Smugglers by Farah Shohib

Dancing on the edge of crime and action, with a frequent glimmer of comedy, is Ryoo Seung-wan’s newest cinematic offering, Smugglers. Set in South Korea during the 1970s, Seung-wan grants the audience a riveting and immersive glimpse into the era, using a vibrant colour palette and a retro soundtrack to aid in its facilitation.

It’s the 1970s, and South Korea’s strict laws on the import of goods, coupled with the toxic waste that poisons the underwater ecosystem, force Haenyeo – skilled women free divers who, in earlier sequences, make their living by harvesting sea life – to venture into the world of smuggling. Clad in nothing but cotton clothing and black goggles, long-time friends Choon-ja (Kim Hye-soo) and Jin-sook (Yum Jung-ah) plunge into the ocean, not for the harvest of shellfish or mollusks as tradition indicates, but to retrieve boxes and boxes of contraband. Swapping their tattered clothing and appearing on-screen in much more polished attire, the smuggling operations prove to be successful – that is, until they’re caught.

From cut-throat fight scenes shot in horribly narrow corridors and confined spaces to beautifully framed sequences, Seung-wan and cinematographer Choi Young-hwan manage to construct a visual masterpiece and, by extension, a thoroughly entertaining watch. From the film’s outset, the camera is almost always positioned above the women, inviting the audience to look down on them. Yet, it is in the ending scene, when the angle is reversed, and the camera captures the women from a low angle, that the women appear at their most powerful.

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