Choi Dong-hoon’s The Thieves (2012) is a heist film that won numerous awards as well as achieving well-deserved success at the South Korean box office hit. Witty and well-plotted, with a superb ensemble cast, it’s a smart story writhing with twists and reversals of fortune.
We see our Korean gang of four in operation in the film’s opening sequence, a sting on a private gallery owner to steal a valuable antiquity and replace it with a fake. Yenicall (Jun Ji-hyun of Assassination), all baby voice and high heels, has schemed her way into the affections of a rich collector (Shin Ha-kyun of Beyond Evil). She visits with her ‘mother’, the wily Chewing Gum (Kim Hae-sook of Start-Up), while ringleader Popeye (Lee Jung-jae of Squid Game and Deliver Us from Evil) and handsome young accomplice Zampano (Kim Soo-hyun of It’s Okay to Not Be Okay) position themselves on the roof. When Chewing Gum demands a private tour of the storage area—where she can swipe the code for the lock room and block the security system—Yenicall strips to a leotard and leaps from the window attached tp a wire. She’s the wire walker, Chewing Gum the alcoholic old pro, and Zampano the brawn. Popeye, who cycles away with the loot, seems to be the brains, but he’s scrappy, cowardly and small-time, petulant when asked if fabled thief Macao Park is his old boss.
Played with comedically awkward energy by Lee Jung-jae, the hapless Popeye is jealous of Zampano, calls Yenicall an idiot and describes Chewing Gum as (essentially) an old lush. He only has eyes for safecracker Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo of Hyena) who’s out on parole from prison, and they both have a score to settle with Macao Park (Kim Yun-seok of Escape from Mogadishu). The three of them collaborated on a gold robbery four years earlier: Pepsee went to jail, Macao Park got injured, and Popeye was screwed out of a payday. (Incidentally, both Kim Hye-soo and Kim Yun-seok had their breakout roles in Choi Dong-hoon’s 2006 gambling film Tazza: The High Rollers.)
Despite the bad blood, Macao Park wants them in on a big heist, working with a Hong Kong team to steal an enormous yellow diamond—known as Tear of the Sun—from a Macao casino, where a crime boss’s aging mistress Tiffany (Ye Soo-jung of Train to Busan) keeps it locked and guarded on the 30th floor. The diamond is already stolen property, so it can only sell on the black market: Macao Park wants $20 million for it. The Koreans need to work with a Hong Kong team: cool silver fox Chen (Simon Yam), Zampano-equivalent Jonny (Derek Tsang), new recruit—and safecracker—Julie (Angelica Lee), and Korean-born wildcard Andrew (Oh Dal-su of Veteran), who thinks the Hong Kong team is mocking him when they switch from Mandarin to Cantonese. (The Koreans mock him by calling him “Country Mouse.”)
There’s mutual distrust between the teams, as well as differences in culture, style and language. (Zampano turns out to be the only one of Popeye’s gang who can understand Mandarin.) “Aren’t Koreans always full of lies?” Jonny asks Andrew, and within moments the latter is annoying the new arrivals, sleazing on Yenicall and pulling a gun on Zampano. Popeye smuggles in Chewing Gum and Pepsee, not requested by Macao Park for this mission, and he’s not happy to see the glamorous safecracker. “I thought we had something,” she tells him, and he’s dismissive: “It’s not like we’re Romeo and Juliet.”
Trying to steal Tiffany’s diamond in a major casino is “insanity”, according to Andrew, complicated by the fact that her lover is the notorious arms dealer Wei Hong, known for his butterfly tattoo and tendency to execute anyone that crosses him. Also a complication: the fraught private and professional history of Macao, Pepsee and Popeye, gradually revealed in flashbacks, and characterised by mistrust and jealousy. Despite the danger, they’re all lured by the big payday. “Us thieves, we steal expensive stuff and sell it cheap,” Pepsee tells Yenicall, explaining why she isn’t rich. Chewing Gum dreams of a normal life, where she lives with a man and pays taxes. Popeye says after this last big job he’ll have enough to go legit. As we know from all crime movies ever, these are famous last words.
Almost everyone is a thief in this film, including the curator, who’s buying artefacts illegally from China, the casino making a fortune out of its gamblers, and everyone involved stealing or re-selling the Tear of the Sun diamond. Everyone who isn’t a thief is either a double crosser, a double agent or the child of a criminal. No one trusts each other: there’s no honour among these thieves (or the police). What seems like an intimate reunion between Pepsee and Macao is really a chance for her to steal his list of Asian fences; what seems like a private conversation about it between Pepsee and Popeye is overheard by Yenicall, hiding on the balcony. “Working with you thieves makes me nervous,” Andrew complains. It’s love, not loyalty, that results in two of the thieves saving others, and two going off-script—and down in a blaze of gunfire.
Choi Dong-hoon and his co-writer Lee Gi-cheol love the power of two. (In Assassination, their next film, Jun Ji-hyjn plays identical twin sisters). Here we have two safes in Macao, two rooms in Busan, two female safecrackers, two versions of the diamond, two thieves decades earlier offering the diamond to Wei Hong, and even a reference to the two thieves who died with Jesus. But the final twists in this long and elaborate story of revenge and backstabbing hinge on the revelation of both a secret third object and secret third witness. The film makes the most of its aerial daredevil, Yenicall, whether she’s scaling a towering hotel and casino in shiny neon Macao or soaring across rooftops in Seoul; the last big action sequence—incredibly exciting—includes an intense aerial gun fight between Macao Park and Wei Kong’s deadly goons, swinging off the side of a building in Busan.
Production design is by Lee Ha-jun (Okja and the 2010 remake of The Housemaid), who was nominated for an Oscar for production design on Parasite. The stylish interiors range from the stark black-and-white geometry of the gallery to industrial-chic garage hideouts and dingy rooms (in Seoul, Hong Kong and Macau) that look textured and retro, without a low ceiling or Ikea side table in sight. Cinematography is by Choi Young-wan (Veteran, Escape from Mogadishu), and particularly atmospheric in watery Hong Kong. The score is by Jang Young-gyu (Train to Busan, The Yellow Sea) and Dalpalan (The Wailing), both of whom worked again with Choi Dong-hun on Assassination, the story of a different kind of revenge-fuelled caper—and starring much of this film’s excellent cast.