Handling tragedies as horrific as the deaths of 25 Chinese-Korean immigrants on the fishing vessel Taechangho in 2001 takes nuance, reflection, and honesty. “Sea Fog,” which follows the crew of that vessel (called Jeojinho in the movie), has one of these things: honesty. It makes no excuses for captain Kang Chul-joo (Yoon-Seok Kim) and his crew of mostly forgettable engineers and deckhands. By taking on an immigrant smuggling job before talking to his crew, Kang dooms his people when he wanted to help them.
Part of the movie’s problem is keeping those motivations shallow. A few conversations about his crap marriage, teetering financial situation, and the lack of good fishing give us a look at his surface motivations, but not what’s underneath. He’s a remarkably impersonal character who’s almost bipolar shifts between stoic disinterest and manic rage make more sense for what the story needs, rather than his character.
Same goes for his young protege Dong-sik (Yoo-chun Park), a perpetually babyfaced greenhorn who falls in love with Hong-mae (Ye-ri Han), one of the migrants they’re smuggling. Her brother, a Seoul resident, has fallen out of contact and she’s on her way from China to find him. While Dong-sik, along with the morally unflinching ship engineer, Wan-ho (Seong-kun Mun), is the movie’s strongest character.
That central romane, however, while sweet in spurts, bogs down what could have been an unflinching look at a little-known tragedy. Everything here is so serious, Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography so grave and sharp, the performances so weighty, that a shoehorned blockbuster romance cheapens the affair. Dong-sik’s need to be accepted as a vital member of the crew is more interesting and underexplored than his feelings for Hong-mae.
Add on the constant melodramatic score undercutting the movie’s tensest moments and “Sea Fog” becomes an unwilling blockbuster, one chock full of conventions that diminish the story’s salience. The performances all around are strong, but the characters are not. The story is resonant, but how it’s handled reeks of studio intervention. And the forced love story at “Sea Fog’s” heart feels like an attempt to humanize characters who didn’t have interesting qualities to begin with. Take out the music, take out the romance, and you’ve got something worthwhile. With “Sea Fog,” we have a promising sophomore feature from a burgeoning director.