The Thieves: Busan Review

The Thieves film still - H
Acrobatic action, amusing characters and an exotic pan-Asian setting make a top-grossing combo in Choi Dong-hoon’s light-hearted caper film.

Choi Dong-hoon’s blockbuster heist film highlights a glamorous cast that includes Gianna Jun, Lee Jung-jae, Kim Hye-soo and Simon Yam.

A sparkling heist film tricked up with imaginative action scenes and 10 fully developed characters who keep the ball rolling, The Thieves is a stylish and entertaining caper in spicy Asian sauce. Dubbed South Korea’s answer to Ocean’s Eleven, the story does indeed revolve around a daring casino theft and a playful band of robbers, in this case all ace criminals. Directed by heist meister Choi Dong-hoon (The Big Swindle, Tazza: The High Rollers) and featuring a swinging A-list cast, it has topped 13 million domestic admissions to become the most-watched Korean film of all time. Well Go USA will release Stateside on Oct. 12.

Apart from generating a great deal of romantic chemistry, the glamorous cast of characters are as fast with barbed wit as they are nimble on their feet or, as case may be, flying through the air, climbing up the side of a building or dangling by wires. The fact that each of them is memorably individualized marks a tribute to Choi and Lee Gi-cheol’s carefully penned screenplay, as well as the all-around acting talent. Adding a modern note, the actresses get equal time and respect as pros in their field, while the strongly limbed female characters mischievously hold their own with the boys.

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A small caveat: the plot unfolds at the speed of light and the viewer needs to be very quick-witted to follow it, though this isn’t Shakespeare and missing out on a few story points won’t diminish the fun. It all begins when the leggy and lovely Yenicall (Gianna Jun of Blood: The Last Vampire) pays a visit to her fabulously rich fiancé with her down-to-earth mom (Kim Hae-sook), who demands to see his fabled art collection rotated for display in a Seoul museum. The minute she’s alone, Yenicall strips out of her Chanel down to a black leotard and, with perfect back-up on the ground from her young accomplice Zampano (Kim Soo-hyun), hooks up some wires, zooms to the 30th floor, and nonchalantly cuts her way through the plate glass into a vault, Ghost Protocol-style, while “mom” deactivates the alarm with chewing gum.

All this takes place in the smooth-as-silk pre-title intro, a pretty impressive start. When the gang meets to divvy up the loot in the garage of ringleader Popeye (Lee Jung-jae of The Housemaid), he tells them a big new caper is planned in Macau with a band of thieves from Hong Kong. Though they know each other from previous jobs, the Korean and Chinese gangs immediately flare up over the presence of ace Korean safe-cracker Pepsi (Kim Hye-soo), a woman who once had an affair with the Chinese honcho, Macau Park (Kim Yun-seok). Macau has the insider info needed to run the show, thus displacing Popeye as leader of the caper. And he doesn’t want to delve into unfinished business with his old flame Pepsi. Also on his side are the aging gentleman thief Chen (played by Johnnie To regular Simon Yam with moving humanity) and their own expert safecracker, Julie (pert Angelica Lee) with comic back-up from Derek Tsang and Oh Dal-soo.  

They’re going after big game: a yellow diamond called Tear of the Sun, worth $30 million. It’s currently the property of a rich lady named Tiffany and closely followed by the mysterious, and extremely dangerous, international fence Wei Hong. Since it’s kept in a high security vault inside Tiffany’s suite in a casino, the gangs converge in Macau and set their incredibly complex plan in action. Director Choi has a magician’s touch in keeping multiple balls in the air at the same time while making the impossible seem vaguely plausible. A big part of the sleight-of-hand is the joking tone of the dialogue and goofy action that always seems on the verge of cueing an entrance by Inspector Clouseau and the Pink Panther.

The action scenes get wilder and wilder as the story progresses; everyone starts searching for the missing diamond and romances and betrayals get even more entangled. While Yenicall and Popeye play cat-and-mouse dangling on wires in an elevator shaft, Macao, too, ends up on wires dodging gunfire and explosions, while trying to stay out of the hands of the police and the crossfire of a SWAT team that has been called in to quell the mayhem. This breathless grand finale puts a satisfying cap on a pretty unique piece of exotic entertainment.    

Technical work always hits the mark, with the musical score adding tension or ironic comment as needed. This free-wheeling approach also works in the production design that leaps between countries and likes to contrast the ordinary clutter of streets and apartments with the unnatural shine of the casino and luxury sets.

Venue: Busan Film Festival (Open Cinema), Oct. 5, 2012.

Production company: Caper Film

Cast: Kim Yun-seok, Kim Hye-soo, Lee Jung-jae, Gianna Jun, Simon Yam, Kim Hae-sook, Oh Dal-soo, Kim Soo-hyun, Derek Tsang, Lee Sin-je

Director: Choi Dong-hoon

Screenwriters: Choi Dong-hoon, Lee Gi-cheol

Producers:  Ahn Soo-hyun

Co-producers: Kim Sung-min, Jung Moon-goo

Executive producer: You Jeong-hun

Director of photography: Choi Young-hwan

Production designer: Lee Ha-jun

Costumes: Choi Se-yeon

Editor: Shin Min-kyung

Music: Jan Young-gyu, Dalpalan

Sales Agent: Showbox/Mediaplex

No rating, 135 minutes.