Rarely do event films come as big or as eagerly anticipated as Korean blockbuster “The Thieves”, boasting an amazing ensemble cast of top pan-Asian talent, exotic shooting locales and a heist caper plot which has won comparisons to Steven Soderbergh’s popular “Ocean’s Eleven” series. The film was written and directed by Choi Dong Hun, who should really be better known after turning out some of the best Korean cinema of the last few years, including “The Big Swindle”, “Jeon Woo Chi: The Taoist Wizard” and the superb “Tazza: The High Rollers”, and who again here takes what could have been a relatively high concept premise and enriches it with engaging characters and multi-layered scheming. The film more than lived up to its billing, emerging as the biggest domestic box office hit of all time (or the second biggest, still falling slightly behind “The Host”, depending on which source you read) with over 12 million admissions, in addition to garnering a long list of nominations at the Grand Bell and Blue Dragon Awards.
The thieves of the title are a group of experienced professionals, led by Popeye (Lee Jung Jae, “The Housemaid”), backed by the acrobatic Yenicall (Jeon Ji Hyun, “My Sassy Girl”), veteran Chewinggum (Kim Hae Suk, “Mama”) and the young but capable Zampano (upcoming star Kim Soo Hyun, recently in the popular television show “Dream High”), the film opening with them skilfully swindling a rich businessman. Popeye brings them news of a dangerous, though potentially very lucrative score, working with his former partner Macao Park (Kim Yoon Seok, “The Yellow Sea”) to steal the fabulous Tear of the Sun diamond from a casino in Macau and sell it back to a notoriously vicious criminal called Wei Hong. Joined by the newly released from jail Pepsi (Kim Hye Su, “Tazza”), who shares a chequered history with Macao and Popeye, the Koreans team up with the Chinese thieves Chen (Simon Yam, “Election”), Andrew (Oh Dal Soo, “Traffickers”), Julie (Angelica Lee, “The Eye”) and Johnny (Derek Tsang, “Girl$”), and start to plot the hit. Needless to say, things don’t go even remotely as planned, and with the police on their trail, the gang find their various allegiances and partnerships sorely tested.
The “Ocean’s Eleven” comparisons are fair enough, as “The Thieves” certainly aims for the same kind of ensemble caper, mixing together various subplots with equal measures comedy and drama. However, Choi Dong Hun’s approach is a little different, and without wishing to give much away, there’s less focus on the central heist itself, with the film quickly going off in a variety of other directions. The script is far more character driven, and where Soderbergh went for a hip detachedness from his characters, Choi goes to some lengths to flesh them out and to invest more in their various relationships. This is something he has proved very good at it the past, and though the script doesn’t quite have the depth of “Tazza”, the film does have a certain amount of emotional engagement, and a few surprising and rewarding melodramatic beats. Caring about the characters definitely gives the film more weight, helped by solid acting all round from the cast, in particular the always excellent Kim Yoon Seok, Kim Hye Su and Simon Yam (naturally), with Jeon Ji Hyun throwing in a fun turn.
All of this is mixed very skilfully with a complex plot, and the film certainly has a great deal going on, fairly rushing between its many twists and revelations. Though it can be a bit exhausting at times, Choi does his best to keep the viewer guessing through till the end, and there are some very entertaining surprises and character reversals along the way in fine Hitchcockian style. The script’s emotional depth helps to make things all the more suspenseful, and with the comic relief, mostly from Jeon Ji Hyun, thankfully never being over done, the film is for the most part gripping and suspenseful, at least until the final act, Choi switching gears for the last half hour or so and going for all out action.
While he does a decent job of throwing in some full on blockbuster set pieces, including a spectacular vertical battle on the side of a building, the bombastic wrap up is somewhat at odds with the rest of the film, and feels a little superfluous. Still, the thrills are well-handled and make good use of what must have been a pretty high budget, and inject a final spurt of pace into what at over two hours is a fairly long film.
This is a relatively minor complaint, and “The Thieves” is a hugely enjoyable piece of cinema that’s well deserving of its success and accolades, confirming Choi Dong Hun as one of the country’s top talents. Proof again that commercial entertainment need not be simply dumb fun, it’s an intelligent, character rich genre pic with a superb cast and polished direction which comes recommended for all.
Dong-Hoon Choi (director) / Dong-Hoon Choi, Lee Gi-Cheol (screenplay)
CAST: Chae Gook-Hee … Madame
Jin-mo Ju … Detective
Gianna Jun … Yenicall
Guk-Seo Ki … Wei Hong
Hae-suk Kim … Chewingum
Hye-su Kim … Pepsee
Soo Hyun Kim … Zampano
Yun-seok Kim … Macao Park