London Korean Film Festival has returned for its 17th edition. From new releases to hits from renowned Korean directors, the FilmSoc Journal reviews a selection of films showing at this season’s festival.
Mandy Huynh reviews Choi Dong-hoon’s knotty cross-cultural heist thriller The Thieves, starring Kim Yoon-Seok as a criminal mastermind.
On a warm Friday night, I rushed into the grand Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre at the V&A, on the dot. Luckily, the usher informed me that a front-and-centre seat had opened up. I quickly settled down, as Choi Dong-hoon, director of The Thieves (2012), exclaimed, “This is the perfect place to screen the movie—there are so many things to steal!”—and indeed, it was, for The Thieves is a classic heist movie, not to mention one of the highest grossing movies of all time in South Korea.
The story follows a group of five notorious Korean thieves who work as a well-oiled machine until they are persuaded to join forces with three Chinese thieves to steal the “Tear of the Sun” diamond from a Macau casino. The operation is led by a mysterious mastermind and estranged member of the Korean team, Macao Park (Kim Yoon-seok). Due to the international cast, the film is multilingual: Korean, Cantonese, and Mandarin are spoken throughout the film. In the Q&A session afterwards, the film’s producer (and director’s wife) Ahn Soo-hyun claimed that such an international cast was new to Korean audiences at the time, and probably contributed to its box office success.
From the beginning, the viewer senses that something is awry within the group, and therefore, that something is definitely going to go wrong with the heist. During the Q&A session (moderated by Danny Leigh, Chief Film Writer at the Financial Times) the director shared that the tense scene that establishes this uneasiness, where the Korean and Chinese thieves meet for the first time in a restaurant, was one of their favourite scenes to shoot.
I have enjoyed my fair share of heist movies; my favourites include Bad Genius (2017), Baby Driver (2017), Focus (2015), Now You See Me (2013), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), and Inception (2010). I thoroughly enjoy the cerebral exercise and thrill of “being a part of” illicit activity that is typically seduced out of viewers from this genre.
Though the storyline may not be as out-of-the-box compared to my favourite heist movies, The Thieves features not only witty humour that elicited giggles from the crowd on various occasions but also elaborate backstories for its multifaceted characters. Even Yenicall (Jun Ji-hyun), who could have easily embodied the hypersexualized “hot girl” trope, is portrayed as a talented, intelligent, opportunistic thief with a powerful, story-bending agency. Both the producer and director actively sought to defy the shallow expectations of this character, as they addressed in the Q&A.
Throughout the film, details of the complex interpersonal relationships between many of the characters are gradually revealed to the audience in flashbacks and uncomfortable interactions, as they coalesce to threaten the success of the heist. Love, misunderstanding, distrust, and misplaced grudges form either chasms or bridges in these relationships.
As a result of these (somewhat) humanising backstories, the film challenges the notion of a black-and-white morality. It makes an anti-hero out of Park, a remorseless thief who evidently still harbours some type of moral code. Thus, while the viewer may judge Park critically, he also becomes someone we may feel pity for, especially when his real motive is revealed in the end: to get revenge on his father’s murderers.
Essentially, the film asks what I think all heist films do to an extent: What happens when people with questionable morals work together in a way that necessitates a certain level of mutual trust and loyalty for a successful outcome? Dong-hoon’s film answers with layers upon layers of deception from all sides, which seem to know no end—that is, until it is all cleverly resolved by the end of the film.
The V&A screened The Thieves (2012) as part of the ongoing exhibition Hallyu! The Korean Wave. After enjoying The Thieves, especially for its unique differences from Western heist films in its humour and deeper character backstories, I’m looking forward to visiting the exhibition to learn more about South Korean culture, and its incredible impact on our collective creative imaginations.
Watch the trailer for The Thieves here: