Venal city corporatism meets traditional Jeju culture in O Muel’s quirky comedy Mermaid Unlimited (인어전설, Ineojeonseol). An island movie showcasing the laidback charms of a disappearing way of life through those of the haenyo divers, Mermaid Unlimited is also an early example of cinema’s recent fascination with the art of synchronised swimming in which this most organised of sports helps a troubled young woman get a much needed reset in her life thanks to the down-home wisdom of the island aunties and the healing waters of Jeju.
A well-meaning government body has come up with a plan to promote synchronised swimming by getting a team of traditional haenyo divers as a warm up act before a national competition to be held in Jeju in the hope of making the sport “more accessible”. Former national team member Ga-yeon (Kang Rae-yeon) is under a lot of pressure to get a medal, not least to dispel the doubts of a hostile suit upset at having been passed over for project lead. In any case, she recommends an old colleague, Yeong-ju (Jeon Hye-Bin), who was the leading light of their old squad to coach the island ladies so they can perform a routine as requested by the PR people. However, there are several issues with this plan. The first being that village chief Bongseok (Lee Kyung-joon) has been a little over enthusiastic in agreeing to the idea seeing as there are very few remaining haenyo in the local area and many of them are understandably getting on in years. Meanwhile, Yeong-ju is in the middle of an extended personal crisis and is in fact a functioning alcoholic.
Nevertheless, her appearance on the island immediately causes a commotion not least with Bongseok who is instantly smitten. She is herself, however, not perhaps convinced, instantly earning the ire of the defacto leader of the haenyo, the feisty and foulmouthed Okja (Moon Hee-kyung), after thoughtlessly describing the women as a load of old grannies, doubtful if they are really worthy of her precious “water ballet”. What ensues is a less than genial face off as the two women try to prove themselves queen of the seas through a petty competition which ends inconclusively and with a degree of drama but does eventually broker a kind of solidarity if only as they slag off their useless menfolk. In any case, the island ladies begin training in earnest while attempting to deal with their own quirky island problems.
The island is certainly home to a fair few characters from Bongseok, smitten and overexcited while slightly clueless as to what the project entails (selling his empty swimming pool as bound to fill up next time it rains), to Okja’s wayward son Mansoo (Eo Sung-wook) and his bad romance, the pregnant haenyo who wants to give birth the old-fashioned way, a strange shanmaness and her son who has learning difficulties, and the young woman who desperately wants to become a haenyo despite her mother’s objections. Yeong-ju had a point when she suggested there weren’t many younger women around, most of the haenyo are indeed middle aged or older, and it’s fair to say this is a way of life fast disappearing. Okja laments that they haven’t been able to catch much lately, and later we hear of the building of a sea wall which may be having a detrimental affect on sea life so much so that there are reports of an elderly diver from a few villages over going missing at sea while protesting. Even so, the old women remain fiercely proud of their island culture and determined to protect it, seeing in the synchronised swimming exercise a way to show off their existence, something which perhaps mildly backfires bringing an influx of foreign tourists to the island hoping get the haenyo experience much to the confusion of the underprepared though very excited Bongseok.
Through her friendship with Okja and the gentle support of the other island ladies who’ve seen enough of life to be unjudgemental, Yeong-ju begins to work through her unresolved trauma and alcohol issues while falling in love with island life and the traditional haenyo culture. A gentle ode to the wholesome charms of Jeju with its beautiful ocean vistas and hard spun rural wisdom, Mermaid Unlimited makes the case not only for the power of female solidarity but of bodies in unison as a means of existential healing through shared endeavour.
Original trailer (no subtitles)