[HanCinema's Film Review] "Smugglers"

With over five million domestic box office admissions, "Smugglers" has been a notable bright spot this year for South Korean film. This is despite, or maybe because of, the movie's weirdly dark and original premise. In seventies era South Korea, the women divers of Guncheon are facing diminishing returns with sea life owing to pollution from a nearby factory. So they turn to smuggling to make ends meet, despite resistance from Captain Eom (played by Choi Jong-won), as jobs with a higher payout have that much more risk.

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None of this is really the plot of "Smugglers" as it instead ends up being backtory. But the direction of the prologue is so intriguingly brisk that by the time we hit the three year timeskip it's a bit of a surprise that this movie has a three-year timeskip at all. In short, the highly ambitious Choon-ja (played by Kim Hye-soo) and the more level-headed leader figure Jin-sook (played by Yum Jung-ah) are in conflict over how to best insure the future of their social circle.

Also there's the whole resentment about how the women divers got in trouble with customs enforcement, and why. A lot of "Smugglers" actually plays out more like a spy movie than a heist film, as a seemingly straightforward smuggling arrangement proves surprisingly complicated. Several factions are willing to work together, but also stab each other in the back in the event of a moderately reasonable sounding excuse. Zo In-sung in particular stands out as a brutal, important gangster merchant in international shipping who also somehow becomes Kim Hye-soo's love interest because she is also, at heart, also a gangster merchant just with more emphasis on the merchant bit.

"Smugglers" is quite appealing as a women's movie because so many of the important story elements hinge on our heroines battling poverty, and ultimately using means of social and sexual persuasion from a position of implied inferiority to set the situation up properly. Despite this there's quite a bit of action. Although in a hilariously ironic twist, this is mainly seen with men fighting each other, gradually but unknowingly improving the position of their distaff counterparts.

When the women do get action scenes of their own, director Ryoo Seung-hwan is no slouch with the choreography, expanding his usual repertoire to include underwater fights where the women have the upper hand mainly because they don't act like idiots and understand the vulnerability of their position. "Smugglers" is the kind of feminist action flick I can really get behind, because the women actually act like women. This isn't a script obviously written for men with minor pronoun changes.

And setting does so much more work than the script in any case. The seventies backdrop is fantastic, with excellent musical choices underscoring the backdrop of an economy where everyone has to be hustling- even people with official positions who probably don't have to, they just really want to be greedy jerks. The vibes might be a little difficult for anyone outside the South Korean cultural milleu to really get, but they're quite effective nevertheless.

Written by William Schwartz

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"Smugglers" is directed by Ryoo Seung-wan, and features Kim Hye-soo, Yum Jung-ah, Zo In-sung, Park Jung-min, Kim Jong-soo, Go Min-si. Release date in Korea: 2023/07/26.

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