Director Choi Dong-hoon’s ‘The Thieves’ hit Korean cinemas in 2012 with a wallop, a globe trotting adventure consisting of an all-star Pan-Asian cast, it quickly became the most watched movie in Korean history. It was also responsible for sparking a lot of debate around if big Hollywood style blockbusters and Chinese co-productions are the way forward for Korean cinema, slowly leading to distinctly Korean flavoured mid-budget efforts becoming a thing of the past.
However take a step back from all the discussion
around what is and what isn’t the future of Korean cinema, and taken as what it is ‘The Thieves’ sets out to do exactly what it intended – provide two hours of unpretentious good spirited entertainment. Even with no details of the plot, I'm sure the cast alone was responsible for some of the ticket sales – Dong-hoon regulars Kim Yoon-seok (‘The Chaser' 추격자) & Kim Hye-soo (‘Tazza' 타짜) are joined by Lee Jong-jae (‘The New World' 신세계), Kim Hae-sook (‘Thirst' 박쥐), Kim Soo-hyun (‘Secretly Greatly' 은밀하게 위대하게), and making her Korean movie come-back Jun Ji-hyeon (‘The Berlin File' 베를린). Throw in Hong Kong movie legend Simon Yam ('Daisy' 데이지), Chinese actor Derek Tsang (‘Dream Home’), & Malaysian star Angelica Lee (‘The Eye’), and anyone who’s a fan of star watching should be more than happy.
A testament to the popularity of ‘The Thieves’ comes in the form of its showing at the Korean Film Festival actually being its second theatrical run down under, its first came from the movies Chinese distributor last year. Interestingly during its first run, the portions of the movie spoken in Chinese, of which there is a sizable amount, only came with English subtitles and no Korean. So its showing during the Film Festival will be the first time it’s shown with Korean subtitles over the Chinese language segments, which I’m sure has a lot of festival attendees breathing a sigh of relief.
The movies jewelry heist plot has drawn inevitable comparisons with Hollywood’s ‘Oceans 11/12/13’ trilogy, however that should be were they stop. 'The Thieves' did for me what none of those movies could - provided characters that had motivations people could relate to, cinematography which looked stylishly cool without ever seeming like it was just being that way for the sake of it, comedy which was effortlessly funny, and of course, thrilling action scenes. All of the players have good chemistry with each other, and despite the large number of them, it’s a credit to Dong-hoon, who also co-wrote the script, that none of them fade into the background.
It’s also worth noting what a refreshing sight it was to see a Korean / Chinese co-production that has both cultures being given equal respect in the script. The scene when the two groups of thieves first meet each other, and both are discussing their mistrust of the other by listing off the usual racial stereotypes in their own language, is both funny but at the same time also self-aware and knowing. No doubt Dong-hoon’s love of Hong Kong action movies plays a part in this, and this also carries over into the movies action sequences. Indeed there are several nods to movies like John Woo’s ‘Once a Thief’ and Tsui Hark’s ‘Time & Tide’ in some of the big set pieces, one of which has Kim Yoon-seok engaging in an amazing gun fight against multiple opponents while abseiling down a building.
The international cast sees the movie turn into quite a globe trotting affair, with the plot unfolding across Seoul, Busan, Hong Kong, & Macau, easily making it Dong-hoon’s biggest production to date. In many ways ‘The Thieves’ represents the director reaching the peak of his powers as a commercial movie maker. While his previous efforts ‘The Big Swindle' (범죄의 재구성), ‘Tazza' (타짜), and ‘Woochi' (전우치) are all solid commercial productions, ‘The Thieves’ really sees him hit his stride and flex his movie making muscles with a handsome budget and equally handsome cast.
Regardless of any negativity the movies multi-nationality cast and cosmopolitan style may have had held against it, ‘The Thieves’ undeniably shows that Korean film makers are capable of handling large scale international action movies. In an industry which has become somewhat famous for its violent blood soaked revenge thrillers and tear inducing melodramas, there are people out there who would question if the country is capable of producing an adventure romp that serves as pure entertainment, with no strings attached or underlying social commentary. Dong-hoon has given us a movie which confirms the answer is a definite “Yes, they can.” Not only that, but they look good doing it. If you haven’t yet had a chance to check out ‘The Thieves’, for this reviewer at least, it comes with a hearty recommendation.
By Paul Bramhall
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