The Thieves or Dodookdeul (2012)
From 1930 to 1968, the US film industry laboured under the Motion Picture Production Code, better known as the Hays Code. This reflected a faintly hypocritical assumption that films could be a force for good in society if they were censored and only showed stars being morally righteous. In such cases, their fans would follow their example. The only problem with this is that what works in the Bible Belt may not go down so well in San Francisco and vice versa. This led, amongst other things, to a general rule that criminals could not be seen to get away with crime. There either had to be a successful prosecution followed by a suitable punishment, or the police were allowed to shoot the criminals as they resisted arrest — thereby avoiding expensive trials and costly imprisonment. Today, more or less anything goes although it has been interesting to watch the success of the three Ocean’s films. These are what you might call comedy caper films in which a cast of star criminals plan and execute major thefts in different locations around the world. There are no serious consequences for the “winning” team as their methods grow ever more extravagant. In the West, our moral code is more flexible today in allowing crime to be seen to pay.
This brings me to a patronising contempt which many in the West have for the creativity of the Asian communities. For better or worse, there’s a fairly pervasive view that all the Asians do is copy the West. You only have to look at the predatory way in which Apple is pursuing South Korean manufacturer Samsung, alleging multiple infringements of its look-and-feel patents. This also applies in the cinema where Korean directors are accused of “stealing” plots from the West without adding anything new. One such film is Tidal Wave or Haeundae (2009), a major box office success and a disaster movie showing the arrival of a tsunami. For marketing reasons which are unclear, The Thieves or Dodookdeul (2012) is also being accused of rerunning Ocean’s Eleven (2001). The reason, I suppose, is that about one-third of the film involves a team of criminals making a combined assault on a casino with a view to stealing a very famous diamond called the Tear of the Sun. Yet the films actually have nothing in common other than this one plot element.
Let’s look at the set-up. Director and joint screenwriter, Dong-Hoon Choi starts us off in South Korea. Popie (Jung-Jae Lee) has put together a team to break into a fortress storeroom inside an art gallery. Yenicall (Jeon Ji-hyun) has seduced the curator and brings in Chewingum (Hae-Suk Kim) as her mother to distract the man while wireman Zampano (Soo-Hyun Kim) lowers her into the vault. With the police asking awkward questions, it’s convenient to accept an invitation from Macao Park (Yun-Seok Kim) to join in a larger team to make the casino caper a reality. This means picking up Pepsi (Hye-Su Kim) who’s just been released from jail, and going over to Hong Kong to meet the rest of the team: Chen (Simon Yam), Julie (Angelica Lee), Andrew (Dal-Su Oh) and Johnny (Kwok Cheung Tsang). Because the diamond is too well-known to fence through ordinary channels, the plan is to sell it on to Wei Hong (Ki Guk-Seo), a major criminal with a fearsome reputation. With all this clear, the team moves on to Macau and begins the final preparations.
From the outset, it’s obvious that the Korean and Hong Kong teams distrust each other, and everyone distrusts Macao Park. All the players therefore plan on alternate eventualities. If everything looks good, they steal the diamond. But if things go wrong, they have different Plan Bs to steal large quantities of cash that will inevitably be lying around. Needless to say, the target safes are opened and there’s no diamond — Macao Park quietly steals it from a different location. Trying to escape from the casino, two are killed and four are arrested. However, on the way to the police station, Popie and Andrew escape, and Macao Park rescues Pepsi. This sets up the final third of the film where Macao Park makes the appointment for the sale to Wei Hong and we watch how it all plays out.
After an opening section which has to go slow so we can get to know a little about each of the players and understand something of their relationships, the film proves to be an exciting thriller as we work our way through the attempted thefts in the casino and watch the get-aways. With the fence ready to buy the diamond and the police poised to arrest everyone involved, there’s a genuinely innovative chase through the hotel and then along the outside as the bullets fly and the body count rises. Not surprisingly, The Thieves or Dodookdeul has become the third best-selling film in South Korea and it’s now setting off to conquer the rest of the world. It’s well worth seeing with everyone turning in excellent performances as the complexity of the betrayals grows. At a scale more reminiscent of Hollywood, the director, Dong-Hoon Choi, shows an assured touch in keeping everything moving along and creating considerable sympathy for some of the villains as they prosper or fail. This really is a film in which you want to see some of these criminals avoid capture and make a better life for themselves. Although the way in which the final fight occurs is slightly contrived, I’m happy to look the other way. The right people get what they want out of the entire affair and, in a way, justice is done!