Stealing a script from across the ocean

Unofficial remake of Soderbergh crime caper is South Korea's highest-grossing flick ever

It's as tricky to rule if Samsung actually imitates the curvy frame of Apple as it is to judge if The Thieves, the highest-grossing film in the history of South Korea, is an unofficial remake of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's 11. Only that it's 10 instead of 11 thieves, the casino is in Macau and not Vegas, and the female safe-crackers are hotter though the film itself is not. The Koreans, you see, are just amazing, the way they borrow a seed and grow something out of it _ the way they originalise, or try to originalise, something that belongs elsewhere in the pop-cultural ancestry and, to borrow burglary argot, make off with a massive haul.

Korean and Hong Kong stars in The Thieves, which has become South Korea’s all-time box-office champion.

Thirteen million South Koreans bought tickets to see this 135-minute heist flick when it came out last year (out of a population of 50 million). A bouncy pop-caper, The Thieves trades the offbeat, sultry cool of the Ocean series for a propelling script, madcap comedy, melodramatic romance, and rambunctious chase sequences. If the Soderbergh film skips and hops and whistles, this Korean progeny stomps and sprints and shouts (and at times stumbles). It's not a surprise that it was a hit, but it was a little surprising that it was such an exponential hit. By the playbook, we have a motley gang of robbers with diverse specialities and varying degrees of glamour. The unabashed romanticisation of criminality needs the poster figures like Jun Gianna (the rebilled self of Jun Ji-hyun, star of the big hit My Sassy Girl 12 years ago) playing a bewitching wire-walker; Kim Hye-su is a silky, light-fingered safe-cracker fresh out of jail; Lee Jung-jae is a runner with a fake moustache; and leading the pack is Kim Yun-seok, gruffy, tortured, impenetrable.

To steal a stupendous diamond from a casino in Macau, the South Korean crew teams up with Hong Kong thieves, led by the omnipresent Simon Yam, with a few pretty faces tagging along.

Not surprisingly, everyone plots to double-cross everyone else, and the script deftly handles these ricocheting deceits and shifting alliances, allowing every character time to shine and not leaving anybody buried in the escalating complication.

For the most part, the film sticks to the recipe of guile, luck, cunning and murmuring romance, though it becomes impatient and resorts too much to gunfight and velocity towards the end.

Most American caper flicks are cool _ their forefathers are film noir _ but The Thieves screams to be hot, its pomposity is a point of pride, and while it's highly entertaining, its charm isn't very sophisticated and in effect, not very long-lasting. But who says the practical, result-orientated Koreans ever want to make a classic anyway?

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist