Korean Film Sea Fog Isn’t What You Think

Korean Film Sea Fog Isn't What You Think - there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. Morality tales. IMF financial chaos. Dante's Inferno. The works.
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The other day I had some fun discussing the movie Sea Fever. It was a crazy movie about a sea monster and the devolution of an unfortunate group of seafarers. You should check it out if you haven’t seen it. And now, today, we are talking about the Korean film Sea Fog. But the best thing about this movie is that the Korean film Sea Fog Isn’t What You Think it is about. It’s a meta-story about something else entirely. So, if you watched Sea Fog, and you were a little baffled as to what might have been happening?… well, this is the post for you.

But first, you need to watch said film. Well, Tubi has it for free – right now anyway. Prime has it for a buck. So make sure you watch the film first before you continue further in this post. Because, what THiNC. is all about, is discussing movies with friends. Discussing the intimate details of the movie, and unraveling what they could possibly be about – especially when they aren’t about the thing you thought they might have originally been about. Or something. If you aren’t convinced yet…have a trailer:

Quick Sea Fog Movie Walkthrough

First, and importantly, the film Sea Fog takes place in 1998. Five fisherman, lead by their captain Kang Chul-joo (played by Kim Yoon-seok), head to sea in order to make a catch. But when they return empty handed, Chul-joo and his business, are in serious trouble. (Is every single boat movie about a nearly bankrupt boat?) But things get way more complicated when Kang Chul-joo finds his wife sleeping with a Chinese/Korean. And to top it off, the owner of his boat is totally happy just selling it. But! In order to save the ship Kang Chul-joo decides the way to save the boat is to begin smuggling Koreans across from China. Got it? That’s the setup.

This plan basically goes wrong from the start, and slowly devolves into the absolute worst case scenario. They pick up their “stowage” that has come from China in the dead of night, nearly losing them in the crazy waters. And when one of the stowaways, Hong-mea (played by Han Ye-rin), falls into the sea, Dong-sik (played by Park Yu-chun) dives in after her. Which, turns out to be a seminal moment in the film. It is this moment that cements the emotional arc of the entire film and creates a counterbalance to the rest of the ship’s hostility towards their wards. Heck, even the bickering and fighting between the fishermen (who, I might add, could there be any lower social status on the planet than fishermen?) and their stowage shows just how much these people are hated overall. There was one moment that made me laugh out loud – when one of the passengers yells back at a fisherman, “How can you treat your fellow Koreans even worse than the Chinese do??!” Hahahha. That is quite the indictment. And with that, the fisherman yells back at them that they are scum.

Sea Fog Half Time Break

Let’s get one thing clear. This movie has nothing to do with the sea. It’s not a story about a fishing company on the rocks. It’s not about foggy sea conditions! It’s 100% about social standards, assumptions, and the ruthlessness of societal hierarchies. Stop a moment. And think about the people you believe to be lower than you. Oh, come off it. You do it. Even if you try to immediately correct yourself. Is your garbage man beneath you? Nah. Not your garbage man. (My garbage man is a woman, and I stress out trying to figure out which way my bins should go so that she doesn’t have to get out of the truck, and she can just use the robot arm. I digress.) What about that guy making your sandwich at Jimmy John’s? Nah. He’s a human. Or, those ‘illegals’ cleaning the toilets at that roadside gas station you just stopped at? Yeah, it’s getting real up in here right now.

I’m stopping for a moment. One of my first times out of the country was to Jamaica. And my mind was blown that, for the equivalent of like a buck, I could have a guy follow me around all day, grabbing me food, drinks, whatever. Yeah, that really broke my mind. Later, my wife and I began to frequent Cancun. And at the particular resort we liked to visit, there was a VIP area where we were allowed to sit by the pool that no other hotel visitors could visit. And while there, we had dedicated pool guys… standing…waiting. All day. And these guys were treated like trash by the hotel visitors. Just utterly despised by these rich hotel guests. But these guys had amazing stories, amazing experiences, and backgrounds. You wouldn’t know that though if you just barked orders at them to bring you another rum and coke. But if you talk to them, you would learn from them, you’d learn about the world, about them, and most importantly about yourself. One trip to Cancun I was invited to Alberto’s home. Went to his church. Experienced his life for an evening. It was eye opening to see that side of Cancun. The question is though – are you seeing the humans around you? Heck, maybe you hate rich people. Entitled asses as they are. I don’t know. But they are humans too. Humans with authentic problems and real issues.

Sea Fog Downward Spiral

When another boat starts heading their way, the crew decides that their stowaways should go below into the fish hold. When an inspector comes to measure their nets, and check their compliance, everyone hiding in the fish holds dies because of a Freon gas leak. Yeah. But now the crew has a problem on their hands. How are they going to get rid of the bodies? If they toss them overboard they might resurface and be discovered. And so, they decide, they’ll need to hack them all into smaller pieces to keep them from floating. So grizzly. But that was as a result of an accident! Okay, so maybe they were smuggling humans. That’s not great. And, as a result, there was a refrigerant accident, killing every last person in the fish hold. But so far, it was one poor decision after another, but all an accident. Shucks.

Until, Wan-ho, one of the members of the Kang Chul-joo’s crew starts to have a mental breakdown. He is talking to himself, and he begins thinking that the dead wanted him to go tell their families where they are. Wan-ho was beginning to believe he should go to the police to just ask for their addresses so he can tell their families. Yeah. Not good. And as a result, the captain murders him. Bludgeons him in the head. And after the captain tosses him in the sea, the crew just start splitting Wan-ho’s things amongst themselves. As if they had a right to his things now that he is missing.

