The Grand Heist (Baramgwa hamjje sarajida)

Korea (2012) Dir. Kim Joo-Ho

When you think of heists, the primary target is either money or valuables like jewellery, antiques, or gold. If the prize at stake was something else it would seem a tad esoteric or, for a film, anarchic and off the wall. Leave it to Korean cinema to put this theory to the test.

In the 18th century during the Joseon Dynasty, the most valuable commodity in the land isn’t gold – it’s ice! Harvested in blocks from frozen rivers during the winter, which is stored in special chambers inside the royal palace, then sold for general consumption. With the incumbent monarch King Yeongjo gravely ill, a greedy high-ranking official Jo Myung-Soo (Nam Kyeong-Eup) wants to monopolise the ice and profit from raising the prices for the public.

To achieve this, Myung-Soo needs to get rid of two people – the righteous ice warehouse master Baek Dong-Soo (Oh Ji-Ho) and the only clean official in the palace and his main rival Lee Sung-Ho (Kwon Hyuk-Poong). In doing so, Myung-Soo involves Sung-Ho’s son Duk-Moo (Cha Tae-Hyun), who decides to form a team of specialists to steal the ice from the royal palace and scupper Myung-Soo’s plans.

Maybe it doesn’t sound too offbeat in a story like this, but The Grand Heist is a comedy with some action and drama thrown in, so we aren’t expected to take the low ambition prize too seriously. In fact, it is rare for a Korean comedy to downplay the dramatic aspect as much as this one does – in other words, it doesn’t start off fast and funny then taper off to stir our emotions instead.

First time director Kim Joo-Ho handles maintaining the joke-to-drama ratio rather well but might have had better success where this film not two hours long. Despite being a screenwriter prior to this, Kim at this point didn’t have the experience in the director’s chair to make every second of that run time count, proving that even a good scriptwriter needs an editor.

Kim’s ensemble cast clearly had more faith in him to help bring this idea to life, and it is their chemistry and acting efforts that hold this together and keep the audience invested for the duration. The problems with the script are twofold – one, most of the film is about the set up and planning with the heist only in the last twenty minutes, and two, the internal political warfare at the palace is a little muddy from not being established clearly enough.

Part of Myung-Soo’s plot is to stage a coup against the King’s heir Sado, knowing he will try to be as benevolent as his father was. Matters aren’t helped that we barely see the king, if ever, whilst Sado is indistinguishable from most of the men in the royal court; even Myung-Soo and his cohorts don’t stand out either, due to them all having the same facial hair and wearing the same attire.

At least the rag tag bunch that are the antagonists are (mostly) easier to recognise. Duk-Moo is the cheeky one, a bookseller refused a palace job lie his father because his mother was a concubine and Dong-Soo is the dashing but moralistic fighter. Their team comprises of hard of hearing explosives expert Dae-Hyun (Shin Jung-Keun), financial backer Soo-gyun (Sung Dong-il), flatulent gravedigger Seok-Chang (Ko Chang-seok) and transporter Cheol-Joo (Kim Gil-Dong).

Rounding off the group are master of disguise Jae-Joon (Song Jong-Ho), the joke being nobody recognises him even in the same scene, glamorous courtesan spy Yoo Sul-Hwa (Lee Chae-Young), junior rumour spreader Nan-Yi (Kim Hyang-Gi) and finally Dong-Soo’s younger sister and diver Soo-Ryun (Min Hyo-Rin). They are later joined by Jung-Goon (Cheon Bo-Keun), an orphan boy they think is a spy who goes on to become Dae-Hyun’s apprentice.

Despite all being individuals personality wise, only Duk-Moo, Dong-Soo and Soo-Ryun are given a proper journey to go on, the others are recruited by Duk-Moo (without any mention of how recommended them or how he knows them) and get a brief bio and onscreen graphic by way of an introduction. Long story short, Duk-Moo adores Soo-Ryun from afar and when Dong-Soo is rule bound to give his own sister some ice for the kids at the orphanage, Duk-Moo steals a block for her.

Both are framed by Myung-Soo and jailed – Duk-Moo for owning a book slandering the King, and Dong-Soo for causing the death of his workers which wasn’t his doing – but they are released in exchange for Sung-Ho relinquishing his role at the palace. Over the course of the next year, Duk-Moo reads a load of books then formulates his plan of revenge, Dong-Soo being his first recruitment.

Since Asian humour often fails to translate across the language barriers, not all of the wordplay gags will hit, but the broader jokes will, For example, in a scene were the gang have to hide in open graves, Sul-Hwa ends up on top of Dong-Soo. When it is time to get up, Dong-Soo can’t get up because he already has “got up” if you get my meaning. At least it is more subtle than Seok-Chang’s breaking wind!

Looking beyond the convoluted scripting flaws and bloated pacing issues, there is still plenty of fun to have with this motley crew of ice thieves, if only there was more action and less preparation. Dong-Soo gets to have some nifty fights, to add something to his personality, the others live and die by theirs. A quick note – Kim Hyang-Gi was just 12 here, now one of Korea’s top young prospects at the ripe old age of 21.

The Grand Heist ticks many of the genre boxes and is very easy to get caught up in the hubris of the plot, but narratively it can be confusing with too many characters and subplots to follow. But, it’s a good-looking film with a strong cast, and good intentions, if maybe a little much for a first time director.

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