The heist film is a unique offshoot of the crime genre. It inhabits a region where the violence is all style, the risks are all calculated, and the group trumps the man. In this postmodern media-drenched world that we live in, the heist genre can probably lay claim to being the first to tear down the fourth wall and poke fun at the artifice of cinema. From Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery to the wheeling-dealing hustler Danny Ocean from the Ocean’s Eleven franchise, viewers have been addicted to the hip style of the caper.
In South Korea 2012 was a banner year for action capers; the obvious example being of course Choi Dong-hoon’s The Thieves, which raked in almost 13 million admissions. Yet there was one other heist film in 2012 that did remarkable business, drawing in over 4 million viewers and becoming the seventh most successful Korean film of the year, Kim Joo-ho’s Joseon era period heist comedy The Grand Heist.
Although far less visually stunning than The Thieves, due in part to the lack of both exotic locales and the absence of Kim Hye-Soo and Gianna Jun in the cast, Kim’s film brings enough to the cinematic table to merit a watch. As far as Gianna Jun is concerned My Sassy Girl fans are again treated to Cha Tae-Hyun’s comic performance as the nobleman Duk-moo, a layabout bookseller with a schoolboy crush on the local schoolmarm. Yet, life as a nobleman in the Joseon era is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Duk-moo may be the son of a noble man, but having a concubine for a mother has automatically put a glass ceiling on how far he can climb up the social ladder.
The action in the story kicks off when a local magistrate in Seoul decides to takeover the ice trade in the capital city. To consolidate his power the conniving nobleman Jo Myung-Soo (Nam Kyeong-Eup) first gets rid of Duk-Moo’s father and then the head security officer of the city’s seobinggo (ice warehouse). With both men exiled from the capital and Duk-moo brutally punished by Jo’s goons the story quickly shifts from the light carefree comedy of the first act into the planning stages of the heist as Duk-Moo devises a scheme to steal all the ice from the Capital’s nine-level warehouse.
The film’s screenwriter, Kim Min-sung, hits all the familiar notes during this stage. Duk-moo, like in all classic capers, gathers up an eclectic but familiar group of specialists: a driver, a demolitions expert, a master of disguise, etc. etc. And as for his second-in-command Dong-Soo (Oh Ji-Ho), the former officer in charge of protecting the seobinggo who was exiled by Jo, is the typical one dimensional do-gooder, basically the straight man to Tae-Hyun’s broad comic performance.
With the team established The Grand Heist goes through the familiar procedure of Duk-moo and co putting the pieces in exactly the right place so that their scheme will be a success. Here is where the film dipped for me. The little obstacles along the way which threaten to derail the heist are wonderfully executed and do ramp up the excitement quotient, but by the time the plan to steal the ice is being executed the threat of being caught and any sense of danger to the characters is undercut first by retconning a character’s sacrificial death at the end for the sake of appeasing audiences and also separating the villains from the good guys till the very end. In short, The Grand Heist disobeyed a key rule in the caper genre, “the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry” (Robert Burns). Devoid of plot twists and reversals of fortune in the second half and offering only an unimaginative gun battle between Duk-moo and Jo’s forces is unsatisfying. Having gotten quite a lot right with the genre it is a shame that Kim Joo-Hoo couldn’t stick the landing and deliver a far better film.
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