'Marine' Stays Afloat With Supporting Acts

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

It's about time the Korean Peninsula saw a maritime action flick. "Marine Boy" indeed features the most water treading sequences in South Korean cinema ― something only a fearless newcomer like Yoon Jong-seok can brave ― but it keeps afloat with classic premises like dramatic tension and great supporting characters.

An ocean-crossing drug mule the movie has named "Marine Boy" calls for extensive oceanic shoots that make up about 20 percent of the film, yet this is no big budget version of drug mule stories like "Maria Full of Grace" nor is it a raw crime thriller like "The Chaser". A complex "trust no one" formula fuels the seaside story, but the main dramatic tension lies in an obscure love triangle rather than underwater skirmishes. While the two-hour running time could have been cut shorter, Cho Jae-hyun and other bona fide actors keep the film from completely conforming to Hollywood.

The vast ocean blue invites viewers to plunge right into the narrative with the protagonist. "Le Grand Chef"'s rising star, Kim Kang-woo, bares his six-pack abs as Cheon-su, a youthful hedonist who gives swimming lessons by day and gambles by night in order to escape to Palau. But his one-way ticket to paradise is forever lost when he loses a big poker game and lands in 10-digit debt.

If loan sharks hunting his organs weren't bad enough, Cheon-su ― or more precisely his former swimming championship ― is "bought" by Kang (indie flick hero Cho Jae-hyun), the "Godfather" of the illicit drug business, who needs a fit swimmer to complete an important deal with the Japanese yakuza.

After swallowing packages of drugs, body packers often die en route when these burst because of faulty material and even if they do make it across the border, they are killed for the secret they hold, but our protagonist has no choice but to become a drug mule.

Knowing his fate ― especially after witnessing a ruthless killing by Kang using frozen ham ― Cheon-su makes a run for it. But at the airport, detective Kim (screen veteran Lee Won-jong) arrests him for unlawful gambling, a cover up, as Kim plans to use the Marine Boy as bait for capturing Kang. Kim makes Cheon-su accept the job and act as his spy.

The perils of walking into Kang's lair, however, become greater than Cheon-su bargained for, as he falls for Yu-ri (Park Si-yeon), an alluring beauty under the special care of Kang. The Marine Boy undergoes rigorous deep-sea diving training while conceding to advances by Yu-ri, who, sick of Kang's fatherly overprotection, has a plan of her own.

"Marine Boy's" fast paced and highly engrossing "Tazza: the High Rollers" ("Tazza: The High Rollers")-style overture is followed by a middle section that feels slow despite the splashy water scenes and messy war of hearts. It also feels too Hollywood at times, with expensive cars crashing and featuring straight-to-bed romances.

But "Bad Guy" hero Jo sustains the intrigue as he portrays the overexploited Korean gangster character with ferocious naturalness and surprising tenderness. A middle-aged boss agonizes over the fact that the princess he raised is no longer a little girl, and her dalliance with a lustful young man under his employment exasperates him. He gives way to the redemption-prevails-over-revenge rule inherent to Korean folktales, toning down the movie's strong Hollywood vibe. Others, like Lee, who has played about every lewd TV role, and quirky actor Oh Kwang-rok, give substance to the highly stylized drama.

In theaters Feb. 5. 118 minutes. 15 and over. Distributed by CJ Entertainment.