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Theme Tuesday - The Thieves

For the month of February, I will be revisiting and discovering Korean blockbusters. Many countries are very careful with their foreign distribution, selecting films that will appeal to either the arthouse crowd or for the sizable minorities within foreign countries. Regardless, the biggest foreign blockbusters tend to be mostly unknown to foreign audiences.

The upcoming Ocean’s Eleven reboot with all women seems like a novel (or not so novel idea). At its worst it smacks of opportunism and at its best, it will still be viewed in the shadow of the original (which itself was a remake, of course). Regardless of how the movie turns out, it is definitely a mistake to think that nothing similar to an Ocean’s Eleven with women ever existed, since in 2012, The Thieves stormed the Korean and Asian box office.

The Thieves follows a group of colorful characters, both Korean and Chinese, who are brought together by mastermind Macau Park (Kim Yoon-seok) to pull off the heist of a diamond valued at 20 million USD. The film clearly shows many of the characters’ individual strengths (and quirks) in a stunning opening sequence in which most of the Korean members steal a valuable artwork right under the nose of a entitled scion of a rich family and art collector. The heist is complicated in a delicious way, demanding not just great acting, but timing, agility, improvisation and sheer calm.

The cast is not only colorfully diverse, but a little less than half are women. Jeon Ji-hyun’s character Yenicall may be the closest to the stereotypical role of a woman in a heist film (honeypot/cat burglar) but she also has a confident, mercenary sexuality that is quite refreshing, especially when Asian women are so fetishized for their seeming submissiveness. My favorite character might be Kim Hae-sook’s Chewing Gum, an aging con woman who actually plays a role often reserved for younger women - basically one half of a sexy decoy couple. It’s clear that Kim is having a blast playing a character who can be earthy one moment, then conservative and demure the next.

My hot take is that this film is vastly superior to Ocean’s Eleven. While that film is quite well-directed and has some great performances, leading and supporting, I just think this film does a lot more, more successfully. All the actors handle the snappy, stylized dialogue with great panache, while still being their own distinct characters. The film manages to give most of its characters compelling storylines while balancing wonderfully executed heist and big, elaborate action setpieces. Aside from the opening scene, an incredible fight on the side of a building with bungee cords and great athletic feats is eye-popping fun. Finally, Ocean’s Eleven is such a bro movie and glorifying male camaraderie was old hat even back in 2001 when it came out. Even if there is sexism and misogyny in this film, the women clearly are not taking it and show that they are more than a match for any of the men.

 

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