#TIFF23: “SMUGGLERS” REVIEW
By David Baldwin
South Korea, circa the 1970s. The shellfish game is not what it used to be in the seaside town of Guncheon. Choon-ja (Kim Hye-soo), Jin-sook (Yum Jung-ah) and their band of haenyeo (female free divers) are running out of options and turn to smuggling a plethora of goods in order to make ends meet. Two years after a turbulent episode, Choon-ja has a run-in with Sergeant Kwon (Zo In-sung), the nation’s smuggling king. He initially plans to kill her but relents when she makes him an offer to keep his operation running smoothly.
Would you guess that SMUGGLERS is a whole lot of fun from that description? Co-Writer/Director Ryoo Seung-wan has crafted a Crime Thriller that somehow balances tonal swings of light-hearted humour and brutal violence. That may not sound like it should work, yet it manages to entertain and delight for much of its 129-minute running time. The ’70s aesthetic lends itself to a wonderful colour palette, filled with brilliantly vivid costumes, sets and gorgeous underwater photography. The funky Score by Chang Kiha is pretty great too as is the chaotic fight choreography employed in two specific scenes.
SMUGGLERS is not without its problems though. The pacing is a little muddled in some areas, with a lengthy prologue introducing most of the players chief amongst them. Some scenes could have easily been tightened instead of having so much time to breathe. And while it makes sense given the genres Ryoo is juggling, the number of double, triple and quadruple crosses gets to be more than just slightly absurd and convoluted.
That said, the acting more than makes up for these issues. The duo of Kim and Yum is terrific, deftly carrying the film and its many tonal pivots. SMUGGLERS only works because of the strength of their performances and their command of the screen. Supporting work from Zo, Park Jeong-min, Go Min-si and especially Kim Jong-soo, who plays a slimy customs chief, are excellent; each one getting a number of moments to shine. It is a great ensemble overall, all in service of helping make SMUGGLERS more wildly entertaining than I ever imagined.
SMUGGLERS screens at TIFF ’23:
Wednesday, September 13 at 9:30 PM at Roy Thomson Hall
Thursday, September 14 at 3:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre Toronto
Saturday, September 16 at 2:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Sunday, September 17 at 8:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox