South Korean director Choi Dong-Hoon might not have a name here in the States, but his last few blockbuster releases on his home turf have made him a big budget director to watch. If you're thinking about picking up Shout! Factory's disc of his martial arts comedy fantasy "Woochi: The Demon Slayer" this week, you should really check out a pair of the writer-director's hit crime films "The Thieves" and "Tazza: The High Rollers" and see his varying takes on shady and shiftless types trying to make a bad buck (and the people that want to kill them).
The Thieves (2012)
Availability: On DVD and Blu-ray from Well Go USA
I can imagine the conversation for "The Thieves" going something like this: what if we made "Ocean's Eleven" using some hot South Korean (and Hong Kong) talent, but let's also make it really, really brutal from the middle of the second act onward. What starts off as a light and fluffy ensemble piece turns into a bloody, close-quarters battle for survival as a ruthless drug kingpin tries to get at a priceless jewel.
Tonally, it's a little choppy with broad humor attempting to offset some pretty gnarly violence in the back half (people get got in the finale in terrible ways). Actually, the film wouldn't work at all if it Dong-Hoon hadn't assembled a fantastic cast with "The Chaser" star Kim Yun-Seok in the lead as the mysterious Macao Park, who's put together a Hong Kong/Korean group of heist experts to help him steal a frequently stolen jewel from a Macau casino. Complications, of course, ensue with his scheming ex-partner Popie Lee Jung-Jae (a great cinematic sleazebag in the drama "The Housemaid") heading up the South Korean contingent which also includes Macao's recently-paroled ex Pepsee (Kim Hye-Soo, "3 Extremes II"). Plus you have the very busy Simon Yam ("Bodyguards and Assassins," "Election") in the mix as the hard-edged leader of the Hong Kong gang with a secret romantic streak and Angelica Lee ("The Eye") as a member of his team with her own agenda, and cops and more crooks gunning for them on the streets of Macau and Hong Kong.
It's that cast which sells the mid-film shift in tone, particularly Ms. Kim, whose ultra-skilled safecracker couldn't care less for the money and just wants to find out why her ex betrayed her all those years ago. Sexy, smart, and a little sentimental, besides an undercover cop in their midst, Pepsee is the one unambiguous "good guy" in the lot. Based on her previous body of work, it's no surprise that Ms. Kim would hold our attention here--not to get all male-gaze-y, but she has the kind of face and body language that conceals a lot through carefully-practiced ease and cool: this gorgeous actress can hide a cold, dangerous, or painful streak behind a mask of playfulness and indifference. She and Kim Yum-Seok exceed the material.
Tazza: The High Rollers (2006)
Availability: On DVD from 5 Points Pictures
And here's where all of those compliments for Ms. Kim come from--the actress is one of several professional gamblers/con artists is Dong-Hoon's excellent "Tazza," which is a showcase for the director's ability to juggle timelines and characters in a mainstream drama/thriller. Dong-Hoon again assembles a mix of prominent Korean actors including star Cho Seung-Woo ("H," "Chunhyang"), a loser-turned-charismatic gambler who runs afoul of another betting man who's determined to reenact an extreme version of "The Man From Reno."
The story centers on Cho's character Goni's initiation into the backroom world of hwatu, the card game that wrecks the aimless young man's prospects before a master gambler (Baek Yoon-Sik) shows our hero how to play (and cheat) with the best of them. Kim Hye-Soo's slinky Ms. Jung is one of the best, a con artist who lures in wealthy gamblers to rigged games in order to bilk them out of their fortunes. The problem is that Goni ends up crossing gangster Hoku (Kwon Tae-Won) which in turn puts him on the bad side of Awkwi (Kim Yun-Seok), who has a thing about cutting off the arms of gamblers he catches cheating. The whole thing ends in blood and fire on the docks, an excellent piece of gamesmanship by Goni and Dong-Hoon as director.
Dong-Hoon juggles the smaller cast of characters expertly, making us care about one-time scumbag Goni who creates a potentially deadly revenge scenario by the final act. At some point in the story, he makes a crucial choice between relationships and money, one that will either doom him or allow him to live another day. "Tazza" is the far better of the two movies for knowing its characters and allowing us to get to know them as well, making even the "real" villain of the piece sympathetic by taking the time let us know what each of them wants and the profound depths they're willing to go to get it. Far darker than "The Thieves" it's also a smarter, and more exciting film for its lack of pyrotechnics.