Chang-Wook, the assistant engineer discovers the girl, Hong-mea, hidden away in the engineering room. But what is he worried about? That one of the other crew members will take her from him. He wants her all to himself. And by the way, he’d like to have her right now, as a matter of fact. But eventually Kang finds her and tells Kyung-koo, the Bos’n, to properly dispose of her…so she doesn’t float. But Dong-sik accidentally kills Kyung-koo, and he falls overboard. Yeah. At this point, we see where this is devolving to. Dong-sik finds Hong-mea in the fish hold, where one of the crew tries to rape her, and is killed by another crew member, and Dong-sik saves her, only to be attacked by the captain. It’s a flywheel that is flying apart due to its overwhelming speed.

Long story short – the boat crashes into another vessel in the fog, and it begins to sink. And through all of this, the captain’s only thought is saving his ship. He doesn’t consider other’s lives, just the single thought of saving his ship. The anchor wraps around his leg, and tows him to the bottom of the sea. Dong-sik and Hong-mea float to shore. But when Dong-sik wakes, Hong-mea has left him there on the beach. Six years later, we see that Dong-sik works as a construction worker, but is still thinking about Hong-mea.

The IMF and South Korea’s Debt Issues

To grasp everything that is going on here, we have to really understand the moment that this film is set in. The IMF crisis started in 1997 and roiled the entire Asian markets in financial chaos. It was a severe foreign exchange shortage that sent South Korea to the brink of default. And the only reason they didn’t go bankrupt was because the IMF jumped in and bailed them out. And as a result of the crisis there were long lasting impacts to Korea and the entire Korean legal systems. The IMF terms forced Korea to really change everything, and the world really doubted Korea’s seriousness about reform. Even the President’s cabinet was reshuffled. Heck, even the electoral power shuffled from the New Hankuk Party over to the opposition party led by Kim Dae Jung.

I literally could talk for 3 more pages about the internal and external repercussions within Korea during this important time for the country. But the bottom line was that the Korean people were forced to survive in tricky new ways. Heck, the entire country began pulling piles of gold out of their closets in order to begin satisfying the IMF terms. It was a very dubious time for the entire country. So, in the middle of this financial crisis we have a boat that isn’t catching fish. None. What are they going to do? So obviously, the move is to illegally begin trafficking humans. Wait, what? But that shows how desperate they were to make ends meet.

But What Does It All Mean?

I love movies that are microcosmic in nature. A smaller story, sharing a much bigger truth. The first thing we need to focus in on, in understanding what this movie, is the Korean context. We have a people, a noble, and proud people, that have their back pressed against the wall. So maybe one of the largest comments this movie is making is in discussing the countries hardcore commitment to financial solvency above all else. Does that make sense? It is saying, we put the financial commitments to the world, to the banks, to the international markets, all above the fates of our people. I really think this has to be the first vantage we see this movie through. That when Korea decided to go all in on their financial reforms, people were dehumanized as a result. I mean, I don’t know first hand, because I’m not Korean. I’ve been lucky enough to visit a couple times, but all that did was to show me how little I know about the people.

But there is another vantage that we can view this movie through. And that is just from a humanity perspective. Are we dehumanizing others around us? Are we taking advantage of whole sectors of the global community? I don’t know, did you buy a $12 dollar t-shirt recently? (If you haven’t checked out the 5 Planet Money T-Shirts you really have to. Basically the show made a t-shirt, and then tracked the making of the t-shirt. All the way from the cotton picked by children in Uzbekistan, all the way through to the shipping.) And when you look at the backs that our cheap t-shirts ride on you have to really rethink everything about our lives. (Really want to blow your mind, take the slaveryfootprint survey. But that is all way to esoteric and detached an example. Just understand that we are all enormously privileged. How do I know you are privileged? Hahaha – you are reading this. Last week, over a 100,000 people visited this site, and like 75k of you read it on a smartphone. (42k on iOS, and 33k on Android if you were curious.) 25k of you were on computers of various kinds. Heck! You have running water in your house! You turn a spigot of some sort, and water miraculously pours forth! But even though you are lucky enough to be blessed with much, how do you treat those that are less fortunate near you?

The Various Vices of Sea Fog

If we walk through the individuals on the ship, you can see all manner of vice going on. Chang-Wook, the assistant engineer, is desperate to sleep with a woman. Purchased, raped, consensual, not…he doesn’t care. And Kang Chul-joo, the captain suffers from money, and pride blindness. I mean, watch the faces of the men as they are hacking up the bodies of the dead. Dong-shik was the only one that showed any form of revulsion. And all these men, with all these vices, are quickly brought to justice. Justice? What? By whom? Well, to be honest, they were brought to justice by the sea. Nature. The great force called home by the Captain.

The movie was good in that it caused me to learn about the impact of the 1997 financial crisis. It made me curious about how the country dug its way out of the chaos of that time period through hoards of gold and international financial maneuvering. But mainly it made me intrigued about how the country saw itself in the world. How it saw traffickers and desperate people in China attempting to get home. I will say this though, the acting was more than a little campy, and justice by the sea was extremely formulaic. If I see it though as a morality tale, most of those problems go away. It then makes more sense as a lesson to be learned by all of us. To care for those around us that are less fortunate than ourselves. To be compassionate and invested even though we could benefit from other’s demise. We are in this together.

Edited by: CY