Year: 2009
Country: Korea/Japan
Korean title: 보트 (Boat)
Japanese title: ノーボーイズ、ノークライ (No Boys, No Cry)
Languages: Korean, Japanese and some English
Director: Kim Young-nam (김영남)
Screenplay: Watanabe Aya (渡邊あや)
Cinematography: Tsutai Takahiro
Soundtrack: Sunihara Yoshinori
Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Tsumabuki Satoshi, Cha Soo-yeon, Kanjiya Shirohi, Tokunaga Eri, Emoto Tasuku, Lee Dae-yeon
Runtime: 115 minutes
Trailer: Japanese and Korean trailers at asianmediawiki (not subtitled)
Film’s official website: No Boys, No Cry

Waves crashing. The gentle sounds of a harbour. Cries of sea gulls in the distance. A young man, stretched out on a small boat in the middle of the day. Waves again. Mobile phones whirring. The man stirs, barely. The bright sun burns down on him. He blinks, glimpses up into a vast, cotton-cloud sky. A balloon floats by. He turns over to his side, lazing about. More sounds of waves.

And then, a pulse:

A pulse begins to beat and transports viewers to the next scene: Into the black-blue night. Into shadows. The boat races across the sea, across the Korea Strait from Busan (South Korea) to Yamaguchi (Japan).

Cinematography? Check. Soundtrack? Check. All there, there and done exceedingly well already to know that a wonderful film lies ahead.

The storyline is intriguing too: Hyeong-gu (Ha Jung-woo), a young Korean sea smuggler, and Toru (Tsumabuki Satoshi), his contact on the Japanese side, find themselves on the run from their boss (Lee Dae-yeon) after the delivery of an abducted woman goes awry.

In many ways, Hyeong-gu and Toru are polar opposites of one another: Hyeong-gu, who is the narrative voice of Boat, was abandoned by his mother at age 6 and has no family to speak of. He leads a life that is lonesome, but relatively easy. There is nothing or no one he needs to care for and his smuggling trips to Japan afford him fun with karaoke nights and always some woman to satisfy his sexual needs. Toru, meanwhile, comes with baggage: a senile grandmother, a sister (Tokunaga Eri) that sleeps around and has three, essentially fatherless children, one of whom requires a life-saving operation that the family has no money for. Toru carries this burden quietly, often saying nothing at all, and is seemingly introverted, while Hyeong-gu is laid-back and chatty, constantly grumbling about petty things, like when being incorrectly greeted with ‘Yeoboseyo’. Even physically the two men are mismatched: Toru is much smaller and rather slight in comparison to Hyeong-gu.

As the two protagonists learn more of each other’s circumstances, a connection develops between them. It’s not a voiced sort of sympathy, because Hyeong-gu is clearly incapable of consoling Toru when he breaks down in tears after a final rejection from his ex-girlfriend (Kanjiya Shirohi), and Toru offers no more than a nod and a “You’re lucky” when Hyeong-gu reveals that he grew up family-less. But, like missing puzzle pieces, Toru and Hyeong-gu fit into each other’s life. Toru returns home one day to find Hyeong-gu laughing over the dinner table with grandma, sister and et al., a joyous family meal that, it seems, hasn’t happened in a long while. And then there is the scene when Toru’s sister shoves her ill child into Hyeong-gu’s arms, telling him to take it for a walk. Although the concepts of family and children are completely alien to Hyeong-gu, he holds the boy with a gentleness you would never expect from a hardened criminal. He is capable of that love that he himself has always been denied, and it is Toru’s imperfect family that gives him that opportunity to care for others.

On the surface Boat may look like a crime thriller, but it is really a study of two characters and their hopes and fears. It is a brilliant film in many aspects, but especially deserves praise for the depth of insight it gives into Hyeong-gu’s and Toru’s feelings, often in a very subtle manner. There is much that is not said, but simply conveyed, thanks to skillful filmmakers and excellent actors. We know that Toru is not speaking from the heart when wishing that his family were dead so he would be free to live a normal life. We also know – with Hyeong-gu sitting opposite him – that this ‘free life’ is not so free either.

Both Ha Jung-woo and Tsumabuki Satoshi offer convincing portrayals of their characters, and beautifully play off each other. Tsumabuki has few lines in the first half hour of the film, but speaks eloquently through facial expressions and body gestures, clearly being a talented actor we will hopefully see in even more complex roles in the near future. The abducted girl is played by Cha Soo-yeon, who currently stars in the k-drama 천번의 입맞춤 (Chunbunui IpmatchoomOne Thousand Kisses). Her role as Ji-su is too small for her to completely redeem herself, but I certainly prefer her as the dishevelled, beat-up gangsta girl than as an psychotic evil ex in designer clothes and high heels.

Cover of the Film’s Soundtrack

The soundtrack for Boat was composed by Sunihara Yoshinori. Whether a pulse taking us from one scene to another or otherworldly underwater sounds evoking a dream of mermaids, Sunihara hits a lot of right notes with his first score. Without ever becoming overly prominent, the music enhances the mood of many scenes and draws us deeper into the characters’ inner worlds.

Boat is the sort of film you want to end well, knowing that it cannot. Hyeong-gu and Toru are in a dead-end situation, they are petty criminals that have betrayed the big boss that one must never betray. It’s obvious that someone – at least one of them – will have to be sacrificed. And yet, Boat does not feel dark. It is, despite it all, a film that lifts you, even in its darkest moments – when Hyeong-gu and Toru are wringing each other’s necks, gasping for air in a fight that could end deadly, when the bloody-dripping, shattered face of one of them appears much too graphically on the screen as the boss’s henchmen kick him – because of the bond that has developed between the two: the bond of friendship, of brotherly love, of family loyalty, that no one and nothing can destroy, not the big boss, nor death.

Overall verdict: Rather than a crime thriller with a fatalistic ending, Boat is an uplifting human drama that gives insight into the lives of two young men in unfortunate circumstances.

Rating: 8.5/10

Bonus links: 

And more images from the film: