Director – Park Jung Bae – 2020 – South Korea – Cert. 12 – 114m
A disparate group of tomb raiders attempt to outwit each other to find and obtain a valuable archaeological artifact in this lightweight, comedy caper – from LKFF, the London Korean Film Festival which runs in cinemas from Thursday, November 4th to Friday, November 19th
A grave hunter probing the earth with a cane-like tool hits an object several feet down. Putting his ear to the Earth, he hears a muffled child’s voice: “help me”. Horrified, he starts to dig the earth with his bare hands.
A strikingly graphic 2D-animated title sequence, in two-tone light ochre and black, with hands reaching out to one another through shafts of light, a boy crawling up an underground tunnel, a boy and girl reunited with an adult, a man crawling between multi-storey buildings by rope, high heeled female legs walking through a museum display of cultural artifacts, lots of modern urban imagery including driving a fast sports car through a city, lots of underground digging / mining imagery and a couple of male characters, one looking suspiciously like Indiana Jones, complete with hat and whip.
Burial alive is just one of the many disparate elements thrown together in this lightweight, comedy caper which combines historical Korean archaeology with grave robbing, double-cross, a super rich, big business villain, ruthless gangsters, Seoul locations, and a happy-go-lucky wheeler-dealer thief hero.
New novice monk Dong-gu (Lee Je-hoon from Bleak Night, Yoon Sung-hyun, 2010) is not actually a monk at all, as two other monks who greet him on a pleasant evening discover the morning after when their temple is revealed as robbed of its priceless, fit in a rucksack sized gold statue of the Buddha.
Meanwhile, obscenely wealthy collector of priceless archaeological artifacts Jin Sang-gil (Song Young-chang from Deliver Us From Evil, Hong Won-chan, 2020; The Fortress, Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2017; Bluebeard, Lee Soo-youn, 2017; Thirst, Park Chan-wook, 2009, The Good, The Bad And The Weird, Kim Jee-woon, 2008), accompanied by high-heeled museum curator Miss Yoon Sae-hee (Shin Hye-sun) is being shown his new, slick, high-tech, underground security vault by its proud designer. Concerned that he be the only person able to access the vault, Jin has the designer killed that night by putting a fishhook (“your lifeline”) in his mouth, then throwing him off a lake pier to struggle in the water until the fishing line of an angling rod breaks.
After this highly promising and somewhat dark opening, however, the slapdash script (or, at least, the part of it that made it onto the screen) fails to maintain a consistent tone, veering between that darkness, a much more lightweight, good-time action adventure, a heist movie, conversational smatterings of Korean history and occasional gratuitous dollops of family drama and romance. The plot skeeters around all over the place.
Much of the action in the body of the plot, once it eventually gets there, centres on the sword of Yi Seong-gye (the first king of Korea’s Joseon dynasty in the fourteenth century), here dubbed ‘the Excalibur of Joseon’. It turns out there’s an official dig about to happen in Seolleung in Gangnam, Seoul and our heroes must get in there and nab the sword before that kicks off. So they buy up a number of shops as fronts to tunnel into the premises. Although there’s a lengthy tunnel set, the production design doesn’t measure up to the promise of those early scenes (the impregnable vault, the night pier and lake) with everything feeling small scale.
The whole is primarily constructed on a bunch of characters, lone operator archaeological grave robber Dong-gu being the most successfully developed on the page, orphaned on a dig when his father was double-crossed by rich collector Jin, with whose corpse the child as buried alive. He now lives with a sister Hye-ri (Park Se-wan) and (presumably) an uncle, a trio of thieves, with the other two family members infuriatingly little more than rough character sketches. The gentleman thief is scarcely new to East Asian movies thanks to the long-running animated Lupin III franchise (The Castle Of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki, 1979; Lupin III The First, Takashi Yamazaki, 2019) so it’d be a shame if this was Dong-gu’s only appearance onscreen.
The main villain Jin, despite a backstory about his family’s wealth deriving from the sale of Korean artifacts to Japan, is little more than big business cardboard villain. His gangster sidekicks scarcely feature. Miss Yoon is little more than eye candy for male viewers, another serious missed opportunity in the script.
In a brazen steal from Raiders Of The Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981) and sequels, one character is actually named Indiana Jones. Sadly the actor cast Jo Woo-jin (from The Book Of Fish, Lee Joon-ik, 2021; Default, Choi Kook-Hee, 2018; The Fortress, Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2017; 1987: When the Day Comes, Kim Kyung-chan, 2017) is no Harrison Ford – or if he is, you don’t see it on the screen here. He’s not even Jet Lee (Jet Li), who had a respectable crack at an Indiana Jones impersonation in Hong Kong’s Dr. Wai In The Scripture With No Words (Ching Siu-tung, 1996). Harrison Ford’s iconic whip, present in the animated titles, is nowhere to be seen in the rest of the film.
A final character, again horribly underdeveloped, is Shovel Leg (Lim Won-hee from Along With The Gods: The Last 49 Days, Kim Yong-hwa, 2018), a retired and disillusioned tunnelling expert who is lured back into the archaeologial dig game by the promise of a blind date to re-ignite his gone to earth romantic life (another plot strand that fails to materialise). Somewhere, there’s an exciting film involving grave robber Dong-gu, Dr. Jones and Shovel Leg – but this one feels like several wasted opportunities rolled into one. There are high spots, though, particularly early on, while admirers of animation will be struck by the superb, minute long title sequence which is really something.
Collectors plays in LKFF, The London Korean Film Festival which runs in cinemas from Thursday, November 4th to Friday, November 19th.
LKFF 2021 Trailer: