Last September, I had the pleasure of screening Korean writer/director Dong-Hoon Choi’s 2006 feature, Tazza: The High Rollers when it arrived on North American DVD. And it knocked my friggin’ socks off! It was easily the most sprawling epic of a gambling picture I had ever seen, and so tightly structured and paced that I declared it in my review to be “a damn near perfect piece.” How could Choi’s 2012 film, The Thieves (Dodookdeul), possibly compete with that? By being no less than perfect, of course. And honestly, I’ll be damned if I can find anything wrong with it!
Like Tazza before it, The Thieves falls into one of my favorite subgenres of film (and perhaps that makes me a little biased), the heist film. The film follows a crew of South Korean thieves who team up with a crew from Hong Kong under the leadership of Macau Park (The Chaser’s Yun-seok Kim)to steal one of the world’s most expensive diamonds. But mistrust among the gangs and bad blood between Macau, his old flame Pepsee (pronounced Pepsi), and Korean team leader Popie (pronounced Popeye) heralds trouble for this ragtag gang of bandits as they descend on the Macau, China casino where the diamond resides.
However, the heist is only the halfway point of the film. Thereafter, things get complicated fast as Choi allows us more and more access to the events that resulted in the initial falling out between Macau and his former partners Pepsee and Popie. In this, the entire dynamic of the film changes. We move from straightforward heist material into a complicated revenge plot that includes, among other things, an unbelievable battle on the side of a Macau tenement between men swinging from electrical cables! It may sound like a jarring shift for the film to make at the halfway point, but it really isn’t. The tonal shift from glitzy heist flick to gritty, revenge actioner is supported at every turn by our growing understanding of the character dynamics, and in that, the shift feels naturally motivated. And hell, even if some viewers are put off by this shift, who could seriously argue with a fight scene on the side of a building?!
Now I know I mentioned above that the film may just be perfect, and we all know that’s a difficult claim to substantiate. After all, it’s a highly subjective determination, and one that people have had problems arguing, even in discussion of truly great films like Casablanca or Citizen Kane. So how does one qualify cinematic perfection if one can find issues with even the best films ever made? We must first eschew objective standards and look to the film itself. The Thieves is a bit thin thematically, I’ll grant you that. But it also doesn’t pretend to be anything that it isn’t, and we certainly then can’t expect any more from it than what it strives to be, which as an action-packed heist thriller with a cast of highly-entertaining characters. And in that, The Thieves exceeds admirably. Choi even goes so far as to provide us with some shockingly emotional scenes and surprising twists and turns along the way, making the film all the stronger and compelling even as it teases us along.
Furthermore, The Thieves was so successful theatrically that it earned the ranking of second highest-grossing picture in Korean film history. Of course, money isn’t everything and it certainly doesn’t signify cinematic greatness in any way. The Transformers movies raked in piles of cash, after all. But perhaps it tells you something that The Thieves is second only to Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006), a great film in its own right!
On February 12, 2013, The Thieves makes its way to North American Blu-ray and DVD from Well Go USA Entertainment, and I honestly can’t recommend it enough if you’re a fan of heist films, Asian action, or having a good time in general. It truly is a cinematic treat. The Well Go release includes the theatrical trailer, a very brief making-of featurette, and a pair of “Meet the Thieves” promotional shorts, which use much of the same footage and sound bytes as the making-of. What is interesting here is that we learn from the making-of and promotional shorts that the film’s cast actually did the bulk of their own stunts, including scaling the sides of buildings, jumping off rooftops, and performing in vehicles submerged in water, a revelation that only adds to my appreciation of the piece.