Action Comedy

The Criminal Life, Aquatic: A TIFF Review of ‘Smugglers’

September 15, 2023Ben MK

When you think of the term "smuggler," you might visualize someone trying to sneak illicit contraband past border security. What might not come to mind, however, is the image of corrupt customs officers, criminals, and desperate fisherman, all of whom are in direct competition with one another to retrieve crates of valuable loot from the bottom of the ocean. It's a crazy premise, and one that has the potential for plenty of humor, thrills and over-the-top violence. And in the action comedy Smugglers, director Seung-wan Ryu makes the most of that outrageous premise, in this disco-era-set story about a group of women determined to outwit the men who conned them out of their fair share.

The year is 1970, and times are tough in the coastal region of Kunchon, causing Choon-ja (Kim Hye-soo), Jin-sook (Yum Jung-ah) and the crew of the fishing vessel Ferocious Dragon to turn to selling the merchandise from shipping crates they retrieve from the sea floor instead. It's a lucrative gig that has them raking in money hand over fist. However, when all of them except Choon-ja are arrested and thrown in prison for trying to fish stolen gold bars out of the open waters, it throws a wrench in their water-tight plans. Fast forward two years later, and Choon-ja has made a name for herself trafficking high-end goods in Myeongdong, Seoul. But after crossing paths with the ruthless Sgt. Kwon (Zo In-sung), a fellow smuggler infamous for killing his competition, she's forced to return to Kunchon. Reuniting with her old crew, Choon-ja isn't surprised to learn that they all suspected her for turning them into the police. What none of them expected, though, was for local gangster Hammer (Park Jeong-min) to be the one responsible for their misfortune. And now that Sgt. Kwon has entered the picture, Hammer will have to figure out how to work with his new business partner — or figure out how to eliminate him.

Drawing obvious inspiration from Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's franchise, what follows is a heist thriller that trades tried-and-true genre obstacles like high-tech security systems for more sea-worthy challenges such as sharks and octopuses. Full of so many twists, turns and double-crosses that it will leave audiences' heads spinning, the result is about more than just sunken treasure. And while fans of Korean cinema will have no trouble getting on board with Smugglers, it's Hollywood that could learn a thing or two from this quirky caper comedy.

Smugglers screens under the Gala Presentations programme at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 9 min.

You May Also Like