Originally titled Milsu, Seung-Wan Ryu’s 2023 Korean film, Smugglers, sheds light on the lives of haenyeos, who turned to illegal means to earn their livelihood. The film chronicled the lives of two female haenyeos, Choon-Ja (Kim Hye-su) and Jin-Sook (Yum Jung-ah), who earned their daily bread by scouring the deep sea for seafood and selling it on the open market. Most of the time, their luck delivered, and they earned enough to get by, but there were also days when they didn’t earn even a single penny. However, lately, luck hasn’t been on their side, as a nearby chemical factory is directly threatening their livelihoods.
Why Did The Haenyeos Start Smuggling Illegal Goods?
The factory dumped its chemical waste directly into the sea, resulting in dead fauna. The sight of dead fish, with their bellies facing up, had become commonplace. Thus, left with no choice, the fishermen and haenyeos had to get creative and decided to extract something other than fish from the bottom of the ocean. In 1960, South Korea was dealing with a smuggling problem, as loads of items were smuggled to China and Japan via sea, spanning from beauty products to drugs, cigarettes, televisions, and tape recorders. Later, these items were sold in the country at much higher rates. Thus, the haenyeos jumped on the opportunity and started making good money, ten times more than what they were making by selling seafood. Choon-Ja became ambitious and planned to get into the gold-smuggling business. The danger was colossal, but so was the profit. Because of the danger, Jin-Sook’s father, the Captain, had never tried his luck in smuggling gold, even though he was the one who had started all of it. Now, he had grown old and weary and wished to spend his last remaining days in peace, not in a jail cell.
Why Did Choon-Ja Return To Kunchon?
One of the diving trips went awry, resulting in many arrests and the deaths of the Captain and Jin-Gu, Jin-Sook’s brother. However, Choon-Ja somehow managed to evade capture. Since everyone except Choon-Ja was captured, Jin-Sook figured that it was she who sold everyone out. Thus, she made it her life’s mission to make Choon-Ja pay as soon as she got out of jail. As for Choon-Ja, she was living in Seoul but had to return to Kunchon when she couldn’t repay what she owed to her supervisor, Kwon (Zo In-sung). He was a corrupt man with ambitions as high as the sky. Kwon was one of the biggest smugglers in Korea, but recently, his business hit a roadblock because of the constant patrolling at Busan Port. In return for sparing her life, Choon-Ja offered to help him smuggle his goods via Kunchon.
The only problem was that Jin-Sook and her friends hated Choon-Ja, blaming her for the Captain’s death. If Choon-Ja needs to smuggle Kwon’s goods, she must clear things between herself and her friends. However, Jin-Sook and others agreed to help Kwon smuggle his goods when Toughie lost her leg during one of her dives. In reality, after seeing Choon-Ja and Hammer (Jeong Min Park) together, Jin-Sook ordered her fellow divers not to dive for them anymore. This left them with no job and no way to sustain themselves and their families. Thus, in order to gather funds for Toughie’s treatment, they had to agree to work with Choon-Ja. In addition to paying for Toughie’s treatment, Kwon and Choon-Ja also matched Jin-Sook’s terms, which included better pay, transparency in business, and others. The reason: Jin-Sook still didn’t trust Choon-Ja.
Who Tipped Off The Customs Three Years Ago?
The story dates back to the time when Jin-Sook and Choon-Ja were best friends. They dove together and were even willing to sacrifice their lives for one another. However, during one of their dives, things went south, and everyone except Choon-Ja was arrested. For years, everyone blamed Choon-Ja and accused her of tipping off customs in exchange for a free life. However, the real reason why Choon-Ja fled the boat was because she was wanted for murder. Years ago, Choon-Ja, in self-defense, killed a man who was trying to rape her. Thus, her name was in police records, and if she had been arrested, the customs officers would’ve made sure she never got out.
Also, it was Hammer who notified the customsmen about their plan. He struck a deal with Chief Lee and had everyone arrested. Later, Hammer killed Jin-Sook’s uncle and took control of the captain’s boat. Hammer and Chief Lee also gobbled up all the gold. Since everyone was out of the picture, Hammer took control of all the illegal smuggling in Kunchon. Now, Hammer planned to kill Kwon and seize his diamonds to become a millionaire. Hammer attacked Kwon’s ship and stabbed him, not knowing that Choon-Ja and Jin-Sook had turned Chief Lee against him. They stated that Hammer was planning to kill him so he could keep everything. Jin-Sook and others also planted a fake ledger in his locker to prove that he was indeed stealing from Chief Lee.
What Happens To Kwon’s Diamonds?
Chief Lee, at gunpoint, forced Choon-Ja and others to extract Kwon’s diamonds from the blue sea. This wasn’t easy, as the water where the diamonds were dropped was infested by blood-thirsty sharks. However, these sea monsters were the least of their problems, as Chief Lee and Hammer had joined forces again and planned to kill the girls as soon as they resurfaced. To ensure the smooth sailing of their plan, Chief Lee even killed his junior officer, who had this “honest” thing going on. However, little did Chief Lee and Hammer know that the women were ten times better divers than their hired goons. As soon as the goons dived, Choon-Ja and their squad killed everyone. Eventually, Chief Lee met the same fate and drowned. But what happened to the diamonds? Hammer wrestled the diamond away from the girls and tried to escape, but the girls overpowered him and threw him into the waters to be devoured by a massive shark. As the movie drew to a close, the girls took control of the diamonds and sailed into an uncertain but wealthy future.
So, what’s next for these daring smugglers? Would they hang up their capes and retire, or would they dive again for another big score? In the mid-credit scene of Smugglers, we saw Choon-Ja visiting Kwon in the hospital, who surprisingly survived the ship’s massacre. Even though he was willing to kill Choon-Ja at the beginning of Smugglers, the rest of the film saw them develop a special bond. When Hammer and his men attacked his ship, Kwon saved Choon-Ja’s life by hiding her in a room. Since he was one of the most ambitious smugglers in Korea, it is possible that he, Choon-Ja, and others would join forces again to fatten their pockets. However, in their next adventure, they would be dealing with an entire armada of law officials for killing Chief Lee and escaping with the diamonds.