Double crosses, hidden motives and maybe even a sword are all unearthed in Park Jung-bae’s crime caper.
“Where did you get this?”
“That’s a disrespectful question.”
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with heist films. On the one hand, I really enjoy letting myself be taken in by the ups and downs and countless twists in the movie. But on the other, there are only so many variations on a theme one can do before they start to repeat themselves and the very twists that were once exciting become rote and typical. As much as I enjoyed The Thieves on a surface level, there was also very little in the film that I hadn’t seen before. It was saved due to its big set pieces and Mission: Impossible-style tech, but the story never felt fully fresh. First-time director Park Jung-bae seems to be learning from the works of others with his film Collectors, which combines archaeological adventures and Ocean’s Eleven shenanigans.
Gang Don-gu (Lee Je-hoon) is something of an old-school gentleman thief, who starts the movie stealing an ancient buddha statue from a monastery. He sells it to billionaire art collector Sang-gil (Song Young-chan), with whom he has some troubled history. After proving himself as a capable artefact hunter, Don-gu is approached by Sang-gil’s assistant Sae-hee (Shin Hye-sun), and assigned the job of finding the “Excalibur of Joseon”, the ancient king’s royal sword, from the Seolleung Royal Tomb. To pull this off, he hires archaeologist Dr Jones (Jo Woo-jin) and digger Shovel Leg (Im Won-hee), as well as his usual crew that is his adopted family.
My primary impression of Collectors as I was watching it was of just how much fun I was having. The characters are all very entertaining, and play off each other nicely. Being a caper film there’s the ever-present threat of backstabs and outside of Don-gu’s family, no one fully trusts the others. It’s brought up a few times in dialogue, and having characters aware of this heightens the tension. Everyone plays their roles like they’re about to betray the group, so it never feels sudden when it happens while still managing to be surprising. As one might expect, the heist proper is a fantastic audience-pleasing trip with plenty of obstacles, snooping cops and inconvenient dogs, which I won’t into because it’s way more interesting watch unfold.
If I had any problems with the movie it’s that it takes quite a long time to get going. Many characters need to join the party and while the filmmakers wisely chose to forgo the typical exposition montage that heists insist on using, the more naturalistic approach does take way more time to get through. In fact, by the time the main event is underway we’ve already seen Don-gu partake in two heists. This does keep you on your toes, and the slow roll-out of characters and motivations makes it a little more difficult to discern who is on whose side.
A lot of this slow build-up happens during the second adventure, when Don-gu and Dr Jones travel to China to dig up an old mural on the North Korean border. We’re introduced to foreign buyers, a traitorous guide, and a whole host of other characters who don’t play into the larger story and only really muddy the waters of who’s who in a movie absolutely rammed with fast-talking characters doling out history lessons, backstories and cunning plans.
At least it clears itself up during the second half and once we’ve spent a bit of time with the characters who do stick around, everything starts to come into focus and Collectors becomes infinitely more enjoyable. It’s a very twisty movie that works hard to earn every surprise, and while they don’t all work (I can’t for the life of me remember what Sae-hee’s motivations were, for example) it largely delivers in the end. And when you’re stealing an ancient sword for a ruthless billionaire, you better make sure you deliver.
Verdict: Collectors might take the scenic route to get to its dig site, but the destination is wickedly satisfying.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Violence: A strikingly low 4/10 for a Korean crime film
Sex: One steamy old man massage
Calling card: Choco pie of course
Guinness: the fanciest drink
The Snakes: So they were useless, huh
Cold open: So what was that scream all about?
Also known as: 도굴, lit. Grave Robbery
Director: Park Jung-bae
Writer: Ryu Sun-gyu
Lee Je-hoon – Don-gu
Jo Woo-jin – Dr. Jones
Shin Hye-sun –Sae-hee
Im Won-hee – Shovel Leg
Song Young-chang – Sang-gil
Joo Jin-mo – Man-gi
Lee Sung-wook – Gwang-chul
Park Se-wan – Hye-ri
Park Jin-woo – Detective Oh