Boasting a large ensemble of established and popular stars, and making use of locations in South Korea, Hong Kong and Macau, Choi Dong Hoon’s The Thieves is often spectacular. The plot is packed with incidents and conflicts, twists and turns, rarely lagging before hitting the next mark. I was glad to see this as part of the 2013 Korean Film Festival as the action is best appreciated on a big screen. (Sidenote: Melbourne is fortunate to have so many excellent film festivals and I like to get along to support them. The Korean festival is brilliant – a small but interesting program and very well organised, with lots of extra events around the films)
Things start to heat up when Macao Park (Kim Yoon Seok) assembles a team of ten thieves to steal a legendary diamond. The Korean thieves know each other, as do the Chinese members, but they’ve never worked together. There is open conflict, and hidden resentments and betrayals. Once the pressure is on, who will stick to the plan and who will look out for themselves? Maybe they don’t know each other as well as they think.
The Korean team consists of the leader Popie (pronounced Popeye) (Lee Jung Jae), cat burglar and wire expert Yennicall (Jeon Ji Hyun aka Gianna Jun), technical assistant and token cute boy Zampano (Kim Soo Hyun) and middle aged con artist Chewing Gum (Kim Hae Sook). They are joined by safecracker Pepsee (Kim Hye Soo), just released from jail after a gold heist gone wrong. Her partners in that gig were Macao Park and Popie. In China, Macao Park recruits veteran Chen (Simon Yam) and his sidekicks Jonny (Derek Tsang) and Andrew (Oh Dal Soo) plus another safecracker, Julie (Angelica Lee). The game is afoot!
The characters are clearly defined in terms of type (competent, eye candy, comedy fodder etc.) from the start but the personalities and history emerge throughout the course of the action. Personal and professional rivalries bubble to the surface, and almost everyone has their own agenda. Often in this kind of film the nuances of characterisation are missing or overshadowed by the action. I was pleasantly surprised by the female characters, most of whom were more developed and complex than the guys. There is some romance between thieves, but not always what you might expect, and it doesn’t seem to distract the ladies from the task at hand.
Jeon Ji Hyun is lots of fun as Yenni. One minute she is trading on her beauty, the next she could be doing a dorky victory dance or coolly rappelling down a skyscraper. Yennicall is often the butt of jokes but she is not as dumb as some might like to think. She just concentrates on what works for her. And Yenni is not just the token hot chick, she is a skilled thief with fairly good instincts even if she does seem a bit dim. Zampano has a crush on her and they have an oddly sweet relationship. She knows he is into her, she is out for herself, but they are friends and colleagues. Her rapport with Chewing Gum and her vague jealousy of Pepsee are well played. It’s a nice performance as Jeon Ji Hyun doesn’t mind playing against her glamour girl image and has good comic timing.
Pepsee and Julie are extremely competent and each has a strong back story that informs their present choices. Kim Hye Soo gives Pepsee a tough façade over a wounded heart. Angelica Lee is all business and Julie’s sharp eyes rarely miss a trick. They are very different from each other on some levels, and I appreciated seeing diverse strong women in the story. Their rivalry is on a professional level, it has nothing to do with any of the men in the team. They can respect each other but that won’t get in the way of what needs to be done.
Lee Jung Jae plays Popie with almost teenage angst. He wants to be taken seriously, to be the leader, he wants Pepsee to forget Macao Park and why doesn’t she love him instead. It’s a well-judged performance as while some of Popie’s actions and dialogue are incredibly silly, he plays a major part in what happens so needs to be credible. And I appreciated the stick on moustache which no one ever believed was real.
It’s a long wait to find out what drives Macao Park and exactly how his relationship with Pepsee went sour. The character is a brilliant strategist and thief, and he stays cool in the most trying of situations. That makes him less relatable and human and consequently I was a bit less invested in his situation than I was in the other team members. Kim Yoon Seok does well in the scenes where he can show some of the complexity and emotion under that calm surface, and he underplays most scenes to great effect. He also gets the best and most explosive action sequence of the film culminating in a vertiginous fight on cables down the side of an apartment building.
In between marvelling at the camera and wire work I was a bit distracted by the ease with which so many airconditioning units were dislodged. Maybe they don’t get really big pigeons in Busan.
Kim Soo Hyun is underutilised as Zampano, the guy on the other end of Yenni’s wire rig. He gets little to do, but makes the best of his limited role and some of his scenes with Yenni are charming. And of all the guys in the cast, the only one you’d really want to see shirtless is him, so that worked out well.
Simon Yam and Kim Hae Sook stole the limelight when they were sharing their little corner of the subplot. I always like seeing secondary characters with a sense of purpose or dreams of their own, and Chen and Chewing Gum gave the story some welcome uncomplicated affection.
Apart from the main ensemble, there is a sizeable supporting cast. Ki Gook Seo and Ju Jin Mo stand out as the dangerous fence Wei Fong and the dogged policeman on the trail of…well, everyone. All of the threads lead back to a couple of key factors so as things unfold, some of the peripheral characters move in or out of focus.
Choi Yeong Hwan makes great use of contrasts to set the mood with striking visuals and composition. The shady rooms and derelict factories where thieves do business are tucked away beneath the high gloss of Macau, with casinos doing the work of thieves in parting people from their money. You can almost taste the greed and aspiration. The action scenes are beautifully composed and edited, sometimes giving an aerial view of the moving parts ofa clever scheme and other times plunging into the action and confusion. In some scenes the film speed slows and speeds up to synch with the dramatic ebb and flow. Jang Yeong Gyoo’s soundtrack is perfect for this genre. Bouncy and brassy, sometimes even a bit funky, the music matches the pace and adrenalin of the action and visuals. It’s another very accomplished and confident effort from the team that made ‘Tazza: The High Rollers’.
The Thieves has so much going on that I am impressed the sense of urgency and consequence was maintained even when the revelations were all out in the open. The blend of action, humour and drama is deft and the characters are well drawn. I enjoyed it immensely. 4 stars!