THE BIG SWINDLE (2004)
Time-hopping heist flick meets even-tempered mystery outing, five schemers combine for a bank robbery with a sting in the tail
As enduring as the romantic comedy or horror, the heist genre has been enthralling cinema audiences for over a century. While perhaps not as prolific in Korea as other markets, there is plenty in The Big Swindle to make a genre-literate addition to the space.
As the title suggests, the heist itself is not always front-and-centre here, instead the heist team and the potential for double-crossing before and after the heist plays a larger role.
The main heist genre departure is the pacing. Normally frenetic as we spin between putting the gang together, planning the heist and then the main event. Instead, the film blends with the mystery genre, as we open on the heist getaway, and then jump around in time to piece together the heist’s pre-planning and its botched aftermath.
We open on Choi Chang-hyeok (Park Shin-yang) speeding away from police, when he suddenly emerges from a tunnel, barrels down a cliff and is killed in a burning wreck.
The scene takes place in the wake of a scam at the Bank of Korea, where Chang-hyeok and four accomplices have swindled 5 billion won. With Chang-hyeok dead, one member of the gang caught and the other three on the run, we then learn more about how the heist came together before the fact.
In the aftermath, we meet Chang-hyeok's softly spoken author and book shop owner brother who stands to receive a large life insurance pay-out, making him a target for Seo In-kyeong (Yum Jung-ah), who had previously been living with the heist boss Mr. Kim (Baek Yoon-sik).
This intricate cluster of narratives and time jumps eventually come together for a big reveal as these con-men and women, and the chasing police, converge on a single swindle underpinning the entire gig.
With a lower octane thrust throughout, there is a great focus on the various cohort of characters. Hot-headed con-men, a chancing femme fatale and frustrated police officers. Its original title translates as “Reconstruction of a Crime,” giving a more lucid view of its narrative structure and purpose, as we join the time-hopping journey of how a heist came to be, and the wash-up it created. A heist film where the focus drifts well beyond the actual heist.
There are substantial elements of comedy, driven by the hapless heist members such as “Big Mouth” (Lee Mun-shik), who soon finds himself hospitalised after the heist, running into a bus and then suffering the torment of police detectives looking for answers.
It is a film which requires a fair degree of close attention, as time frames scramble and characters become intertwined in each other’s fortunes. Much hinges on the big reveal, and if you have managed to figure it out, that might produce a fairly muted response.
The film left the door open to a sequel, but Choi Dong-hoon instead went on to make the impressive Tazza: The High Rollers (2006) and the higher production value heist outing The Thieves (2012). An impressive debut film, The Big Swindle still offers a breezy, mystery-focus heist flick addition.