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At The Movies: Thrills aplenty in South Korean crime caper Smugglers, Chinese trafficking drama No More Bets

Smugglers (NC16)

129 minutes, opens on Thursday 4 stars

The story: When their livelihood of harvesting oysters is contaminated by a chemical plant, the female divers of a 1970s South Korea port town turn to smuggling, salvaging contraband from the sea.

Smugglers has run off with the year’s fourth-biggest box office in South Korea to no surprise.

Veteran (2015) and Escape From Mogadishu (2021) director Ryoo Seung-wan is a hit-maker, and he has a stellar ensemble filling out the colourful felons of a unique maritime crime caper.

Kim Hye-soo and Yum Jung-ah co-star respectively as lead divers Choon-ja and Jin-sook, the two of them best friends until a suspected act of betrayal by Choon-ja gets everyone arrested.

Choon-ja herself escapes to Seoul.

Three years later, she returns with a business partner, the suave smuggling kingpin Sergeant Kwon (Zo In-sung), and a proposal for a high-stakes diamond operation that will put the divers’ hardscrabble lives behind them.

The period aesthetics extend beyond the costumes and music to vividly recall the country’s post-war poverty.

The divers struggle to scrape by. Their loot enriches only a local gangster (Park Jeong-min), the customs chief (Kim Jong-soo) and, now, Sergeant Kwon too.

Jin-sook’s crew of half-dozen are easy to root for as they conspire with a coquettish teahouse madame – she cannot swim, much less dive, but she can seduce; and actress Go Min-si is scene-stealing comic relief – to free themselves from patriarchal exploitation.

The plot is lively with bluffs and double-crosses.

The centrepiece is a one-man-versus-an-army axe battle that references Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003), and even more exciting is the rousing underwater finale.

Hot take: This female-powered action adventure is a treat – from its novel subject to the swell cast including great white sharks in indispensable supporting roles.

No More Bets (NC16)

130 minutes, opens on Thursday3 stars

The story: Lured by the promise of high-paying jobs, Chinese programmer Pan Sheng (Lay Zhang) and model Anna (Gina Jin) find themselves trafficked to a South-east Asian location and press-ganged to commit cyber frauds.

South-east Asia has emerged as the epicentre of cyber rackets following the post-pandemic surge in online activity.

No More Bets is based on director Shen Ao’s three years of research, and Pan Sheng and Anna could be any among the hundreds of thousands – Singaporeans included – who are enslaved in scam mills operated by Chinese syndicates along the Myanmar border.

Pan is forced into data scraping. Anna is a croupier on a gambling app, which becomes the ruinous addiction of a recent graduate (Darren Wang) back in China, although the workers themselves are as much victims – first kidnapped, then tortured for trying to escape.

Anna is, moreover, subjected to the monstrous manager’s (Eric Wang) sexual violence.

The despair and seediness within their fenced compound are realistic.

China’s summer box-office champion, which has grossed US$490 million (S$679.5 million), is a white-knuckled crime thriller that offers an unprecedented look at the inner workings of a shadowy multi-billion-dollar industry from the perspectives of the gangs, their prey and the Chinese police task force.

But as the crusading inspector played by Mei Yong takes over the later scenes, this docudrama reveals its true agenda. It is above all propaganda for the state’s upstanding law enforcement, its anti-fraud moralising concerned more with protecting the party’s image than the people.

The victims are left cheated by even the movie that should have been about their plights.

Hot take: China’s tense but xenophobic hit drama is an eye-opener on Internet crime, a warning to anyone tempted by cryptocurrency or that discounted designer bag.

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