By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Chang-won Jang’s new caper thriller “The Swindlers” opens in a moment of deep pain. Overdone, operatic pain, as everything else in this film will prove operatic and overdone, but a moment of deep pain, still. A group of South Koreans, some young, some no longer young, learn they’ve lost their entire life savings. They’re broke, and they may or may not have enough time left on Earth, to make up what they’ve lost.
They’ve fallen victim to what onscreen commentators call the biggest Ponzi scheme of all time, something along the lines of what Bernard Madoff pulled off in real life, until his 2008 arrest. Madoff’s victims, for the most part, cried behind closed doors, collapsed quietly onto couches. A few of them went public about their pain. Not a huge number.
Jang’s victims scream, claw, wail, and thunder. One of them dramatically commits suicide, just as Madoff’s own son Mark killed himself two years after his father was arrested and the family empire, most of it haze and mirrors, melted away. It’s the one thing Jang manages to get right over two hours. These people trusted the wrong person, and the wrong person made off with everything they had in the world, before disappearing in a burst of haze himself.
For the rest of the film, the swindler’s victims, and a few people who get sucked in on the side, go gunning for the man who’s ruined so many lives. Only one problem: Chang’s so obsessed with motion, dynamism, and shock reversal upon shock reversal, that you won’t care about any of it. Nobody after the first few minutes seem likeable, vulnerable, or plausible.
The director took great inspiration from the “Mission: Impossible” film series. As with those films, we’re expected to believe that entirely lifelike masks, pristine enough to fool anyone even up close, may be fashioned from rubber and fake hair. We’re expected to believe that human bodies and souls can take any amount of ugly damage, inflicted for dramatic purpose, the kinetic shock of seeing someone beaten across the face, slammed to the floor. Everybody’s up and running by the next cut. Business as usual.
This story goes further than most of the “Mission: Impossible” plots, in fooling the audience. Bad guys become good guys become bad guys become good guys once more. Heroes become heels in double- triple-, and quadruple-crosses. Some characters start out as cops, some as criminals. In the end, they all end up like Dr. Seuss’ Sneetches, from his children’s book and a later animated film. The Sneetches couldn’t tell, by the end, who was better, worse, good, bad, or who was who.
Folks drop out of windows, blunder into traps, escape, or don’t, suffer without apparent purpose. Cars bash, bullets flash, motors rev. Everything runs fast in this movie. So very fast, that nothing sticks. Nothing ultimately matters.
Everyone’s good-looking in this film. Everyone’s stylish, even the geekier fellows. Everyone plays well to the camera, whether through poise, comedy, or affected madness. I hope they all move on to more compelling projects. I hope Jang, who certainly has his fundamentals down, writes and directs something moviegoers will remember. This is only his first feature film as a director and writer. He’s got plenty of time to consider. I hope he’ll take some time next time around. This one only succeeds, in the end, in wasting time. And I’m old enough to know we don’t, in the end, have time to waste.
“The Swindlers” is now showing at theaters in and around Seattle. Check local listings for venues, prices, and showtimes.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.