Sexy cat burglar Yenicall (My Sassy Girl (2001) superstar Jeon Ji Hyun) seduces a gallery owner to steal a priceless artifact aided by fellow criminals: team leader Popeye (Lee Jung-Jae), the smitten Zampano (K-drama mega heart-throb Kim Soo-Hyun) and ageing con-woman Chewing Gum (Kim Hae-Sook). The gang then decide to team up for a heist masterminded by Popeye's one-time mentor, Macau Park (Kim Yoon-Seok). Popeye brings along Pepsi (Kim Hye-Soo), a recently paroled safe-cracker now his girlfriend but once involved with Macau Park. In Hong Kong the team join a Chinese gang led by veteran thief Chen (Hong Kong crime thriller icon Simon Yam) and including ace safe-cracker Julie (Angelica Lee, star of The Eye (2002)), Jonny (Derek Tsang) and loose cannon Andrew (Oh Dai-Su). The plan is to steal a valuable diamond from a powerful crime lord named Wei Hong (Ki Gook-Seo), with the aid of his duplicitous mistress Tiffany (Yeh Soo-Jung), then sell it back to him at an even higher price. However, the task is further complicated by police surveillance and the thieves own drive to outwit each other.
Among the highest grossing home-grown hits in contemporary South Korean cinema, The Thieves saw box office king Choi Dong-Hoon mount Asia's answer to the Ocean's Eleven style glitzy, sexy, all star caper movie. Or, if you are an Asian film fan whose memory stretches back further than ten years, a throwback to Hong Kong's hugely influential Aces Go Places franchise. For his part Choi maintains The Thieves has more in common with his previous caper films The Big Swindle (2004) and Tazza: The High Rollers (2006), both of which also paired Kim Yoon-Seok with Kim Hye-Soo. Flaunting glamour and sex appeal in every frame, the film bears all the hallmarks of its genre: sleek visuals, stylish décor and 'lovable' rogues as gorgeous as they are amoral.
Choi does not rewrite the rule book but ticks each box in compellingly stylish fashion. Ninety percent of caper films are exactly the same. The charm lies in the appeal of their comic performances, spectacular stunts and fun twists and turns. Quentin Tarantino-like flashbacks occasionally disrupt the flow but sketch in vital plot and character details. If the constant switching from one character to another in a vast ensemble renders the film a tad unwieldy, everyone here lands their moment in the spotlight and shines. Choi presents his thieves as a seriously dysfunctional family, sticking together through adversity but tragically compelled to double-cross each other. Unlike most Chinese examples of the genre the action gets quite steamy with characters motivated as much by a lust for each other as money. Charmingly, even older players Simon Yam and Kim Hae-Sook get to play out their own rather beautifully tragic love story.
For all its deceptively frothy, faintly inconsequential surface, The Thieves is actually quite a dark and cynical film, taking a turn in its third act stylistically and tonally closer to Carlito's Way (1993) and the celebrated opening sequence of The Dark Knight (2008) than the feel-good fun of Ocean's Eleven (2001). Seasoned heist film fanatics may well guess the film's big twists but Choi wrings plenty of tension and thrills from the climactic fallout, mixing Brian De Palma-like flamboyance, Hong Kong style high-wire acrobatics and a deeply Asian concept of characters whose dog-eat-dog ethos traps them in their own personal hell. As playful as the film starts out it ends in a curiously disheartening place. Even in the midst of a classy ensemble the effortlessly charismatic Jeon Ji Hyun steals the show. Whether vamping it up in designer dresses or stripping down to a figure-hugging catsuit for yet another improbable stunt, her playfully selfish femme fatale is a delight. Unfortunately the plot sidelines her character's more intriguing arc and likable relationships with mentor Chewing Gum and would-be love interest Zampano in favour of a love triangle we are meant to find engaging and sympathetic but frustratingly proves anything but.