Release Date: July 25th, 2012
Running Time: 135 mins.
Director: Choi Dong-Hun
Writer: Choi Dong-Hun, Lee Gi-Cheol (Screenplay)
Starring: Kim Yun-Seok, Kim Hye-Soo, Lee Jung-Jae. Gianna Jun, Kim Hae-Sook, Kim Soo-Hyun, Simon Yam, Oh Dal-Su. Angelica Lee, Kwok Cheung Tsang
A gifted con-artist is able to take in their mark with a solid sounding story and enough dazzle to distract. A con-artist can get away with anything especially if the audience doesn’t think too hard about the spectacle. The same could also be said about films and so it proves to be true with the Korean mega box-office hit The Thieves (2012), from writer and director Choi Dong-hoon. He crafts a frothy and fun thriller but don’t look too closely or you might be able to see through the con and the story might not add up.
Popie (Lee Jung-jae) is the leader of a gang of professional thieves which consists of con-woman Chewingum (Kim Hae-sook), cat burgular (Gianna Jun), and Zampano (Ki Soo-Hyun). They are hired by an old acquaintance named Macao Park (Kim Yun-seok) to steal a valuable diamond from a Hong Kong gangster named Wei Yong. Popie calls on the services of old flame Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo), who has just been released from prison after taking the fall for a botched robbery Macao Park disappeared.
Macao Park has also hired a set of thieves from Hong Kong. Chen (Simon Yam) leads hoodlum Andrew (Oh Dal-su), a safe-cracker named Julie (Angelica Lee) and Johnny (Kwok Cheung Tsang). The gangs feel tension between each other but the difficulty in stealing the diamond from a secure hotel suite unites them.
The front of the movie is a glossy film that takes place in some glamorous and exotic locations like the high rises of Seoul, the water-front areas of Hong Kong and the shiny casinos and warm sun soaked streets of Macau. The cinematography is stunning at times and it really sells the idea that the film is an international adventure.
In step a bunch of characters, most sporting sunglasses and all of whom are attired in sexy or glamorous outfits designed to show off their figures or best sides and everybody poses a lot.
Ten in all and the script does a good job of introducing them and giving most something to do for at least half of the film. These are a collection of cat burglars, safe crackers, and stick-up kids and each has some back-story and developing relationships as they engage in planning and executing a complex plan to rob a casino that is fun to watch them set-up and discuss at length as they try and outfox each other and engage in games of one-upmanship.
The casino heist is a spectacle and a breathless one that results in some surprising moments that sets in motion another phase where, like a con-artist revealing their final trick, the film elaborates on secrets hinted at and neatly wraps up the story in an extended action sequence that takes place both inside and outside a building from top to bottom. In thrilling scenes that cross-cut between multiple characters we watch as people dive into and out of windows, apartments and stairwells as they fend for themselves in jaw-dropping moments full of excellent stunts, wire-work/rope-climbing, and gunplay. The final revelations and face-offs are enjoyable to watch as all the plot threads come together as unexpected twists and turns occur.
As good as the plot is in positioning characters and creating narrative sleight of hand for surprises the whole experience is hollow. As fun as the façade is, there are details that draw attention to inconsistencies that break the image the film is going for but a lot of these are personal.
Like the Hollywood movie Ocean’s Eleven, much of the enjoyment of The Thieves comes from seeing an ensemble of South Korean and Hong Kong stars matching wits with each other. For an audience well-versed in Korean film and television, it must be fun. I have not watched enough films starring many of the actors save two. As a result of my lack of familiarity I was reliant upon the script to provide characters for me to engage with. Considering the wide scope provided by a story full of backstabbing criminals there was room for being flamboyant with the creation of characters but the film failed to establish anybody too memorable or exciting which is just as well because some of them are forgotten about by the film’s very own script after the central casino heist.
I have watched Kim Yun-seok in other films and he stood out most memorably playing a corrupt foul-mouthed cop put through moral hell in the 2008 film The Chaser. Here, he plays things low-key as the poker faced Macao Park, a good decision because it is a role that requires him to be a character we cannot read. His relationship with Kim Hye-soo is meant to be complicated, potentially steamy, but there was hotter action in his action scenes. I know of Gianna Jun from My Sassy Girl and The Berlin File but found her tiresome as the arrogant and sleazy Yenicall. Despite her clearly relishing the role, I did not relish her presence which was neither as sexy or funny as it should have been. In a world where professionalism is everything, I found her adolescent behaviour distracting and her sex appeal failed to register with me so seeing her drape herself on men or strut around in nothing but a towel lacked the spark the scenes intended. This is very much a personal thing (Ha Ji-won will always be my favourite Korean actress!) so others will probably fall in love with her. Lee Jung-jae is the best out of the lot as the leader Popie. With his polished good looks, he makes a great leading man and manages to convey the complexity of his character when the time comes to show how much of a nefarious schemer he is.
Another character-breaking problem was dialogue. There is a lot of dialogue for the actors to deliver and they converse in Korean, Cantonese, English, and Japanese. For the most part it sounds fine but there were times when I found the terrible Japanese of Simon Yam and Kim Hae-suk to be very distracting (these are supposedly veteran con-artists passing themselves off as Japanese tourists in a high-stakes card game). Other than that the actors deliver dialogue in their native-tongues with gusto but most of the dialogue they speak never quite reaches a level of wit or intelligence that one expects from this type of film or the smooth operators we imagine some of them to be. It is energetically delivered, just not memorable with few smart put-downs and even less technical jargon that thieves can usually be heard spouting in other heist thrillers.
All of the complaints reveal what took away from the enjoyment I had in watching the twisted back-stories unravel as people betrayed each other and the few murky pasts were revealed. Had the dialogue and characterisation been better, I might have cared more. As the film is, it’s got almost enough dazzle to distract from the imperfections but not make it memorable.