Swindlers, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/06/17 00:06:51
Have there been a lot of pyramid schemes collapsing in South Korea recently, or one big one which captured the public's imagination? It's a theme that has recurred in a lot of the Korean films to make it to North America this year (either in general release or on the festival circuit), with "The Swindlers" the one that seems to offer the most light-hearted con artistry. It's not a bad entry in one of cinema's most potentially-enjoyable genres, even if it is the sort where the audience is more placing bets on which big twist it will have rather than being surprised by that sort of thing.It opens in 2008, when Jang Du-chil (Heo Sung-tae) made off with two billion won in donations to the "Tree of Life Church" before fleeing to China. At least a dozen people committed suicide in the wake of this, but pickpocket Hwang Ji-sung (Hyun Bin) doesn't think his father - Hwang "Night Fog" Yoo-suk (Jung Jin-young), a master forger - is one of them. Eight years later, Jang is reportedly dead, although prosecutor Park Hee-soo (Yoo Ji-tae) would still like to find the bribery ledger that has been missing since he fled. To that end, he makes use of a small crew pulling small jobs - eye-catching Choon-ja (Im "Nana" Jin-a), tech wizard Kim (An Se-ha), and muscle Ko Seok-dong (Bae Sung-woo) - to keep former Jang associate Lee Kang-suk (Choi Duk-moon) busy while he searches for the book. But Kang-suk has already been conned by Ji-sung, who has acquired a reputation for hoisting swindlers by their own petard - and who saw Jang in Thailand after his supposed death.
Great movie con-artistry can be a paradoxical thing, a delicate clockwork mechanism whose individual pieces are nevertheless bold and flashy, although there's some argument over whether it's better to watch the crew work for their payoff or reveal that everything was part of the plan. It would be telling to reveal which way rookie writer/director Jang Chang-won goes with that, but in either case, his construction is a bit off. There are several moments in the movie where an attentive member of the audience will notice that he's skipping over something he might have chosen to show in a similar scene a few minutes earlier, being obviously furtive when he should be hiding clues in plain sight. He's got a good story, although maybe one that's a little more complex than need be.
Similarly, the cast is strong, but sometimes stretched a little thin. Hyun Bin and Yoo Ji-tae are given a good dynamic at the center, with Hyun Bin playing the relaxed criminal with good intentions while Yoo's corrupt but effective prosecutor is unfailingly intense, and while they don't really play those opposing attitudes off each other that much, they work those sorts of complementary energies well, with Hyun Bin able to shift gears well, as he needs to - the guy having fun with it has to become deadly serious when the time comes to emphasize his aim of getting revenge, but the characters he plays when swindling work because they're entertaining. It's solidly entertaining work, and those two are the movie's main engines. It makes the rest of the team kind of underused - pop star Nana is very funny as pretty grifter Choon-ja, especially when the film springs a goofy bit about her apparently not being able to hold her liquor during one sequence, but there are long stretches where Jang can't find a way to deploy her. Her teammates get an even shorter end of the stick, barely being given names and often strictly being support staff. It makes one appreciate the job Choi Duk-moon does - Lee Kang-suk's part of the movie is as functional as any of the other con men, but Choi plays things just big enough to give the guy a personality.
For all that bits of the movie could use some adjustment, Jang keeps it moving fairly smoothly as a whole. There are really only a couple of noteworthy action beats, which makes more sense than trying to find a way to jam them in the way many capers on this scale do. Those bits work when he goes to them, and he's good with the sleight-of-hand stuff, not overdoing the "rewind" when it's time to reveal what's really been going on to the audience. He's good at backing out of the necessary but not exciting parts of a complicated plot when they might threaten to take the movie over and zipping through explanations of things the audience can see for themselves.This group of "Swindlers" is maybe not the slickest group of con men you'll ever see, although there's every indication that, should they get a sequel, they could gel a bit more. The team is good and the heart is in the right place, but Jang could use a little more practice coming up with an airtight plan.
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