“Boat” is a Korean Japanese co-production charting the experiences and cross cultural friendship of a couple of smugglers, and was directed by Kim Young Nam, whose indie feature “Don’t Look Back” won awards back in 2006. The film is certainly a pan-Asian affair, with a script by Japanese writer Watanabe Aya (previously responsible for “La Maison de Himiko” and “Tennen Kokekko”) and a multinational cast including Ha Jung Woo (“The Chaser”) and Tsumabuki Satoshi (“Pandemic”). It was released in Japan under the title “No Boys, No Cry”, which is arguably more meaningful than its Korean moniker, as the boat and the profession of the characters only really play a part during the early stages.
The film initially follows Korean smuggler Hyung Gu (Ha Jung Woo), who transports illicit goods and drugs across the sea to Japan for his boss Bo Gyung using a small boat. His main contact on the other side is a young Japanese man called Toru (Tsumabuki Satoshi), with who, despite their communication difficulties, he strikes up a friendship of sorts. Their lives and jobs become more complicated when Bo Gyung orders them to ferry a young woman (played by Cha Soo Yeon, recently excellent in the disturbing “Beautiful”), who has been kidnapped after her father absconded with gang money. Rather than following his orders, they decide to take her up on an offer to find her father first for a considerable sum, not least since Toru in particular is in dire financial straits.
Despite its drug running and kidnap premise, “Boat” is actually a laid back character drama rather than a thriller, with director Kim showing the same indie sensibilities as he has in the past and concentrating on the human aspects of the story rather than anything too straightforward. Indeed, the film moves along at an unhurried pace, as the early scenes of smuggling and crime drama quickly give way to characters simply hiding out, talking, and trying to work through their problems. The relationship between Hyung Gu and Toru does not develop along the expected lines, and the film never becomes a clichéd buddy picture, with several rather harsh turns. Both are quite odd, unconventional figures, each with their own sets of problems and motivations, which inevitably leads to a number of clashes. This works very well, and Kim does a great job of making the two men very believable and sympathetic, despite the fact that they clearly operate to a large extent on self-interest.
The other characters are also refreshingly better written than in the average more commercially minded production, and the film eschews the usual kind of artificial romance and melodrama, even during its latter stages. Certainly, Kim never avoids the often cruel and practical realities of life, and the film essentially revolves around a series of difficult choices, weighing the importance of self against family and friends. Through this, he explores human nature in a quiet, though frequently powerful fashion, and the film has a genuine emotional complexity which keeps the viewer engrossed throughout. Although it is a bit slow at times, and possibly a touch overlong, Kim has a great eye for detail, and without ever allowing the plot to drift too far into the background, he gives the proceedings a contemplatory, observational air.
Helping to keep the viewer involved is a sly sense of humour, which does make for quite a few amusing scenes, albeit frequently in a suitably bitter manner. Language problems inevitably arise throughout, with the characters often communicating in a mix of Korean, Japanese and English, leading to some funny moments and misunderstandings. The film does work at times as a comedy of errors, with Hyung Gu in particular being a bit daft and prone to errors, and he comes across as a bit of a likeable dunce, as do several other members of the cast, with Toru being the only one who seems to have his head fully screwed on. As a result, the film is generally quirky, though without being wacky or overtly gag filled, and Kim skilfully balances this with its more serious concerns.
“Boat” certainly is a bit livelier than most other indie films, and is arguably all the more entertaining for it. Kim’s approach effectively combines both slow burn humanistic themes and engaging drama, and he shows himself again to be a talented and unique voice in Korean cinema.
Young-nam Kim (director) / Aya Watanabe (screenplay)
CAST: Satoshi Tsumabuki