In order to let things cool down from their latest heist, Popeye (Jung-Jae Lee) and his group of thieves go to Macau on a job. While working together to steal this fabled diamond, they all have their own agenda to keep the diamond for themselves.
The Hot Rock, The Jokers, Gambit, Rififi, The Red Circle, and The Thomas Crown Affair. These are what are generically known as caper pictures. Korean film Thieves (the universally used title, despite the film's title card clearly reading 'The Thieves’) is as entertaining and engaging as some of the best of the genre.
Thieves has a series of memorable – and original – sequences
Beginning with an outlandish Seoul art gallery heist, continuing with a complex main game in a Macau casino and peaking with a rappelling chase scene down the side of a decaying Busan apartment building, Thieves has a series of memorable – and original – sequences. Add to that delightful performances which are true to the established genre, but are in no way derivative. Yet the first comment most reviewers will make in describing this film is that it's South Korea's Ocean's 11. While that's a tribute to Stephen Soderbergh's talent for branding (which also by the way fails to take in to account the 1960 Lewis Milestone version of Ocean's 11 which has one of the best heist finales ever) it is also incredibly dismissive of a stylish and adventurous film. To top it off, it completely ignores the contribution to the heist genre already made by Korean director Choi Dong-hoon (The Big Swindle and better still Tazza).
The initial entertaining and audacious art gallery robbery allows a team of Korean professional criminals headed by Popeye (Lee Jeong-jae from Il Mare in an edgy, tetchy performance) to strut their stuff and provide a reason for them to hide and risk getting involved with the dodgy Macau Park (Kim Yoon-seok of The Chaser) who left Popeye holding the (empty) bag many years before. Into the mix, Popeye also brings Pepsi (Kim Hye-soo), which not only ruffles the feathers of Anycall (Jeon Ji-hyeon), who is accustomed to being the most attractive woman on any heist, but also happens to be Macau Park's old flame. Additional sparks fly when the Koreans and the Mandarin-speaking gang assembled by Macau jockey for position as the crime's A-team.
With such a wide ensemble, it helps to pay close attention, but the characterisations are distinctive enough to prevent more confusion than is actually intended. Who is who is easy enough to track, but with multiple strands, operating simultaneously in the Macau casino where the robbery of the exquisitely named 'Tear of the Sun’ diamond is to take place, who is doing what and why is somewhat trickier to absorb.
Little in the film is predictable, but the main surprise of Thieves is the double act of Hong Kong's Simon Yam and Kim Hae-sook, who both pretend to be Japanese high rollers. Not only are they the vehicle for an unexpected plot twist, but they also provide some scenes of unforeseen emotional depth this kind of film normally eschews.
It is as slick as any Hollywood product out there and is galloping on to soon overtake The Host as the number one Korean box office film ever. And if you can't quite bring yourself to shake that (lazy) Ocean's 11 comparison, I'll just have to take heart in the fact that a Korean horror film called Sex, Lies and Videotape aka Sek-geo-bi had appropriated Soderbergh's debut film title (with Capital Letters mind you) in an effort to attract attention to itself at Busan's film market. Lack of respect can run both ways you know.
Sunday 22 December, 1:35AM on SBS
South Korea, 2012
Genre: Crime, Action
Director: Dong-Hoon Choi
Starring: Yoon-Seok Kim, Jung-jae Lee, Hye-su Kim
What's it about?
In order to let things cool down from their latest heist, Popeye (Lee) and his group of thieves go to Macau on a job. While working together to steal this fabled diamond, they all have their own agenda to keep the diamond for themselves.