One of the most enjoyable times I spent in the cinema last year was watching the big-budget, star-studded, South Korean caper flick, The Thieves — where the energy, humour and all-round film-making smarts were a joy to experience.
Sold nearly everywhere as an Asian version of Hollywood’s Oceans franchise – well, that’s called marketing. As I saw it, The Thieves was a surprisingly effective counterpoint to the lethargic, middle-aged preening of director Soderbergh and his precious stars.
A nifty theft of a priceless ornament from a highly secure vault marks the beginning of the movie. It’s here we’re introduced to most of the cast, a team of truly talented scammers and safe-crackers. In particular we meet Yenicall (Gianna Jun), a supple and sexy cat burglar with a head for heights, who makes Catherine Zeta-Jones from Entrapment look like a senior citizen attempting Pilates.
In charge of the gang is Popie (Lee Jung-jae) whose organisational skills are often brought into question. They steal expensive loot but never seem to make much money from it. This causes tension amongst the group.
A legendary thief, Macao Park (Kim Yun-seok), brings the thieves a once-in-a-lifetime chance at a big score: to steal a ten million dollar diamond from a Chinese gangster and sell it back to him for twenty million dollars. The avaricious Popie accepts on the spot telling Macao Park “This gang specialises in miracles”.
But there are strings attached: the Koreans have to work with a Hong Kong gang led by the smooth talking Chen (Simon Yam), who has access to and knowledge of the Macau-based gangster and target, Wei Hong. An uneasy alliance is formed based purely on greed, but in secret both crews are plotting against each other.
Director Choi Dong-hoon (Woochi) and co-writer Lee Gi-cheol avoid the traps inherent in the caper genre, which usually are a hopelessly convoluted script and too much focus on the actual robbery. They have produced a well paced screenplay with likeable and loatheable characters, plus some very funny and salty dialogue.
The robbery in Macau is carried out in an efficient and stylish manner and brought to the screen in all its color and excitement. A short sequence involving Chen trying to escape the authorities is a highlight of the movie – in the most unexpected way!
With a bruised and depleted gang returning to Korea and being pursued by triad assassins and the local police – desperate people are now making desperate decisions. Much of which comes together in the darkened hallways of a grubby apartment block in downtown Busan, where jewellery is exchanged and traitors unmasked. The storyline now centres on Macao Park who is trying to elude armed gangsters and machine gun carrying SWAT teams. In an amazing action sequence he abseils down the side of a tenement building narrowly avoiding gunfire from crims and cops on either side of him. It’s a magnificent blend of Die Hard and The Raid with the protagonist using flimsy flower boxes and unstable air conditioning units as shields from the seemingly endless bursts of automatic fire. To put it simply, this section of film is a masterclass in action choreography and movie editing.
It’s no surprise to me that The Thieves has become South Korea’s highest grossing film. It’s an extremely well made commercial movie that sets out to be an audience pleaser and achieves this end admirably.