Indie filmmaker O Muel has been churning out films for around a decade on his native Jeju Island, which each explore the history and society of the popular getaway in different ways but always from the perspective of the local community. For the majority of his career he's vacillated between low-key, parochial comedies and more soberly artistic fare and with Mermaid Unlimited, following 2015's somewhat impenetrable art piece Eyelids, he's firmly back in the former camp, albeit with a little more social examination than his other light offerings.
A Jeju village foreman hires Youngju, a disgraced and alcoholic professional swimmer, to become the synchronized swimming coach for a team that will he hopes will successfully take part in a competition. The concept for the team is that synchronized swimming meets Jeju's famed Haenyeo divers. An impromptu diving competition between Youngju and local legend Okja (no relationship to the Netflix superpig) gets the ball rolling. Facing off as Youngju and Okja are TV stars Jeon Hye-bin and Moon Hee-kyung.
With Mermaid Unlimited, O finds another way to put forward the culture and history of his island, this time focusing on the famous Haenyeo, or mermaid women, whose jobs it is to dive and collect seafood off of the ocean floor. The arduous and dangerous work used to have many practitioners but now only a few elderly woman continue the tradition. The sight of them has become a cultural landmark as well as a popular tourist attraction on an island that is often to referred to as Korea's Hawaii.
O's unhurried script threads together several vignettes, which sometimes push the story forward while some wayward threads come off as superfluous. Then again, some core parts, such as an interesting relationship between the coach and her diving pall who later joins them from Seoul, don't get enough screen time.
While the humor is often softly droll, and not entirely clear at times (though local audiences should have an easier time spotting the deliberate comedy of the unusual behavioral ticks), some images are rather delightful and worth a few chuckles, such as the sight of a motorcycle gang of Haenyeo divers puttering along the sunny coast in loudly colorful garb.
Unlike the languid and sumptuous black and white beauty of his Sundance Grand Prize winner Jiseul, Mermaid Unlimited employs a very lo-fi visual aesthetic more in line with his other comedies, with a couple of drone shots thrown in to make the most of the rich Jeju landscape. The film also foregrounds the vibrant nature of the island, though at times there is something off about the colors, perhaps through grading in post, as the characters are occasionally presented with washed out skin tones.
Lackadaisical and occasionally endearing, Mermaid Unlimited ties itself together with a swift resolution in a lightly amusing climax doesn't fully satisfy. Like Jiseul, O's latest was also a recipient of BIFF's Asian Cinema Fund.