Smugglers by Russell Seton

Ryoo-Seung wan trained his flashlight on a familiar sunken treasure chest, scraped off the barnacles, and crowbarred it open. After nearly a decade, the South Korean filmmaker decided it was time to rekindle the youthful exuberance that catapulted him to action-auteur status. The shadow of twentieth century atrocities that darkened his previous two films has been replaced by soft summer skies, earthy color palette, and swanky funkalicious score.

In a career that is a veritable torrent of testosterone, Smugglers is Ryoo’s first calculated contribution to the post-#MeToo era. No Ryoo project in decades has so thoroughly embraced camp aesthetics – and perhaps no approach is better suited to undermining Smugglers’ elements of exploitative capitalism and toxic masculinity. The haenyeo culture is truly at the heart of Ryoo’s latest: the female sea-diver sorority upon which poor coastal villages survive. Portrayed as courageous, cunning, and persevering, these women are never cast in a sexualized light, ultimately salvaging their predatory instincts to outfox authorities, gangsters, and imperialists.

Known for spectacular fight sequences, Ryoo here delays such gratification, instead prioritizing the relationships, stakes, and specter of betrayal. Split screen, which he deployed so creatively in the past, is once again prevalent, lending a comic book vitality to the proceedings. When the blades come out, Ryoo delivers in style, alternating between controlled chaos long takes and visceral closeups. The aquatic climax, in which the women turn the tables and systematically sink the villain’s scuba-harnessed henchmen, is a salute to the grindhouse cinematic tradition that made waves in the 70s – naturally, plum for Ryoo’s empowering retro-pastiche.

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