What you need to know
‘The Thieves’, a Korean heist film released ten years ago this month, is cinema at its best.
The heist film peaked with Choi Dong-hoon’s The Thieves (도둑들), released ten years ago this month.
Co-written by Choi, Lee Ki-cheol, and Jeong Seong-hun in five languages (Korean, English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese), the film is exciting, witty, fun, sexy, and silly, and it has twists up the wazoo. Best of all, this cinematic confection is motivated by character dynamics, thanks in no small part to an able and charismatic international cast. Its 136 minutes fly by fast.
It begins simply enough. A beautiful woman (the inimitable Jun Ji-hyun) brings her judgmental and materialistic mother (Kim Hae-sook) to visit her rich boyfriend (Shin Ha-kyun). As he takes Mother to visit his art vault, the beautiful burglar scales the outside wall — with the help of a guy (Lee Jung-jae) with rope and pulley — to reach the same vault left open by Mother, swaps out real item for fake, and climbs back just in time to welcome back the boyfriend.
The alluring master thief is Yenicall, and her mother is in fact a con artist, Chewingum. The technician is crew leader Popie (i.e., Popeye), and rounding out the gang is his young and handsome assistant, Zampano (Kim Soo-hyun), who measures off the rope lengths.
The opening ten minutes present the ideal execution of the crew’s plan, and of the film’s style. The stunts are clean and coherent (cinematography by Choi Young-hwan), the performances are snarky and precise, and the editing (by Shin Min-kyeong) is snappy and lean. The only thing left to introduce is the enormous wrench in the well-oiled machine: backstabbing.
That comes with the introduction of gangster Macao Park (Kim Yoon-seok). He has a job that calls for two crews, Popie’s and a Chinese crew led by Chen (Simon Yam). The inevitable tensions and distrust aren’t helped by the uncouth and lecherous Andrew (Oh Dal-su) on the Chinese side. Rounding out the second crew are Jonny (Derek Tsang) and safecracker Julie (Angelica Lee). And oh, by the way, Julie happens to be an undercover cop from Hong Kong. (Not a spoiler, as it’s presented as part of her backstory.)
Then we get the first of many twists: Popie brings out another safecracker, Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo). Popie, Pepsee, and Macao Park used to work together, until a job went south. Clearly it was sabotage, and each man suspects the other. This is the only part of the film that’s flagrantly implausible. Why would you agree to work with a traitor?
Macao Park’s proposed job is to steal a gigantic diamond from one of two safes in the casino VIP suite of Tiffany (Yeh Soo-jung) in (where else?) Macau and sell it to infamous fence Wei Hong (a perfectly cast Ki Gook-seo) — or rather, sell it back to Wei Hong, as Tiffany is his mistress. Wei Hong is infamous for offering prices that can’t be refused, and nobody who tries to inform on him has ever lived long enough to describe more than the butterfly tattoo on his wrist. He’s Julie's target, the reason she's part of the crew.
The plan, though audacious, is straightforward enough. Chen, Chewingum, and Andrew distract Tiffany while everyone else thwarts security to get Pepsee and Julie into the suite so they can crack the dual safes. But the film shifts into high gear when they find that neither safe has the diamond, kicking off the fourth act. Eat your heart out, Steven Soderbergh.
The film juggles its many characters and moving parts flawlessly, and it uses a neat trick to keep things straight. Not only does it introduce everyone, it organizes them into different subplots according roughly to generational cohort. I’ve already mentioned the shared history of Popie, Pepsee, and Macao Park, told through subjective flashbacks; that past is kept alive by the fact that they’re also in a love triangle.
On the younger end, Zampano is in love with Yenicall — and no wonder: She’s sexy, irreverent, and entertainingly flirtatious. The writers must really love Jun, because they give her the best stunts, lines, and comedic beats. One indelible scene finds her eavesdropping on Popie and Pepsee from their hotel balcony; when Popie goes to the balcony to retrieve a bottle of red, from which Yenicall has been drinking, she grabs her wine glass, jumps off the side, and bounces against the neighboring balcony to reach the floor below, all without spilling a drop. It’s obviously wirework (special effects by Jung Do-ahn), but in this case the unreal flowing quality of her jump accentuates her feline agility.
The room Yenicall arrives at turns out to be Zampano’s, and when he forcibly kisses her, her reaction is priceless.
Then, there’s Chewingum. Throughout the film, she often laments that her beauty days are long gone, so when, fleeing from the cops, Chen pulls out a gun to protect her, the whole sequence is very romantic, even more so for ending in slow-motion tragedy.
But even this divide and conquer narrative structure has its limits, so when things start getting truly chaotic, the film kills off its supporting cast. Early foreshadowing also helps to keep the sprawl in check, and each detail pays off with a sense of satisfaction. To be sure, every detail does matter, even if you have to wait till the coda.
As the film approaches that coda, plotlines gradually get resolved, and one by one the characters drop away. Debts are paid, and just deserts are meted out — who doesn’t love poetic justice? But it’s the farcically symmetrical ending, calling all the way back to the opening caper, that gives a powerful enough sense of closure to polish off this two-hour extravaganza.
Folks, cinema just doesn’t get much better than this. See for yourself.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.