Ryoo Seung-wan’s comic-action flick Smugglers offers a cinematic salutation to the indomitable spirit of haenyeo – a dying, semi-matriarchal commune of female divers from the South Korean district of Jeju whose livelihood constitutes harvesting molluscs and seaweed from the ocean. The film tells the story of six divers set in the middle of a nationwide smuggling racket during the country’s pre-economic liberalisation period, which banned the import of foreign goods. They fish contraband from the seabed, thrown overboard by cargo ships. However, this closely-knit syndicate reaches prosperous heights when they start trafficking diamonds and gold bars into the country. Their lives dramatically flourish until one member, Choonja, backstabs them by informing the border control police about their smuggling site.
A team member dies, and others get imprisoned, while Choonja escapes to Seoul and thrives on swindling. This somewhat mid-point anti-climax takes a heady turn when, two years later, she joins hands with the bigwig smuggler, Sergeant Kwon, a ruthless persona with an indubitable debonair. The prospect of a high-return assignment soon compels them to join forces with Choonja’s old accomplices, leading to a game of espionage, double-crossing, revenge, and betrayal. Despite the pervasiveness of high-adrenaline action sequences involving smuggling gangs and the police, what triumphs the plot are female friendships and camaraderie amid trying situations. The collective feminine ethos of haenyeo finds a fitting cinematic expression as the camera follows the women holding hands, mutually propelling each other, and agilely gliding through over the sea bed. Indeed, the film’s underwater choreography contrasts the knife-stabbing scrimmage between the gangs above. In a world of cold-blooded egotism, misogyny, and rapaciousness embodied by the border control chief or Kwon’s rival gang leader, the aqueous vitality of haenyeo points towards new horizons of being and togetherness.