The Last Mermaids

The Last Mermaids


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

A fully deserving winner of a Special Jury Prize at Tribeca 2009, Liz Chae’s The Last Mermaids is one of that all-too-rare breed of documentary – one that possesses a fascinating subject and tackles it in an interesting and engaging way.

Chae has an economical directorial style, epitomised by an opening sequence, which shows you images of Jeju Island from the past and present, as one of the women who makes up its matriarchal society sings a song explaining its hard-fought history. The matriarchy has largely come about because, due to the island’s position in the Korean Strait, it has spent much of its history being invaded, which in turn has meant that the men on the island have spent most of their history being killed or captured.

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As a result a female-driven economy developed, thanks for the most part to the “haenyo” – female skin-divers – who went so far as to fight the Korean government for their right to do the job. These women, many of whom started as young as 10, free-dive abalone and other fish, diving up to 45 feet, while holding their breath up to three minutes. One of them, now firmly in middle age, recalls: “Eating and staying alive was all we thought about”.

Now, times are changing – with girls no longer having to answer the call of the sea to make headway in the world – and Chae shows how the women, rather than mourning their gradual demise, are celebrating it.

Filled with interesting anecdote and lyrical filming, Chae shows these graceful grannies pulling woolly socks and gloves on over the wetsuits they now use (a very recent innovation) and heading out to fish. Gun Tae Kim also deserves recognition for some lovely underwater camerawork.

Engaging, pacey and informative, The Last Mermaids clearly marks out Chae – who is currently still a student – as a director to look out for in future.

Reviewed on: 16 May 2009
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Generations of women free divers tell their story.

Director: Liz Chae

Year: 2009

Runtime: 19 minutes

Country: US, South Korea


Tribeca 2009

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