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  • Writer's pictureS.J.

'Smugglers' Review: Ryoo Seung-Wan's Crowd-Pleaser Dives Deep With Kim Hye-Soo | TIFF 2023

Kim Hye-soo talking on phone in a diner

You can't really have smuggling shenanigans without someone putting the smug in it, can't you? There's absolutely no shortage of it or any other kind of character quirks in Smugglers (밀수 in Korean), directed by Ryoo Seung-wan and co-written by Choi Cha-won, Kim Jung-youn and Ryoo. The crime-action-comedy hybrid transports us to South Korea in the 1970s where a team of women divers (''haenyeo'')—led by eccentric Choon-ja (Kim Hye-soo) and her calmer best friend Jin-sook (Yum Jung-ah)—get involved in seaside smuggling operations in order to make a living. Also involving unpredictable accomplice ''Hammer'' (Park Jeong-min), the group's practices clash with local smuggling crime lord Mr. Kwon (Zo In-sung), all the while their operations attract the attention of law enforcement led by officer Lee (Kim Jong-soo).

At first, you might be slightly concerned about Smugglers' possible shallow waters as the film in its first 30 minutes tries to set up its story and stakes with odd exposition, wild tonal swings and loud, big performances from the main cast. A soundtrack displaying Korean schlager-esque music and Chang Ki-ha's funk-inspired score keep things fun and moving while period details are often fantastic, including Yoon Jeong-hee's costumes which offer the characters personality, recognisability and a mirror to show their ambition when their ruses ascend to another level. Some of that comes through in performances, like in the push-and-pull between Kim Hye-soo and Yum who balance each other's styles really well, and sometimes it can be distracting when combined with poor dialogue and flat characterisation, such is the case with Park who often seems to be in the wrong movie altogether.

But wouldn't you know, Smugglers and Ryoo find a completely new stratosphere about 80 minutes in and the rest of the movie puts a pedal to the metal and is just an explosive and highly entertaining thrill ride. With great stunt choreography that DoP Choi Young-hwan captures with precision, effective plot twists and cool directorial flourishes, the film delivers on its promises as a bona fide crowd-pleaser since it doesn't take the easy way out and instead uses cinematic flair to provide an experience that you don't want to miss.

One notable aspect of the last 40 minutes is Lee Gang-hee's remarkable editing work which not only finds the actors' seemingly best moments but also makes sense of action and blocking throughout, making sure that you know where everyone and everything is in relation to the space or the viewer. That's quite something when the film's elaborate climax essentially takes place either on water or underwater. The entire ending is rather deliciously designed, staged and acted, assuring that the operation was worth your time and effort. Dare we even say that it has the goods?

Smileys: Editing, ending, stunt choreography, costume design

Frowneys: Park Jeong-min

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