Three kids hatch a heist in Sung-ho Kim’s adaptation of Barbara O’Connor’s book.
“Of course it’s nice to get free stuff using your sad puppy eyes but life is not that easy. Once you’re looked down on its all over”.
W C Fields once said about Hollywood: “Never work with children or animals”. It’s a true statement for movies and plenty of other industries as children tend to be both notoriously bad actors and even worse accountants. However, the statement falls apart when it comes to the often swamplike mere that is the family film. It’s a genre filled with both, of varying levels of cuteness and complete obnoxiousness and so when you find a film, amid this chaotic Wild West of unprofessionalism where the kids aren’t a hindrance but an asset, it may very well be worth a watch.
Ji-so (Lee Re) is a ten year old girl who lives in a pizza van with her mother (Kang Hye-jung) and younger brother (Hong Eun-taek). Ever since the father ran away – after his pizza place goes bankrupt – they’ve been homeless, with mother Jeong-hyeon trying hard to make money so her family has a place to stay. Meanwhile, fuelled by a misunderstanding of the basic housing market, Ji-so starts to think she only needs 5 million won (about £3k) to buy a house and so begins to hatch a plan to find it.
Along with her friend Chae-rang (Lee Ji-won), Ji-so learns that the wealthy are usually very willing to pay huge sums of money for their lost dogs and after a bit of searching, the girls find their target. Jeong-hyeon is working at a high-end restaurant owned by a very wealthy older woman (Kim Hye-ja) and her nephew Soo-young (Lee Chun-hee). Her dog is sometimes left unattended, and seems the perfect fit for this heist. However shenanigans ensure when it becomes apparent they’re not the only ones after this dog.
How to Steal a Dog is a kids’ movie through and through, and checks all the boxes you’d expect: children executing some sort of caper, a rich old lady, some family drama and a bad guy in a suit. By themselves, these pieces very much run the risk of seeming rote, tired or trite but put together by a skilled creative team and it’s possible to find a result which comes off as more than the sum of its parts, and director Kim Sung-ho along with co-writer Shin Yeon-shick imbue the script with enough charm to keep things interesting throughout.
And boy is it charming. From the upbeat, chipper soundtrack to the countless shots of the cute-as-a-button terrier How to Steal a Dog knows how to make itself likeable. It offers up three main characters, all children, who are written extremely realistically. They’re not always outsmarting the adults, and they’re certainly not secret geniuses. The entire premise is based on the fact that XXX doesn’t understand that 5 million won is barely enough for a couple months’ rent and this makes it not only relatable to children, but also to parents who see these misunderstanding of the world all the time from their own children.
Going back to the three stars, I have to give Lee Re, Lee Ji-won and Hong Eun-taek credit for their work. Lee Re, especially is one to look out for. She seems to have a few credits to her name already, and is definitely going places. Her performance as Ji-so is hugely endearing which is certainly for the best as she’s in basically every scene of the movie. A film like this with either a bad lead or simply shoddy direction is destined for complete failure. And the rest of the cast is great too: Kang Hye-jung’s single mother character is wonderfully sympathetic, and the cheeseball villain is actually a pretty layered character with enough to his personality that you actually sort of feel sorry for him.
As far as messages and morals go, the film never goes too preachy and allows the kids to get into a lot of mischief, which is bound to entertain; but there are also plenty of solid lessons there, from owning up to your crime to looking out for your family and respecting your parents. Ji-so really does only want to help, despite her methods, so nothing she does ever comes from a place of nastiness. Overall, How to Steal a Dog knows who its target audience is and leans very much in that direction. But it never talks down to kids or to the adults probably watching this with them, and as a whole is a sweet, witty and highly entertaining couple of hours.
Verdict: Endlessly likeable, How to Steal a Dog is nothing new, but it’s a fun family film that’s actually made for the whole family.
Overall entertainment: 7.5/10
Cute kids: 3
Annoying kids: None. How… how is this possible?
Lessons: Talking to 3-fingered strangers is A-OK, kids!
How to Steal a Dog (2014)
Also known as: 개를 훔치는 완벽한 방법; RR: Gaereul humchineun wanbyeokhan bangbeob; (lit. “The Perfect Way to Steal a Dog”)
Director: Kim Sung-ho
Writers: Kim Sung-ho, Shin Yeon-shick (screenplay), Barbara O’Connor (novel)
Lee Re – Ji-so
Lee Ji-won – Chae-rang
Kim Hye-ja – Old lady
Choi Min-soo – Dae-po
Kang Hye-jung – Jeong-hyeon
Lee Chun-hee – Soo-young
Lee Hong-gi – Seok-gu
Lee Ki-young – Director Park
Jo Eun-ji – Chae-rang’s mother