The most anticipated Korean film of the year, with its dazzling cast and international locations, opened late last month and has since become the biggest domestic box office behemoth in years. The Thieves, Choi Dong-hoon’s fourth feature, following The Big Swindle (2004), Tazza: The High Rollers (2006), and Woochi: The Taoist Wizard (2009), is his most ambitious yet. It is a vibrant and complex heist movie with one of the most high profile casts ever assembled for a local production.
Popeye and his crew leave Korea to get in on some action in Macao. He brings Pepsi, who has just been paroled, along for the ride. The mastermind behind the big scheme is Macao Park, Popeye’s former partner and Pepsi’s old lover. The plan is to steal the Tear of the Sun, a valuable diamond in transit in one of the city’s casinos. With Popeye’s crew, a Hong Kong team, Park and a few more vested interests, can the plan go off without a hitch?
More than anything, after watching The Thieves I am comfortable saying that the Korean film industry has the chops to pull off a large scale action film, something it has had great trouble with in the past. The set pieces are grand and convincing. The biggest are saved for the end and in these the stakes are high and the pace is unrelenting. Just like Na Hong-jin’s 2010 effort The Yellow Sea (which also stars Kim Yun-seok) these climactic actions scenes are pervaded with a tangible sense of danger. Glitzy and glamorous though the leads may be, none are safe from an early grave.
Many of the action scenes are heavily influenced by Hong Kong cinema, which makes sense given the locations and the stars. What’s more these elements are well woven into the narrative and herald what may be a new era for Korean cinema, one in which international co-productions are a viable mechanism for making commercially successful fare. Many have come and gone in the past but with The Thieves and next year’s big-budget bonanza, Bong Joon-ho’s Snow Piercer, Korean cinema is making its move into the international market place. Long a dominant force in its native market and frequently a presence in nearby territories, the industry may have just what it needs to push its influence further afield in the guise of this well-crafted action-thriller.
Let’s get one thing straight, Choi Dong-hoon has never made a great film. What he has done is become a reliable purveyor of solid entertainment and this is exactly what he does here. The film never pretends to be more than an enjoyable romp through colorful locations with sexy characters. Choi glides us through the convoluted and twisty plot with gusto, panache and confidence. One thing that did surprise me was that while his other films have demonstrated a marked Korean flavor, The Thieves is much more cosmopolitan in its approach. Granted many of its stars and settings are not Korean but given the tastes of local audiences it’s interesting that the film has done so well. Previous Korean champs such as Silmido (2003), Taegugki (2004) and The Host (2006) have had plenty to say about Korea and its history but this new blockbuster is happy to entertain us with no strings attached.
This brings us to the likely source of the film’s popularity: it’s cast. Top of the marquee is Kim Yun-seok, the current king of the Korean box office. Like the other great Korean thesps (Ahn Sung-kee, Park Joon-hoon and Song Kang-ho) he does not possess movie star good looks. What he does have is spades of charisma and talent. As to be expected he is on fine form here as the leader of the group. Alongside him Kim Hye-soo embodies the classy and cool veteran to a tee while Lee Jeong-jae plays against type as an insecure criminal, and pulls it off effectively with his body language. Everybody’s been talking about Jeon Ji-hyeon comeback, The Thieves being here first Korean film in 5 years following a mostly unsuccessful attempt at becoming an international talent. The My Sassy Girl (2001) star returns to what made her famous in the first place, which is being goofy and gorgeous at the same time.
Besides these main stars there are many more high profile actors in secondary roles. From HK superstar Simon Yam to Korean stalwarts Oh Dal-su and Shin Ha-gyoon, they all hit their marks and deliver the goods. What’s amazing is that even with so many stars, every protagonist is afforded a good amount of screen time and no one gets lost in the shuffle. The only side effect is that in order to do so the film does push to 135 minutes but the time is well spent and the character arcs mostly pay off.
An entertaining film that is at the same time cool, fun, clever and pulse-raising, it’s exactly what audiences are looking for to beat the summer heat. It’s packed with great dialogue, teeming with edge-of-your-seat moments and looks fantastic to boot. With 11 million spectators and counting, it seems that The Thieves knew exactly how to break into Korea’s imagination, let’s see if it can do so elsewhere as well.
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