The Thieves 도둑들
2012, colour, 2.35:1, 135 mins
Directed by Choi Dong-hoon (최동훈 | 崔東勳)
By Derek Elley
Wed, 22 August 2012, 09:30 AM (HKT)
A characterful cast and multiple twists keep the criminal capers entertaining. Asian and genre events.
South Korea, the present day. Posing as mother and daughter, two professional thieves - middle-aged alcoholic Chewing Gum (Kim Hae-suk) and trashy Anycall (Gianna Jun) - rob the wealthy owner of Leesung Gallery (Shin Ha-gyun) of a rare artifact he bought from notorious Chinese fence Wei Hong (Gi Guk-seo). The theft is organised by team leader Popeye (Lee Jeong-jae), helped by his associate Zampano (Kim Su-hyeon). The next day they are visited by a police detective (Ju Jin-mo) who is hot on Popeye's trail. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong Chinese veteran thief Chen (Simon Yam), along with Jonny (Derek Tsang) and Korean-Chinese Andrew (Oh Dal-su), are busy robbing a jewellery shop. Afterwards, they're joined by Julie (Angelica Lee), the daughter of a professional safecracker. To escape the heat at home, the Koreans join Chen's gang in Hong Kong for a heist led by South Korean master thief Macau Park (Kim Yun-seok), who was once Popeye's boss. Park's plan is to steal the Tear of the Sun diamond, worth US$30 million, which was stolen during an exhibition in Tokyo by Japanese thief Madame Tiffany (Ye Su-jeong), mistress of Wei Hong, who is coming to sell it in Macau. Popeye has brought along safecracker Pepsi (Kim Hye-su), just released on parole, but Park is unhappy with her joining the team, as they once had a relationship that ended badly four years ago. Park intends to sell the diamond back to Wei Hong for US$20 million - a risky venture as Wei Hong, whose face has rarely been seen, has a habit of murdering anyone who crosses him. Everyone in the team of thieves has a separate agenda and, when the robbery finally takes place in Macau, little goes according to plan.
After his ho-hum action fantasy Woochi 전우치 (2009), writer-director CHOI Dong-hoon 최동훈 | 崔東勳 bounces back with his familiar world of con artists, gamblers and crooks in his fourth feature, local mega-hit The Thieves 도둑들 — but on a much larger Asian stage. Set in Hong Kong and Macau, as well as South Korea, and with Chinese actors including Simon YAM 任達華 and Angelica LEE 李心潔, Thieves has a different feel from the hermetically sealed worlds of Choi's gem-like debut The Big Swindle 범죄의 재구성 (2003) and the complex Tazza: The High Rollers 타짜 (2006), mixing some splashy action in overseas locations alongside all the double-dealing and multiple betrayals. But what it loses in intensity it gains in scope, and after a long-limbed set-up (in which the main robbery is only the starting-point) it finally delivers in a 45-minute finale back in South Korea that has enough material for a whole separate feature.
Though dependant on audiences recognising faces, Choi's films have always provided great platforms for his actors, and nowhere less than in Thieves, which brings back two leads from Tazza. As blank-faced veteran Macau Park, KIM Yun-seok 김윤석 | 金倫奭 (the scruffy cop in The Chaser 추격자 (2008) and gangster in The Yellow Sea 황해 | 黃海 (2010)) doesn't quite have the effortless mastery that BAEK Yun-shik 백윤식 | 白允植 showed in similar roles in Swindle and Tazza, but his more down-to-earth style fits the tone of the movie better, as well as being able to handle action sequences. And as vampy safecracker Pepsi who still has issues to settle with Park, the stylish KIM Hye-su 김혜수 | 金憓秀 — as in Tazza — basically wipes the floor with the rest of the female cast as well as holding her own in male company.
On a lighter side, LEE Jeong-jae 이정재 | 李政宰 (the master in The Housemaid 하녀 (2010)) is especially good as Park's onetime partner who still holds a torch for the ruthless Pepsi, while veteran actress KIM Hae-suk 김해숙 | 金海淑 provides some mature comedy as lovelorn alcoholic thief Chewing Gum. SHIN Ha-gyun 신하균 | 申河均 (The Front Line 고지전 (2011)) pops up in a jokey role as a celebrity art collector. The biggest surprise, however, is Gianna JUN 전지현 | 全智賢 (aka Jeon Ji-hyeon) who, after a series of bland roles following her breakout in My Sassy Girl 엽기적인 그녀 (2001), finally rises to a meaty part, and has some real fun, as a trashy-sexy cat burglar.
In fact, Jun's role sets the tone for much of the going, which is far from being a super-slick heist movie. From the opening setpiece, where a vault-cracking almost goes wrong, to the central casino-set robbery, where almost everything goes wrong, the characters in Thieves are all deeply flawed criminals who, when they aren't at each other's throats, more than often stumble along with a blend of professionalism and amateurism. It's that quirky mix that keeps the film watchable and engaging on a character level when some of Choi's plot contrivances often stretch credibility, even on a genre level. Only in the extended final act does the movie come together as a whole, with twists, betrayals, action and character delivering some extended drama.
On a dialogue level, there's little of the sustained tension of Swindle and Tazza, especially given the larger cast and the ever-difficult problem of blending Korean and Chinese acting styles. Among the latter, Yam has the best shot as a grizzled veteran, and performs credibly, but Lee and Derek TSANG 曾國祥 are basically bystanders. A further dramatic hitch is the use of multiple languages (Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, English), with the Mandarin spoken by the Koreans often incomprehensible — and needing to be revoiced if the movie is ever released in Mandarin-speaking territories. With the finale set in Busan, back in South Korea, and pretty much an all-Korean affair, Thieves seems to find its feet more, relieved of the need to be international.
Technically the film is smooth without being super-slick — which fits its personality — and the action likewise. A jazzy score by JANG Yeong-gyu 장영규 (Tazza) keeps the mood whimsical. One major first is a chase with machine-guns around the sides of a building, which is a jaw-dropper even within the complicated, action-ful finale.
ContactSales: Showbox, Seoul (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Theatrical release: South Korea, 25 Jul 2012.
Presented by Showbox/Mediaplex (SK). Produced by Caper Film (SK). Executive producer: Yu Jeong-hun. Producer: An Su-hyeon.
Script: Choi Dong-hoon, Lee Gi-cheol. Photography: Choi Yeong-hwan. Editing: Shin Min-gyeong. Music: Jang Yeong-gyu, Dalparan. Art direction: Lee Ha-jun. Costumes: Choi Se-yeon. Sound: Eun Hwa-su. Action: Yu Sang-seop, Jeong Yun-won. Special effects: Demolition. Visual effects: Lee Ju-won.
Cast: Kim Yun-seok (Macau Park/Park Do-hyeon), Kim Hye-su (Pepsi), Lee Jeong-jae (Popeye), Gianna Jun (Anycall/Ye Bok-hui), Simon Yam (Chen), Kim Hae-suk (Chewing Gum), Oh Dal-su (Andrew), Kim Su-hyeon (Zampano), Derek Tsang (Jonny), Angelica Lee (Julie), Shin Ha-gyun (art gallery owner), Ju Jin-mo (detective), Gi Guk-seo (Wei Hong), Choi Deok-mun (casino manager), Chae Guk-hui (informant), Ye Su-jeong (Madame Tiffany).