Set in the 1970s South Korea when it was closed to the outside world, Ryoo Seung-wan’s Smugglers revolves around a group of women free divers –haenyo- who retrieve the loot from the deepest, darkest corners of the sea for a smuggling operation run by men in a small sea village of Guncheon. As a nearby chemical factory threatens the livelihoods of local people, this illicit operation becomes the only option for survival thanks to the skillful free-divers led by two close friends Choon-ja and Jin-sook.
Years later, the relationship of the estranged friends Choon-ja and Jin-sook is put to test when Choon-ja returns to Guncheon from Seoul with a charismatic smuggler Mr. Kwon. Looking to expand the territory of his operation, when Mr. Kwon proposes a lucrative but dangerous operation, allegiances realign, and the story of these women becomes one of survival and solidarity. The free-divers this time work together to devise (sometimes predictable) mind games and fight the men trying to kill them both on land and underwater. In fact, the film’s most thrilling moments are found in the masterful choreography of underwater scenes that display women free divers’ solidarity and their prowess of the underwater world as they fight men in scuba gear.
Though Smugglers offers all-too-familiar twists and turns for an audience well-versed in action film tropes, Ryoo’s strong female-led action buttressed by the colours and fashion of the 1970s adds twist to the genre by mixing the classic structure of a heist move with the awe-inspiring aesthetics of free-diving and caricaturesque villains managing to sustain audience attention for two plus hours.