Cha Tae-hyun, left, and Ko Chang-seokplay thieves of royal ice blocks in a period action/comedy "The Grand Heist". The feature debut by Kim Joo-ho opens on Aug. 8 in theaters nationwide. / Courtesy of Next Entertainment World (NEW)
By Kwaak Je-yup
So far, this summer's blockbusters have been rather heavyweight - both in scale and content. From "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Deranged" to "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Thieves", moviegoers have been drenched in gloom and doom, as if in reflection of the world's sorry state today.
"The Grand Heist", opening on Aug. 8, breaks away from this trend and does it in style. This feature debut by Kim Joo-ho will provide an excellent solution for those looking to escape from socio-economic problems and the blazing heat.
Titled "The Grand Heist" in Korean, the comedy takes place in the late 18th century of Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), during the last years of King Yeongjo's reign. Ice is a commodity more valuable than gold. Blocks of it are harvested from frozen rivers in winter, put in royal storage and distributed or sold throughout the year for general consumption. When corrupt officials conspire to form a monopoly and fix its price, a gang of 11 professionals is formed to stop the scheme - and to do that they must make all the royal ice blocks in five storage rooms disappear for a night.
In spite of the plot's political color, newcomer Kim creates a feel-good family-oriented comedy feature with mastery. With just the right amount of plot twists and surprises in all the right places, the film's pacing is one of the best seen in a two-hour commercial Korean feature.
While none of the 11 characters is well-developed by any standard of complexity, the near-perfect casting and actors' ample charms - especially from Cha Tae-hyun as an aristocrat's bastard son and Shin Jung-geun as the explosives maker Dae-hyeon - carry the movie forward swimmingly.
Summer moviegoers will revel, often unconsciously, in the ubiquity of ice on screen. The computer-generated ice blocks and frozen rivers are realistic enough to send a chill up the spine. (The only exception is in the opening credit sequence, where the CGI looks a bit unrefined, yet once the action begins the mishap is soon forgotten.)
The real core of "H.I.T", however, is the actors. Cha, an expert in playing cowardly but lovable characters - most memorably in "Speedy Scandal" (2008) and "My Sassy Girl" (2001) - in some way reprises a similar character here, as the bastard son of the court's only clean official initially chasing pretty girls and rare exotic books. Even though his life goals change somewhat during the two-hour running time, he does not veer far from the stereotypical Cha Tae-hyun character.
But he does it so beautifully that one cannot hate him. Cha has an uncanny ability to lower the viewers' guard, and this film showcases his most valuable skill as much as possible.
Others, including this year's busiest supporting actors Ko Chang-seok (as shovel-digging specialist Seok-chang) and Sung Dong-il (as Soo-gyun, the chief financial backer of the gang), closely follow Cha's path, only disadvantaged by shorter time on screen.
Lee Chae-young's turn as spy-cum-gisaeng Seol-hwa packs charisma, and serves as an effective balance to the unruly male thieves she works with. Even child actors Chun Bo-geun (as Jeong-gun) and Kim Hyang-gi (Nan-i) are impeccable.
In the midst of these talented craftsmen and women, Sin manages to edge ahead a little further and steals almost every scene as a near-deaf explosives maker. The acclaimed theater actor is the one to watch, even in a supporting capacity.
Heartthrob Oh Ji-ho, playing a trained soldier and ousted chief guard of the royal ice storage, comes up a little short compared to his co-stars, yet that is more due to the stoicism of his character Dong-soo.
"The Grand Heist" opens on Aug. 8 in theaters nationwide. Runs for 121 minutes. Rated 12 and over. Distributed by Next Entertainment World (NEW).
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