Those that describe Choi Dong Hun’s The Thieves as Korea's answer to Ocean's Eleven are selling the film a little short, even though the original George Clooney outing was a blast from start to finish. They certainly share a lot in common – both films revolve around a casino heist and bring together a highly skilled team of professionals each with their own agenda – but The Thieves' blend of goofball humour, quirky romance, affecting drama and inventive action sequences gives it an identity of its own.
There’s a good reason why The Thieves is one of the highest-grossing Korean films of all time. Choi Dong Hun's return to heist movie territory brings together a stunning array of Korean and Chinese stars. Lee Jung Jae, Kim Yoon Seok, Jeon Ji Hyun and Kim Hye Su are joined by Kim Hae Suk, Oh Dal Soo and Kim Soo Hyun on the Korean end of things, with Hong Kong superstars Simon Yam, Angelica Lee and Derek Tsang completing a delicious eastern flavour.
Professional thieves Popeye (Lee Jung Jae), Yenicall (Jeon Ji Hyun), Chewinggum (Kim Hae Suk) and Zampano (Kim Soo Hyun) have a good thing going, but things get out of hand when Pepsi (Kim Hye Su) returns to the gang from a stint in prison. They go into partnership with an old colleague of theirs, but former partners Popeye, Pepsi and Macao Park (Kim Yoon Seok) have a turbulent history, a past that landed Pepsi in jail and saw the two guys go their separate ways.
Money is a powerful tool though, and Macao wants to pair Popeye's crew with four Hong Kong thieves – Chen (Simon Yam), Andrew (Oh Dal Soo), Julie (Angelica Lee) and Johnny (Derek Kwok) – for one last score. The thieves target a $20 million diamond known as ‘Tear of the Sun’, locked away in a big time casino, waiting to be sold by a notorious Chinese fence. Before you can type in the key code, hidden agendas are revealed, old wounds are reopened and love blossoms in the unlikeliest of places.
A dazzling opening sequence not only introduces most of the major players, it also sets the mood exquisitely, infusing a light, breezy tone rich in character. Performances are spot on, with each of the big names making their presence felt. Not a single character gets lost in the crowd, which is something of an achievement considering the size of the cast. Standouts for me were the irrepressible Simon Yam, capable of making a lasting impression with the subtlest of turns. Key to that success is the relationship he forms with Kim Hae Suk’s Chewinggum, which plays a part in one of the most memorable scenes of the movie.
Jeon Ji Hyun is incredibly colourful as the devilish but ditsy Yenicall, bouncing off both the characters and the walls while remaining sexy and – somewhat crucially – entirely convincing as the teams wire specialist. Kim Yoon Seok nails the role of Macao Park as well, finding the perfect balance between charming, cunning, untrustworthy and conflicted. It’s very hard to fault any of the performances, the only real criticism you could throw at the writers is that maybe the Chinese characters aren’t as well defined as the Korean ones, but with such a large cast – each with their own unique part to play – that was always going to be a tall order.
Even at 135 minutes The Thieves doesn’t show signs of stalling, but with such a wealth of character, conflict, double cross and deceit, you will have to keep your wits about you if you’re going to keep up. The Thieves certainly stands up to repeat viewing though, and if nothing else, the infrequent bursts of action will keep you glued to your seat. Choi Dong Hun certainly knows how to construct an action sequence, with one climatic showdown in particular proving hard to beat. It’s a spectacular shootout; one that finds our protagonist swinging from building to building – chased by enemy shooters – guns a blazing. You’re unlikely to see anything else quite like it this year.
Other moments come with unexpected grace; a touching scene involving Chen and potential love interest Chewinggum proves particularly fruitful. An exhilarating car chase sets the scene but nothing can prepare you for what happens next. Moments like this linger long in the mind, as powerful and poignant as they are unexpected. Don’t let the light and breezy tone fool you, there’s enough hidden depth here to warrant a further viewing… or four. The Thieves is rich in character, confidence, creativity and cool, and if any film deserves a sequel it’s this one.
I was wrong to say there’s a good reason why The Thieves is one of the highest-grossing Korean films of all time. As it turns out there are plenty. With great performances, memorable characters, spectacular action and little excess baggage, Choi Dong Hun has masterminded one of the liveliest films of the year. Great fun. AW