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Korean cinema loves a good caper, and “The Grand Heist” offers a twist on the formula by setting the action back during the Joseon era of the 18th century, following a bunch of miscreants set on stealing ice. The film was directed by Kim Joo Ho, marking his debut, and as is usual for this kind of affair was an ensemble piece, bringing together a host of top stars, namely Oh Ji Ho (“Sector 7”), Min Hyo Rin (“Sunny”), Song Jong Ho (“The Princess’ Man”), Lee Chae Young (“Miracle”), Sung Dong Il (“Miss Conspirator”), Ko Chang Seok (“The Front Line”) and Shin Jeong Keun (“Runway Cop”). Mixing laughter and tension, the “Ocean’s Eleven” style film proved very popular at the Korean box office, emerging as one of the year’s hits alongside the similarly themed contemporary pic “The Thieves”.
Cha Tae Hyun headlines as Duk Moo, the son of a government official and a concubine, who due to his lesser birth rights spend his days lazing around the market as a book seller. His life falls apart after the corrupt politician Jo (Nam Kyung Eup) frames him for dealing in banned books as part of a plot to discredit his father and take over the local ice trade. Duk Moo finds himself in jail along with the similarly set up royal ice house guard Dong Soo (Oh Ji Ho), and on their release the two decide to team up and try and steal all of Jo’s ice and gold. To carry out their cunning scheme, they recruit a crew of shady characters, including an explosives expert (Shin Jeong Keun), a notorious tomb robber (Ko Chang Suk), a money man (Sung Dong Il), a master of disguise (Song Jong Ho), and a sexy female informant (Lee Chae Young), as well as Dong Soo’s attractive swimmer sister Hyo Rin (Min Hyo Rin). Unbeknownst to Duk Moo, Jo is also involved in a treasonous plot, and as the time for the heist draws near, things get even more dangerous and complicated.
“Ocean’s Eleven” comparisons are certainly fitting, as “The Grand Heist” is very much a character driven piece, spending most of its time following the cast around as they plan and scheme, with the big set piece robbery not taking place until the final act. Kim Joo Ho and writer Kim Min Sung do a very solid job in this respect, with a fine script that successfully creates a likeable and fun set of characters, and their bickering and bantering makes for entertaining viewing, even when stretches of the film don’t really go anywhere. The film works in a number of different relationships, romances and bromances, and this helps to add a little of emotional investment, crucial when the director is trying to get the viewer on side and rooting for the good guys. The cast are all on great form, Cha Tae Hyun and Oh Ji Ho’s central partnership having a lively dynamic, and though the rest don’t have quite as much to work with, all do their part in adding to the overall sense of good-natured boisterousness.
Though a first time helmer, Kim directs with surprising assurance, and the film is consistent and engaging in terms of pacing and tone, showing a fine balance between comedy and the tension which builds as things go wrong in the run up to the heist. It helps that most of the gags revolve around clever wordplay rather than slapstick (apart from an admittedly amusing line in in appropriate fart jokes), this keeping things grounded and ensuring that the laughs don’t undermine the drama. The central scheme itself is reasonably clever, with plenty of twists and mishaps along the way, and though the final outcome is never in any doubt Kim succeeds in his aim of making it a merry, occasionally wild ride. When the robbery does finally arrive, it’s thankfully a well-handled and exciting set piece, bringing the film to rousing and fitting finish, making good use of all the time spent developing the characters and suspense.
Whilst not too likely to stick in the mind after the credits have rolled, “The Grand Heist” is a very strong and enjoyable piece of Korean commercial cinema. Showing great assurance in his first outing, Kim Joo Ho makes great use of his game cast and clearly has a lot of fun with the tried and tested caper form, and it’s easy to see why the film proved so popular at the box office.
Joo-ho Kim (director) / Min-suk Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Tae-hyun Cha … Duk-Moo
Lee Chae-Young … Yoo Sul-Hwa
Gil-dong Kim … Cheol-Joo
Hyang-gi Kim … Nan-Yi
Chang-Seok Ko … Hong Seok-Chang
Hyo-rin Min … Baek Soo-Ryun