A scene from "The Thieves" shows, from left, the characters Johnny (Derek Tsang), Popeye (Lee Jung-jae), Zampano (Kim Soo-hyun), Yenicall (Jun Ji-hyun), Pepsi (Kim Hye-soo), Macau Park (Kim Yun-seok), Julie (Angelica Lee Sin-Jie), Chewed Gum (Kim Hae-sook), Andrew (Oh Dal-soo) and Chen (Simon Yam). The $12-million burglary-themed blockbuster by director Choi Dong-hoon is slated to open on July 25 in theaters nationwide. Courtesy of Showbox/Mediaplex
A bunch of thieves collaborating to steal a rare diamond from the gambling capital of the world? Sounds suspiciously like Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's series.
The similarity does not stop there: Choi Dong-hoon's latest film "The Thieves", which opens on July 25, also has an all-star cast packed with some of the most bankable actors in Korean cinema, comparable to George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Robert in "Ocean's Eleven".
But that's about it. "Thieves" is not a fun-filled and stylized celebration of high-skilled, high-tech burglary like the American franchise; it is fundamentally a cynical portrait of avaricious human nature with sporadic comedic moments for side entertainment.
The quality of the screened version comes somewhat short of his previous hits like "JEON WOO CHI : The Taoist Wizard" (2009), "Tazza: The High Rollers" (2006) and "The Big Swindle" (2004) - its enormous scale makes the work a little spotty on several occasions - but "Thieves" has a lot to like, even outside the mouthwatering multinational star-studded cast.
Choi's screenplay, for the most part, keeps the audience guessing until the end; it is never clear who will win from this deal.
There are 10 thieves, Korean and Chinese, teaming up in Macau to take on the biggest heist of their lives. But everyone has his/her own agenda. Almost everyone betrays each other at some point. One is even a detective trying to arrest the biggest criminal in Hong Kong who is also the diamond's owner.
Choi's comment at the post-screening press conference Tuesday revealed his priority: "This is a movie that can kill a director. It's a movie where I must make sure that every actor shines".
And that preoccupation certainly shows in every scene, to the work's detriment.
By tiptoeing around the stars' egos, he has made sure every actor gets their time to shine, but the overall quality of the work suffers from this loss of focus. The 135-minute running time drags on because of this need of "fair" distribution of spotlight.
Until some of them are actually eliminated by death or arrest, the movie fails to find a real direction.
Not that any of the actors perform poorly; without their presence, the movie would fall apart entirely.
All of them have done more than a passable job here, especially veterans Kim Yun-seok, Kim Hye-soo, Simon Yam and Kim Hae-sook standing out as mastermind Macau Park, his former lover Pepsi, head of the Chinese team Chen and his partner Chewed Gum, respectively.
Malaysian-born Chinese actress Angelica Lee also manages to keep the attention on her against her rather underdeveloped role.
They all have something in common: they are given real story arcs, which make them easily relatable. They act strong but are vulnerable to love and family. Other characters are given nothing comparable. Why have they become thieves in the first place? And why do they have awkward-sounding nicknames and call each other by them - when their Chinese counterparts do not? There is no explanation.
The biggest waste of talent befalls Jun Ji-hyun (a.k.a. Gianna Jun, who became the country's most popular actress with "My Sassy Girl" in 2001). She makes a triumphant return to form after years of missed opportunities here and abroad, holding her ground against the biggest stars with her natural delivery, sometimes coming close to stealing some scenes.
The press reception was the warmest to her, too. She was subjected to the biggest number of questions at the press conference, sidelining other big names seated next to her.
But her character Yenicall lacks depth. Who is she? Why does she steal? Why does she keep rebuffing the advances of Zampano (Kim Soo-hyun, Korea's answer to Taylor Lautner)? Without any answers, her value is mostly comic relief, although a very fine one.
Lee Jung-jae in the role of Popeye is another victim of this spotty screenplay. He starts strong when the spotlight is given to him early on but falls flat as soon as his rival Macau Park makes his entrance. His presence almost becomes trivial after, and his jealousy towards him is unconvincing.
It is to be seen how the last-minute editing will change the film, but even tweaks to the strange sound effects and cliched music choices will not save it. The characters have no motivation other than money, and we will just have to accept that theft is a perfectly normal career option if given a chance.
"The Thieves" opens on July 25 in theaters nationwide. Runs for 135 minutes. Rated 15 and over. Distributed by Showbox/Mediaplex.
By Kwaak Je-yup
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