The Swindlers is a well-executed caper film in the vein of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films and the early works of Guy Ritchie.
The Swindlers is a well-executed caper film in the vein of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films and the early works of Guy Ritchie. It adopts the same aesthetic of cool criminals ripping off their fellow citizens in a sexy, stylish way, and The Swindlers also employs a similar frenetic pace and relies upon half-explanations to build suspense and create plot twists. It is fun, but not nearly as fun as the inimitable Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or the Pitt-and-Clooney-led Ocean’s Eleven (but how many films can have Elliot Gould lampooning in shades?).
The plot is labyrinthine and so crammed with betrayals, reveals and cases of mistaken identity that it is difficult to summarize without spoiling. The foundation of the film is the criminal underworld of South Korea, where scam artists and mid-tier hustlers swindling everyday citizens are just cogs in a broader network of crime and greed. At the center of this network are a few dirty cops and politicians who have risen to prominence after taking bribes from the master of all swindlers, Jang Du-chil (Sung-tae Heo), who made millions years ago running a nationwide Ponzi scheme before absconding abroad.
The Swindlers’ hero is a plucky scammer, Hwang Ji-sung (Hyun Bin), who has dedicated his life to avenging his father’s death at the hands of Du-chil and his catspaw co-conspirators. He meets up with a gang of fellow swindlers, who all answer to the crooked prosecutor Park Hui-su (Ji-tae Yu) rather than go to prison. Park was instrumental in Du-chil’s flight from South Korea with his ill-begotten millions. Together, Park, his team and Hwang hatch a convoluted con job to rip-off the master Ponzi schemer himself. Or so it a seems.
Director Chang Won Jang expertly weaves his tale while revealing only partial truths to the audience. The camera is never an untrustworthy narrator, but The Swindlers is most fundamentally a case study in how to select a starting point for narrative exposition in such a way that the audience is repeatedly tricked. Each character, assisted by the framing of scenes, conceals knowledge, both from the viewer and from the other characters in the story. The result is a cascade of reveals in the climactic moments that exposes the depth of Hwang’s plot for revenge that proves he was playing nine-dimensional chess while everyone else was merely playing checkers.
This is definitely a Korean take on Soderbergh’s caper films, just as Soderbergh was, in some ways, Americanizing Ritchie’s approach. The Swindlers is far more violent than any of the Ocean’s trilogy and relies on noir elements in a way its forebears did not. This is a dark and gritty film; it is about crime more broadly, not a singularly brilliant heist. Like much Korean cinema, The Swindlers is grounded in desires for vengeance and the sense that even among charlatans, there is an inviolable code of ethics. Like Ritchie, Chang is not trying to make a “realistic” film or set his story in a world that could actually exist; the Korea of The Swindlers is one that is only and always parallel to reality, just like Ritchie’s ultraviolent England. This helps fill in plot holes and allows audiences to pull for criminals.
The Swindlers is never artful, rarely serious and almost always entertaining. It knows what it is—a pacey, violent crime caper film—and it has a lot of fun in being precisely that without pretensions towards being more meaningful.