Is it a smart idea to trust a criminal? A relationship begins with the knowledge that this is a person who doesn’t believe all laws apply to them, or who is at least willing to break some in the pursuit of profit. It’s necessary to know the risks involved when engaging in any illegal activity, and that allies can easily become enemies if presented with a more alluring deal. Smugglers highlights the dangers of operating outside of the jurisdiction of law in a rollercoaster ride of epic proportions.
The opening of a chemical factory in a small village in South Korea in the 1970s opens the door for a new line of work for the haenyeo free divers well-trained in extracting goods from the ocean. Choon-ja (Kim Hye-soo) and Jin-sook (Yum Jung-ah) operate a smuggling ring that does well enough until they are nearly put out of business by a customs raid. Their next obstacle comes in the form of Mr. Kwon (Zo In-sung), a master smuggler used to getting his way through any means necessary. This group is very skilled at this particular operation, but that doesn’t make things easy given the multitude of people on both sides of the law looking to put a stop to their activity and get them permanently out of the business.
Smugglers is many different things at once, ranging from soapy drama to adventure caper to violent action movie. Running slightly over two hours, there’s a startling amount of content packed into that time, and more than enough intrigue. It’s never entirely clear who can be trusted, but rather than leave things ambiguous, the betrayals are always revealed in dramatic fashion and with lasting consequences felt almost right away. And it feels like the race towards success gets reset back to zero each time, yet that’s this film’s best trick, since one of the “good guys,” the endearing criminal, always has another trick up their sleeve, even if it takes some time to formulate.
Smugglers offers an involving, if sometimes frightening, portrait of crime and the elements who turn it into something deadly serious. These female haenyeo are extraordinarily impressive, diving into the water without any equipment and coming back up with worthwhile rewards. Their skill, however, can’t compare to greed and to the anger another smuggler feels when his territory is being infringed upon by someone else. While the film doesn’t contain that much visible violence, there are select scenes that do feel quite brutal, and there is the implication that pain can readily be inflicted if full-fledged cooperation isn’t offered first.
Filmmaker Ryoo Seung-wan deftly guides a film that spans genres, tones, and years, keeping it consistent and engaging throughout as it transforms again and again. Its universe never feels all that expansive, in that characters reappear throughout and the same players factor in in different ways. Kim is a particular standout, playing up Choon-ja’s chameleon-like nature and her ability to become the person she needs to be in any given situation. Yum offers a more stoic but equally compelling protagonist in Jin-sook, who doesn’t try nearly as hard to be noticed and is able to better achieve certain aims as a result. The entire ensemble delivers in a stylized film that’s adept at recognizing where it is in its story and changing course to emphasize the prevailing emotions and tone. It’s easy to become enraptured and entranced by this distant world and the many layers of intrigue and betrayal within it, brought to vivid life in this creative and invigorating cinematic showcase.
Smugglers makes its North American premiere in the Gala Presentations section at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.