Stars Hyun Bin and Yoo Ji-tae go toe-to-toe in this month’s The Swindlers, a loose and jazzy caper thriller that mines Korea’s abundant fascination with grifters. Or at least that’s what it attempts to do, as this blatant ripoff of the work of director Choi Dong-hoon (Tazza: The High Rollers, The Thieves) is a grating star vehicle that smacks of smug ineptitude and a whole lot of cut corners.
After swindling countless unsuspecting victims, a master con man disappears with a huge fortune and when the prosecution fails to track him down they write him off as dead. Later, ambitious prosecutor Hee-su catches wind that the man has resurfaced and he engages the help of three tricksters he shadily harbors on his payroll. Together they trace their way to Ji-sung, a young master con man who may help them catch their man. Offering him criminal immunity in exchange for his help, Hee-su teams up with Ji-sung to take down the larger target.
While films about confidence men have been popular for a long time in Korea, the trend has recently shifted to incorporate the widespread pyramid schemes that have devastated local families. Films like Master, in which Lee Byung-hun played a ponzi scheme mastermind, and real estate con thriller One-Line, not to mention the drama A Single Rider, have focused on the horrific greed of the few as they prey upon the weak and ignorant.
This trope, which reflects today’s public anger and distrust towards shady money handlers, is present in The Swindlers‘ opening scene, as dozens of ordinary citizens wail in a financial office after losing all their savings, which ends with one young man throwing himself out the window. Though staged in a terribly maudlin fashion, this behavior comes from a real place, but beyond this sequence, the film seems quite happy to go back to glorifying con artists for the remainder of its running time.
This disingenuous tactic is just one of many mismatches that mars a terribly uneven and misconceived narrative chockfull of foregone conclusions that are lazily paraded as twists in the film’s finale. Tired tropes are trotted out among the routine characters but the results aren’t just unoriginal, they’re tedious in a narrative that never seems convinced or altogether invested in its own logic.
Hot on the heels of the hit Confidential Assignment, superstar Hyun Bin dons a plethora of leather jackets and cocky grins as he lankily sashays through the story as trickster Ji-sung while Oldboy villain Yoo Ji-tae pushes a little too hard as the stoney-faced and arrogant prosecutor Hee-su.
The usually terrific Bae Sung-woo (The King) has trouble wringing laughs out of his slimy team member while Park Sung-woong (New World) goes through the motions as a mannered businessman. Meanwhile, singer Nana (of Kpop group After School), in the film’s only female role, is presented as nothing more than a cute sexpot.
Debut director Chang Jang-won comes from Lee Joon-ik’s directing stable, having worked on six of his films, from The King and the Clown to Battlefield Heroes. It’s not entirely clear what he learnt from his mentor as The Swindlers lacks the strong character arcs that mark Lee’s cinema. Every character here exits the narrative the exact same way they entered it.
Technically, the film is more often than not competent but for a film of this size, which desperately needs to be slick to succeed, it’s surprising how sloppy some of the camerawork is. Ambitious tracking shots wobble and slip in and out of focus while handheld scenes occasionally go for all-out Bourne-style shake cam, which is hardly in keeping with the rollicking ambitions of the production.
Double-crosses are telegraphed miles away while story and characters could clearly have used a polish but what really sinks The Swindlers is how derivative and rushed everything feels. A little more attention and even the smallest dollop of charisma might have been enough to make this worthwhile, but the final product is an exasperating effort which performs a better con job on its audience than the one it portrays on screen.