Sea Fog (2014) by Shim Sung-Bo

Shim Sung-Bo takes the helm of the powerful maritime disaster movie "Sea Fog".



The phrase "Based on a True Story" is something that is perhaps an overused commodity these days in cinema. The essential nature of film is to entertain and so, the further a film progresses the further it can move from the original event to the point where it retains only a passing resemblance to what inspired it, and can be purely a marketing tool. "Sea Fog", whilst stemming from a true story, acts as a powerful piece of cinematic entertainment that looks at how circumstance can have a devastating effect on human behaviour and on the essential need to survive.

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Due to an accident on board that sees Captain Cheol-joo (Kim Yoon-seok) having to sever the mechanics operating the netting to save one of his crew, the 69-ton fishing vessel Jeonjinho fails to make a good catch. To make more money, the crew decides to smuggle thirty illegal immigrants into Korea. But things don't go according to plan when the Jeonjinho encounters heavy fog, rain and waves on its return journey, while also being chased by a ship from the South Korean Maritime Police. On orders from the captain, several crew members hide the illegal immigrants inside the fishing tank, where they are in danger of suffocating to death. Amid the chaos, the youngest crew member Dong-sik (Park Yoo-chun) tries to protect a young female migrant Hong Mae (Han Ye-ri), whom he'd fallen in love with


The crew's dehumanization is foreshadowed by the character vignettes that we see in the opening acts. Boatswain Ho-young is swift to subordinate his emotions to his Captain's orders. Chan-wook and Kyung-koo cease to see the refugees as human and become sexually obsessed with  Hong-mae. Whilst reverting to base archetypes, the individual actors play their parts well in the mounting tension. The claustrophobic settings of the fish tank and engine room add to the mounting sense of entrapment experienced by Dong-sik and Hong-Mae. Park Yoo-chun as Dong-sik is the audience-identification figure. Initially naive and withdrawn, his increasing attraction to Hong-Mae provides the character with depth and is played winningly. Han Ye-ri has a natural earthiness as Hong-Mae and fleshes out a character that is thinly drawn to engage sympathy.

Based on an actual incident in 2001, the dangers fraught in human smuggling have a global resonance with regular stories appearing about maritime tragedies. Whilst the triggering incident here is accidental, the fall-out is what really provides the sense of tragedy with the crew increasingly becoming lost, metaphorically, in the sea fog of the title. This cynical attitude to human nature is a reflection of scriptwriter and producer Bong Joon-Ho, whose films tend to have a bleak world view, which is on full show here.


By spending time with the crew beforehand, we at least get to understand their situation. Kim Yoon-seok as  Captain Cheol-joo has the biggest arc here. His wife openly cheats in front of him and his employers wan to capitalise on selling fishing boats for subsidy. His ship is in effect his life and not just his livelihood and so one can see why he would resort to human smuggling to be able to keep it. When circumstance threatens, it almost becomes inevitable that he will resort to extreme measures to maintain the life he knows and understands. His final scene has a sort of desperate humanity to it as he fights against the inevitable.

Whilst the second act does descend somewhat into maritime disaster movie clichés, it cannot be denied that it is impressively filmed by Shim Sung-Bo. Making up for a lack of subtlety by cranking up through the gears, it is a thrill-ride for the final act, as Dong-sik seeks to protect Hong-Mae from the rest of the crew. The ending is nicely played, alluding to a passing comment made earlier about the fate of other sea folk and concluding with a nicely ambiguous final shot.


"Sea Fog" is very much a film of two halves, with the former developing the characters and circumstance before the triggering action that kicks of the second act descents into madness, alongside the standard disaster movie traits. Held together by some strong performances and taut direction, it provides an emotionally manipulative wallop.



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Asian Film Vault: Sea Fog (2014) by Shim Sung-Bo
Sea Fog (2014) by Shim Sung-Bo
Shim Sung-Bo takes the helm of the powerful maritime disaster movie "Sea Fog".
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