Stealing is a wrong deed, but South Korean comedy film “How to Steal a Dog” is pleasant enough to make you to forget that for a while. Its little heroine simply wants to be a little happier, so she comes to concoct a small criminal plan for that, and we cannot help but be amused by how funny and absurd her plan is – and how innocent and misguided she is.
When she is with her best friend and other schoolmates at her elementary school, Ji-so (Lee Re) looks like an ordinary school kid, but it is soon shown that she has been hiding her recent difficult family situation from others at her school. After his pizza business was failed, Ji-so’s father left the family with no promise of return, and then she and her mother Jeong-heyon (Kang Hye-jeong) and younger brother Ji-seok (Hong Eun-taek) had to move out of their home and then live in a pizza delivery van left by her father.
It initially looked like they had to endure this hardship for one or two weeks, but now the van virtually becomes their new home, and Ji-so is frustrated about this continuing circumstance with no visible end. Although her mother is quite adamant about taking care of their family matter for herself without getting any help from others, nothing seems to be getting better for her and her kids, and Ji-so seriously wonders whether they can ever get out of their van.
And then she gets one idea about how to get money for her family. She and her best friend Chae-rang (Lee Ji-won) come across an leaflet from missing pet’s owner, which promises 5,000,000 won (around 4,500 dollar) as the reward. Realizing that rich people are willing to pay money for their pets, Ji-so decides to kidnap a pet precious enough for getting 5,000,000 won, and Chae-rang, who remains as her friend even after discovering Ji-so’s family problem, gladly joins as her criminal partner.
They search for any suitable target for them, and then they eventually find a good one. Ji-so’s mother is recently employed at a fancy restaurant through her past acquaintance with its manager, and the manager’s aunt, a rich old lady who owns this place, always comes with her pet russell terrier dog. When Ji-so and Chae-rang drop by the restaurant during one afternoon, they soon notice the old lady and her dog, and they instantly begin to prepare themselves for stealing this dog. First, they check its daily routine, and then they proceed to making a ‘perfect plan’ for how to kidnap the dog while not getting noticed by anyone – and, of course, how to take care of it while waiting for the old lady to put a notice on her missing dog.
What these girls plan to do is technically a crime, but the movie keeps its mood light and cheerful while not wholly ignoring that dark aspect and the daily hardships Ji-so and her family struggle with. As Ji-so and Chae-rang are working on their colorful plan book which will certainly get A from any art school teacher, Ji-so and her family crash into another bottom after her mother gets fired, and they later find themselves spending one night at a place where you will surely avoid for good reasons. While this is one of amusing moments in the movie, its laughs come with their hard reality, and we come to understand more of Ji-so’s wish to live in a better place through her rather naive criminal plan (if you live in Seoul or any cities around it, you know you cannot possibly get a nice home only with 5,000,000 won).
As Ji-so and Chae-rang try to execute their plan, it becomes apparent that things will not go easily as planned for a couple of reasons. While their target turns out to be quite smart at times as shown during one funny sequence in the middle of the story, it is revealed later that the old lady’s nephew, an opportunistic guy who has been looking forward to inheriting the money from his aunt someday, has his own plan behind his back. In addition, as she gets to know more about the old lady while pushing her plan, Ji-so realizes that she is not as tough as she thought at first.
The movie is based on Barbara O’Connor’s novel, which, as far as I heard from others, is a darker story with more edges. The director Kim Seong-ho, who also adapted the novel for his movie, keeps things afloat through a number of comic situations which drew nice chuckles from me and other audiences, and he also maintains an appropriate level of seriousness to make us care about his main characters. While the old lady turns out to be a lot less heartless than she seemed to be at first, we also see more of how much Ji-so’s mother has tried hard even though she is not exactly a model mom to her kids, and Ji-so comes to learn a few important lessons as she tries to make things right around the later part of the story. The movie becomes more melodramatic as approaching to the finale, but we accept that change of mode as caring about Ji-so and several other characters, and the movie wisely holds itself well with enough amount of tears for its intended dramatic effects.
While there are several recognizable South Korean actors including Kim Hye-ja (some of you probably remember her unforgettable performance in Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother” (2009)), Choi Min-soo, Kang Hye-jeong, and Lee Cheon-hee in the film, its child actors still remain as the center of the story, and they give likable natural performances you may want to hug. Lee Re is splendid in her scenes with adult co-stars, and she and her fellow child actress Lee Ji-won feel spontaneous in their scenes. Hong Eun-taek is also a fun to watch as Ji-so’s little brother who turns out to be a little smarter than his sister thought (I was constantly amused by his surprisingly no-nonsense comments on his sister’s plan), and I can you assure you that the dog in the movie will steal your heart – especially if you are a dog lover.
Though it is not without flaws and it could have more been more effective through cutting around 10 minutes of its running time, “How to Steal a Dog” is a sweet and sincere comedy film to be enjoyed by family audiences. I am not that sure about whether it will be one of South Korean films to remember at the end of 2015, but this funny movie was surely a nice way for me and others to start 2015 anyway.