Back in the 1970s, when Korea was closed to the outside world, locals relied on black market dealers to get their hands on everything from American cigarettes to Ritz crackers. Though this illicit import racket was run mostly by men, it wouldn’t have been possible without half a dozen uniquely talented women — skilled divers known as haenyeo who fished the loot from the sea. At least, that’s the fresh girl-power premise floated by action maven Ryoo Seung-wan (“The Battleship Island”) in his snappy, retro-styled crime saga, “Smugglers.”
Featuring a funky Lalo Schifrin-style score (from composer Chang Ki-ha) and more wide-collared polyester pantsuits than a “Charlie’s Angels” costume contest, the movie presents itself as a lost relic of less enlightened times, but boasts gender dynamics that are very much of this moment. In early scenes, the divers earn their living fetching oysters off the ocean floor — or at least these did until factories started dumping toxic waste into the waters. To Korean viewers, the haenyeo represent a dying tradition, making it easy to accept the characters’ renegade solution: While ultra-strict customs officers survey the ports, ships drop their contraband at the foot of Turtle Island — a spot the women know well, making it easy for them to retrieve the crates.
Practically overnight, the women ditch their tattered rags and start dressing like American TV stars. An early montage, presented in cheeky split-screen, gives audiences a thrilling taste of their success. Then someone tips off the customs officers, and the gravy train comes to a screeching halt: Two male accomplices fall overboard and die, and all but one of the women is arrested. While her friends spend the next two years in prison, Choonja (Kim Hye-soo, now rocking a feathered wig) moves to Seoul, where her small-time hustles catch the eye of smuggling kingpin Sergeant Kwon (Zo In-sung).
Kwon is ruthless but also handsome, which may explain why Choonja forgives him for threatening to slit her throat — whatever the logic, chalk that up as one element that doesn’t quite translate in a movie where audiences want to see these women one-up their rivals. To save her hide, Chungya suggests that she and Kwon go into business together, recommending the secret spot where she used to dive in the Kunchon region. Since she and the other women are the only ones suited for the task, that gives her something of an advantage. But first she has to win over the five divers — including best friend Jin-sook (Yum Jung-ah) — who spent their time in the clink cursing her name.
Ryoo and co-writers Kim Jung-youn and Choi Cha-won construct much of the film’s intrigues around allegiances and betrayal, setting up elaborate double- and triple-crosses that require the director to turn back the clock and replay certain scenes, the way Guy Ritchie might. “Smugglers” has style to burn, but isn’t so flashy that it makes the story hard to follow. That said, for a film that runs more than two hours, there’s almost no excuse for not making all six of the haenyeo feel well rounded. Only two really register, to the point that a should-be-devastating shark attack lacks the intended emotional punch — though it does introduce an added danger to the movie’s final dive.
Lensed in lively, super-saturated widescreen by Ryoo’s “Escape From Mogadishu” DP Choi Young-hwan, “Smugglers” suddenly jettisons its cartoonishly broad early tone (the sort where characters wink conspicuously at one another to signal their complicity) and gets intense for the last couple reels. Trapped between three controlling men — Kwon, customs officer Jang-chun (Kim Jong-soo) and local gangster Do-ri (Park Jeong-min) — the haenyeo hatch a simple plan: turn everyone against one another.
This scheme brings the helmer’s action chops to the fore, as Ryoo stages a surprisingly brutal, masterfully choreographed showdown between Kwon and a small army of adversaries — a sequence that tips its hat to both John Woo and Ryoo’s own mentor, Park Chan-wook. Exciting as that set-piece may be, it can’t compete with the film’s underwater climax, which ranks right up there with “Thunderball” when it comes to great aquatic sequences. Earlier, “Smugglers” showed a neat trick the women use when swimming past one another: They clasp hands and slingshot forward. Among the bad guys, it’s every man for himself, whereas that sense of teamwork gives the women a decisive advantage in the deep.