s bad luck!”), fuels the story to its predictably tragic end.
There’s plenty more I feel can be deduced from different angles in the reading of this film, but the fact remains that I feel this is a film worthy of its status as Korea’s Oscar submission not that long ago. More to the point, Andrew Sarris may have deemed only those who have consistently created quality works of art with a definitive world view to be regarded as an auteur. I believe that while Shim Sung-bo may not really follow that criteria all that well in terms of the number of films he has directed, overall there is a strong and critical approach I can appreciate.
And in that regard, I tip my captain’s hat.
Adi thinks of Jamie Cullum every time he hears the phrase ‘all at sea’.
Featured image credit: Teacher at Sea