Choi Dong-hoon is a director I had not come across in South Korean cinema, until being given tickets to attend the London Korean Film Festival and a screening of his 2012 box office smash, The Thieves. A complicated, convoluted but highly entertaining heist movie, it is easy to see why this quickly became one of the highest grossing films in South Korean history. A swift background check shows that Dong-Hoon is no stranger to this type of genre, his previous films The Big Swindle and Tazza were also huge successes and followed similar themes, so he clearly knows what he is doing.
Well executed, with a complex plot, it does enough to keep you rooted to the seat for the full 2 hours, and shows that The Thieves, like many South Korean films, is a great example of balancing style without compromising on substance. Dong-Hoon brings together an eclectic cast from Korea and Hong Kong to make up our team of thieves, and despite many notable faces cropping up, it was refreshing to see enough time given to each of our characters, not just the burly, fighty, stabby men.
The central characters of this challenging heist consist of Macao Park played by Kim Yun-seok (The Chaser, Haemoo, The Yellow Sea); he is labelled as the brains of the entire job. People follow his orders, but that does not stop you second-guessing that something seems off about him. Next up, Popie played by Lee Jung-jae (Assassination, New World, The Housemaid); he is his second in command, the head of a second gang of thieves who we meet earlier on in the film, willing to collaborate but sceptical nonetheless. Then the twist to this relatively straight-forward core group is the introduction of Pepsee played by Kim Hye-soo (Coin Locker Girl, Villain and Widow, The Red Shoes), a former accomplice to both men, whose inclusion only stands to strain relationship between all involved due to a dodgy history between them.
The remaining crew consists of Kim Soo-hyun (Secretly, Greatly), Jeon Ji-hyun (Assassination, My Sassy Girl), Simon Yam (Election 1 & 2), Derek Tsang (Girl$, Lovers Discourse), Kim Hae-sook (Thirst, Viva! Love), Oh Dal-soo (Miracle in Cell No 7). and Angelica Lee (Koma, 20 30 40), which on film history alone goes to show the depth of talent available in this film. Each are given their own time to shine, and irrespective of how close to the core three they are, each have a pivotal role to play in the heist itself.
These roles are defined by a specific skill that makes them useful to the heist, naturally that brings with it a degree of arrogance and self-entitlement. With the amount of money at stake, the history between some, and the reluctance from some to work with others, a series of backstabbing plots and secret agreements take place, leading to a feeling of mistrust that filters through the group.
It is at this stage that the film begins to lose its footing. For all its style, the constant back-and-forth between each person and their own agenda can become a little tricky to follow. The individual treachery of the 10 individuals is one thing, but knowing who has the upper hand in this complicated heist takes your ability to understand this plot to an entirely different level.
Some might switch off once it starts to flip-flop the way it does, and I would not blame them. The double-cross becomes such a watered down storytelling aspect that it begins to lose its appeal, and as they are all conniving thieves, you would be hard pressed to find a reason to invest in any particular character. There really is no good guy in all this.
Putting the overly complex story to one side, albeit a fundamental part of any film(!), you are left with one very funny comedy for the first half, and a good-looking action movie for the latter half. You can almost detach yourself from the cycle of never-ending betrayals and enjoy the action as it ramps up to its finale. The sequences are believable and varied, but fundamentally displaying for all to see the scope of Dong-Hoons creative vision.
It might be too long, there may have been too many twists, perhaps it was too smart for its own good, but you cannot deny that The Thieves is damn good fun to watch. For all its faults, it still has a funny, light-hearted script, balanced by remarkable action sequences carried out by an entertaining cast, which when it all comes together is something very enjoyable. With all the tripe produced by Hollywood, the overproduced and overmarketed rubbish filled with a complete lack of realism and shaky camerawork to attempt to emphasise non-existent excitement, The Thieves stands out as an alternative, highly creative take on a worn out genre.