BY HanCinema | Jul 10, 2016 08:09 AM EDT
Seondal (played by Yoo Seung-ho) and his buddy Gyeon-i (played by Xiumin) are Koreans who have been conscripted to fight some random war in the desert to improve the international political standing of aristocrat Dae-ryeon (played by Jo Jae-hyeon). Although the opening scene is fairly bleak it does not take long for Seondal and Gyeon-i to run into Bo-won (played by Ko Chang-seok), a man who specializes in survival through scamming. Soon enough, the whole gang is free to run increasingly elaborate con jobs on pretty much everyone.
"Seondal: The Man Who Sells the River" is a comedy with exactly one joke- we get to watch Yoo Seung-ho put on a devilish smirk as he goes through with an elaborate plan that's designed for maximum humor rather than to be realistically effective. Which is fine by me. Seondal goes through a lot of costumes in pursuance of the latest scam, and the presentation ranges from regal to cornball to oddly enticing. The punchline to the scam is never as much fun as watching Seondal's team actually go through with it.
That, unfortunately, is also the movie's main downfall. There's no real dramatic tension. We know that even when the stakes seem utterly serious Seondal has planned for this eventuality somehow and everything will end up all right in the end- the only question is how. Some mild fun can be had paying attention to the clues, namely the specific skills demonstrated throughout that allow Seondal's later cons to work. Beyond that, though, "Seondal: The Man Who Sells the River" is a fairly basic heist movie.
There is one key distinction- set as it is during Joseon times, the requisite wacky comedy setpieces look very distinctive, and the rustic setting frequently makes Seondal's schemes seem disproportionately plausible. It helps that Yoo Seung-ho is consistently enthralling throughout the entire movie, such that it's easy to see why characters would rather just think that Seondal is a random fun guy as opposed to someone who seems just a little too friendly.
But the more complicated the plot point, the harder it is to focus on the adventures of Seondal's crew. This makes the inevitable takedown of Dae-ryeon feel unearned if only because Seondal needed a lot of luck to get that far. Additionally, while Yoo Seung-ho is extremely effective as a smooth con artist he's much less compelling in more romantic or dramatic scenes. Which is probably mainly a matter of presentation. Seondal is more a one-man comic relief crew than he is a main character.
That much is able to get writer/director Park Dae-min a pretty long way in terms of making "Seondal: The Man Who Sells the River" decently entertaining even though there's not enough depth to support much in the way of strong content. "Seondal: The Man Who Sells the River" is a fairly funny movie that starts to drag when the main plot comes up. The creativity in the gags more than makes up for the relative staleness of the central storyline, though, so I can mostly reccommend it.
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