Seung-wan Ryoo’s “Smugglers”, originally intended to be an aquatic crime thriller, explores the intricacies of female friendship. While initially flirting with stereotypical character tropes for its female leads – the more traditionally masculine, honest, and honorable Jin-sook; the strong but selfish and mischievous femme-fatale-esque Chun-ja; and Ok-bun, a not-very-bright tea-shop owner who wields her femininity as a weapon – the film encourages the audience to look further and focus on universal themes such as friendship and interdependence.
Although these themes sometimes remain underdeveloped and overshadowed by the heist plot, Smugglers, portrays female camaraderie resembling the nuanced complexity of seagulls, providing a unique parallel backdrop. The notable ecological thematic choice subtly implying the destructive impact of factories on marine life showcases the parallel between patriarchy and human advancement while also reinforcing the essentialist alignment of women and nature.
In general, the film is too ambitious at times. Trying to navigate several important themes, each of which could stand on its own, it occasionally exhausts and confuses the audience and falls short of conveying its intended message. The cinematographic choices, well-executed fight sequences, and Ryoo’s portrayal of female characters engaging in a tug-of-war that ultimately results in harmonious coexistence, all contribute to making the film a crowd-pleaser. Smugglers shifts the concept of conflict into a narrative of solidarity and empowerment, making it a thought-provoking addition to the genre.