THE STORY – Haenyeo lost their jobs overnight when a chemical plant was built in the peaceful seaside town of Guncheon. Chun-ja is a fighter looking for a way to make a living. It is said that you can make a lot of money just by lifting an object thrown into the sea. She learns about the world of smuggling and makes an attractive proposal to the leader of the haenyeo, Jin-sook, who boldly decides to make a living despite knowing that it was dangerous. As she meets Sergeant Kwon, the national smuggling king, she falls in love with smuggling. Then one day, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a fortune arrives.
THE CAST – Kim Hye-soo, Yum Jung-ah, Zo In-sung, Park Jeong-min, Kim Jong-soo & Go Min-si
THE TEAM – Ryoo Seung-wan (Director/Writer) & Kim Jeong-yeon (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 129 Minutes
This year’s festival provided a refreshing plethora of non-English language films for TIFF-goers to flock to. Another big film for South Korea this year’s fest premiered at TIFF 2023 to an ecstatic and enthusiastic crowd, all gathered to see the red carpet talent and experience the North American premiere of “Smugglers,” a film by director Ryoo Seung-wan. Written by the director and co-writers Kim Jung-youn and Choi Cha-won, they construct a twisty heist tale brimming with action and women empowerment that is more than a joy to witness. The film has been marketed as an “aquatic crime-action epic,” and that description just about sums up this delightful surprise the best anyone could.
The film takes place in 1970s South Korea and follows a group of the infamous women free divers or haenyeo of Korea. This crew of six female characters is based on very real and talented women who have been world-renowned for their free diving skills, breath-holding abilities, and fishing techniques for hundreds of years. Only in the film do they use their capabilities to partake in the highly illegal but highly profitable smuggling of intentionally dropped goods off ships on the coast. During this period of time, as Korea’s borders were heavily controlled, Koreans often relied on black market dealers to get their hands on imported goods from the outside world. This illegal business isn’t the women’s first choice exactly, but with the building of a large oil and chemical factory right outside their coastal village, they are forced to take matters into their own hands to earn a living. “Smugglers” follows two of these women, old friends Choon-ja (Kim Hye-soo) and Jin-sook ( Yum Jung-ah), who are making a killing until criminal Mr. Kwon (Zo In-sung) violently confronts them, wanting a piece of the illegal empire the women have worked so hard to build. Because of this, Choon-ja decides to take the haenyeo women, including her best friend Jin-sook, and partake in the biggest heist yet, risking everything they’ve accomplished up to this point. Things, of course, don’t go quite exactly as planned.
Ryoo Seung-wan is masterful in his direction at balancing comedic moments with an overarching theme of women empowerment in this exciting, tense, triumphant adventure flick. His characters have impeccable comedic timing with quick quips or long-winded jokes. Still, he’s able to flip the switch and bring back the heart-pounding intricate action scenes or intense interrogation moments. The underwater antics are more than impressive, with much of the film involving his characters holding their breaths and swimming, fighting, or working underwater. Despite this added element of difficulty, both Ryoo Seung-wan and the teamwork with his noble cast make them able to pull these stunts off effortlessly. His “Smugglers” is a refreshing new addition to the action-crime-drama genre, and with his focus on female leads, female empowerment, and female ‘badassery,’ he knocks it out of the park.
The performances by the entire ensemble are a joy to witness, from depictions of the ultra-talented haenyeo women and powerful teahouse ladies to cartoonish crime-lord villains with impeccable fighting techniques. Kim Hye-soo and Yum Jung-ah have a phenomenal and believable on-screen relationship as former best friends, both before and after the fallout their characters go through. They depict stubborn yet clever individuals who will each do anything to get ahead of the opponent, and watching their antics play out is extremely enjoyable. Go Min-si portrays a seemingly mousey and quiet teahouse girl, Go ok-bun, who we witness go through a satisfying character arc from beginning to end. There’s also the three men — head honcho Kwon, the hoodlum Do-ri (Park Jeong-min), and the officer Jang-chun (Kim Jong-soo), who all give entertaining, intentionally cartoonish performances in which they fully commit to their roles. So when the women decide to turn all three men against each other for their own benefit, well, it’s as hilarious as it is satisfying.
“Smugglers,” being set in the 1970s, is also an absolute treat to the senses. From colorful costumes, immersive set pieces, and a funky score, the audience is plunged just as much into the depths of the Kunchon region’s sea as they are into the aesthetic of the time period. There are Farah Fawcett wigs galore, groovy pucci print clothes with more than enough bellbottoms, polyester pantsuits, and wide-collared blouses to go around. Ryoo Seung-wan even edits a fun, celebratory post-heist shopping spree segment with the ladies in split screens, loud colors, and complete with the music of the era, and it’s more than enjoyable to witness. Composer Chang Ki-ha’s immersive score fits in well to compliment the flashiness and fun on-screen, aiding in the delight and antics. This juxtaposition of the 1970s era with its very modern theme and message of women empowerment and leadership is a satisfying mix, lending to the level of gratification one may feel at the end of experiencing this film.
“Smugglers” is a refreshing combination of classic crime, heist, and adventure film tropes with a mix of 1970s influences and modern themes. His characters are intriguing and easy to root for or against, as they are portrayed fabulously by the attractive and personable cast. The writing is fun and funky, even involving double and quintuple crossing that occurs, causing the director to take us back in time to relive scenes from new perspectives, challenging the audience on what they thought they knew. The groovy aesthetic is addictive as it is immersive, and both the above surface and underwater action sequences are a high-energy delight. It’s nearly impossible not to have an enjoyable time with “Smugglers,” so it’s fair to say Ryoo Seung-wan hit the nail on the head with this one.