SXSW 2024 Review: SMUGGLERS, Korea's King of Action Ryoo Seung-Wan Delivers A '70s Set Crowd-Pleaser

Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
SXSW 2024 Review: SMUGGLERS, Korea's King of Action Ryoo Seung-Wan Delivers A '70s Set Crowd-Pleaser

Two women’s lives transform when their diving careers move from harvesting shellfish to high stakes smuggling in Ryoo Seung-n’s ‘70s set comedic action thriller, Smugglers. After a healthy theatrical run in South Korea and a North American premiere at TIFF, Ryoo’s latest actioner made American landfall at SXSW Film last week to rapturous audiences, and with good reason. It’s great.

Choon-ja (Kim Hye-soo) and Jin-sook (Yum Jung-ah) are haenyeo, female divers who hunt for shellfish off the coast of their small town. When new factories poison the water and threaten their livelihood, the pair and their team reluctantly take on a job bringing up booty from the sea floor left by smuggling ships to make ends meet. As the take gets bigger and the smuggling jobs start to garner attention, the crew is forced to collaborate with Korea’s national smuggling kingpin, Sergeant Kwon (Zo In-sung), who aims to expand his territory.

This merger does not go smoothly as the local gangsters and their mysterious bosses don’t particularly feel like sharing. However, Choon-ja and Jin-sook have a plan to free themselves from the web they helped weave, but it won’t be easy and it could get messy. What follows is two hours of double crossing and deception as the rival smugglers battle it out for underworld supremacy in a deliriously entertaining mix of crime thriller, hardcore actioner, and riotous comedy that is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Ryoo Seung-wan is something of an action legend among Asian film fans. Having spent over two decades in the spotlight as Korea’s action king, Ryoo’s success has yet to create the kind of international crossover success that his contemporaries like Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook have enjoyed, but distributor XYZ Films hopes to change that with the upcoming theatrical release of Smugglers. With breakout hits from the DVD era like City of Violence, No Blood, No Tears, The Unjust, The Berlin File, Veteran, and more, Ryoo’s time in the spotlight is long overdue and Smugglers is just the right kind of universally entertaining pulp that it stands a solid chance of getting him there.

From the very first frames of Smugglers, it’s clear that it is here to make you smile. Bouncy ‘70s disco music plays over scenic coastal vistas as we meet the haenyeo on their regular diving mission. When they bring up scores of dead shellfish as a side effect of the new factories and their run off, their boss quickly pivots to smuggling as a way of staving off closing up shop. The obscene amounts of cash flowing in give our divers an excuse to go shopping, which gives Ryoo an excuse to dress these women in the most amazing flowy ‘70s fashion, presenting an aesthetic that defines the film and helps set the tone for everything that is to come.

Though Ryoo’s trademark is his unbeatable action choreography, Smugglers saves those set pieces for pivotal moments in the narrative this time around. Most of the film is set around the deception and intrigue involved in extricating these women from the smuggling business, which means a lot of double-and triple-crossing, multiple villains, red herrings, seductions, and honey pot tactics. For a healthy amount of the run time, Smugglers is a good, old-fashioned caper film, but that doesn’t mean that Ryoo has completely left the bloodletting behind, and when it comes, in comes in hard.

While it’s definitely the women of Smugglers who lead the narrative, when it comes to the fighting, the men take center stage. A couple of extended action sequences in confined quarters with our villainous male leads Zo and Park Jeong-min as ambitious small-timer Jang Do-ri, really get the blood flowing and hearken back to his climactic mass battle sequence in 2006’s City of Violence, my personal favorite of Ryoo’s oeuvre. This is action as brutal as anything he has done, and with the way international martial arts cinema has raised the ante of the levels of violence since 2011’s The Raid first set a new bar, Ryoo follows suit and leaves no body unstabbed, unbeaten, or unbroken. For fight fans, it’s a beautiful sight.

But Smugglers is so much more than a couple of blistering brawls. Ryoo, along with his co-screenwriters Cha-won Choi (Ha Nong-jin’s The Medium) and first timer Kim Jung Youn, managed to create a film with the fights, as amazing as they are, are icing on an already very tasty cake. Leads Kim and Yum really go for it here, especially in the case of Kim’s Choon-ja, who has to balance a number of narratives behind her striking eyes as the film’s plot grows increasingly complex. The whole project is really a seamless melding of genres, storylines, characters, and aesthetics that provide further proof that Ryoo is among the world’s best. Somewhere between John Wick and Oceans 8, Smugglers is sure to light up audiences as it rolls out across the world through festival play and eventual theatrical, but it’s yet to be seen if that translates into the kind of crossover success that Ryoo has long deserved. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for him, it’s about time.


  • Ryu Seung-wan
  • Cha-won Choi
  • Ryu Seung-wan
  • Kim Jung Youn
  • Kim Hye-su
  • Lee Do-Goon
  • Zo In-sung
Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
Ryu Seung-wanCha-won ChoiKim Jung YounKim Hye-suLee Do-GoonZo In-sungActionCrime

Around the Internet