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“Marine Boy” marks the debut of writer director Yoon Jong Seok, and has nothing to do with the famous Japanese anime of the same name. Instead, the film is a crime thriller set in the shady world of maritime drug smuggling, and is very much in the continuingly popular modern noir form. The title actually refers to drug mules, who carry packages across the open seas, here played by Kim Kang Woo, recently in “Le Grand Chef” and who previously had aquatic experiences of a different sort in Kim Ki Duk’s “The Coastguard”.
He plays Cheon Su, a former national swimming champ who falls on hard times and into heavy debt after a spectacular gambling loss. With his dream of escaping to the idyllic Palau islands looking increasingly unlikely, he is forced into the service of a drug baron called Kang (Cho Jae Hyun, recently in “Beyond the Years” and “Hanbando”) as a marine boy, with an impending mission to help transport drugs from Japan. While trying to flee, he is grabbed by Detective Kim, a tough character who pushes him to spy on Kang and to keep the police updated on his activities. Complicating matters even further is Yuri (Park Si Yeon also in “A Love”), Kang’s gorgeous jazz singer, ex-junkie young charge, whose father was his former partner, and who seems to have plans of her own. Inevitably, Cheon Su starts falling for her, leading to yet more trouble for the lad as it becomes increasingly difficult to know who to trust – if anyone.
The whole ‘caught between the gangs and the cops while falling for the bad guy’s woman’ plot is pretty familiar, though director Yoon does manage to throw in a few twists. Instead, the film is largely character driven, which works very well, mainly since almost everyone in the film is a scoundrel or is at least hiding something. Nobody seems to trust anyone, usually with good reason and as things progress plenty of past grudges are aired and true identities are revealed, making for surprisingly gripping viewing. Yoon gets a lot of mileage and tension of out the various and ever changing relationships, with Yuri in particular making for an interesting figure, seeming to switch back and forth between victim and potential femme fatale. Although Cheon Su himself is a little one note, with his defining characteristic being that he is headstrong and often makes daft decisions, as a protagonist he is likeable enough and serves well as an audience wish fulfilment figure. Both Kim Kang Woo and Park Si Yeon turn in solid performances, and have a real chemistry in their scenes together, which makes their ambiguous relationship all the more effective. All the film’s other characters are amusing scumbags, showing an entertaining ruthlessness as they try to fulfil their own schemes, with the cast in general seeming to be having a good time hamming it up.
Even though the film is quite descriptive when it comes to the drugs trade and different smuggling techniques, it never gets too serious, with most of this coming through short sequences depicting the various deaths of other marine boys by overdoses, drowning, sharks and such. This is true for the film in general, and despite all of the double crossings and betrayals, it has a winningly escapist air, and a feeling of two fisted adventure. Whilst Yoon never really goes for any overt comedy, sticking quite resolutely to the modern noir-thriller form, at the same time he wisely doesn’t seem to be taking things too seriously. As a result, the film is a lively affair, and far less po-faced than it might have been.
Yoon’s direction is confident and assured, especially for a first timer. The film is stylish without being too flashy, with some effective fast editing and trickery, a hip and lively soundtrack, and a strong visual sense. There haven’t been too many films of late with a maritime setting, and Yoon makes the most of the gorgeous sea and underwater scenery, giving the proceedings a fresh, not to mention suitably aquatic feel. There is a good amount of action, some of it quite violent, and he keeps things running along at a fast pace without ever sliding into the dreaded melodrama. This helps to maintain a sense of fun throughout, and to keep the viewer happily bouncing along for the ride.
All of this adds up to a very enjoyable two hours, and “Marine Boy” makes for slick, exciting entertainment. This is largely due to the fact that Yoon puts a lot of effort into his characters, with their amusing dualities and plotting helping to keep the viewer gripped outside of the thrilling action set pieces – a lesson many older and more experienced directors would do well to learn.
Jong-seok Yoon (director) / Jong-seok Yoon (screenplay)
CAST: Kang-woo Kim … Chun-soo
Jae-hyeon Jo … Company president Kang
Si-hyeon Park … Yu-ri
Won-jong Lee … Gae-ko
Hyo-Seob Eom … Section Chief Jo
Dae-hwan Oh … Coach Lee