“Smugglers” is a crime drama set in 1970s Korea. The story centers on the Haenyeos, who dive into the oceans to catch fish, abalones, and other sea life to make a living. However, their livelihood is in trouble when a chemical factory near the sea kills flora and fauna, making it difficult for Haenyeos to survive. Desperation makes the Haenyeos take to smuggling illegal goods from the ocean so they can make money. However, more conflicts arise when a customs officer is onto them who harbors a dark secret himself.

This article contains spoilers

Smugglers (2023) Plot Summary & Movie Synopsis:

The film opens in the 1970s in Kunchon on a boat with haenyeos (sea women or female divers) who are hoping for a big haul. After the haenyeos dive, they are disappointed as a lot of the sea life is dying because of a chemical factory nearby. The struggle to survive becomes serious for the fishermen and the haenyeos. Realizing the problems of the haenyeos, a broker presents Jin Suk’s father with an opportunity to smuggle illegal goods from the sea. Jin Suk’s father, who had earned his living doing an honest job, had no choice but to start smuggling for his livelihood. The haenyeos go on their first smuggling mission and succeed by pulling up many crates. However, customs officers have begun to inspect boats because of the rising smuggling problem.

How did Choonja escape?

The haenyeos continue to live happily with illegally imported smuggled products, and a new offer awaits them. The new offer is to smuggle gold from the depths of the sea. But Jin Suk’s father refuses to go overboard as it can get dangerous. However, Choonja wants in on the gold and makes a deal with their uncle to secretly smuggle gold without anyone’s knowledge while bringing up crates. On this smuggling day, customs officer Lee Jang Chun, along with his men, stops the illegal activities. The customs team jumps aboard the boat and starts arresting everyone, but Jin Gu and Jin Suk’s father both die. Sensing that the cops have not spotted her, Choonja quietly jumps into the water and escapes.

Where is Choonja, and why does she come back to Kunchon?

All the haenyeos serve jail time for their crimes, but Jin Suk spends a longer time in jail. As the other haenyeos visit Jin Suk in prison, they start to tell stories about Choonja. She is the one who snitched to the police about smuggling. Fast-forward two years, and Choonja has been living in Seoul and selling illegal goods there as well. On one of her business trips selling the products, a rival group of smugglers captures Choonja.

Unfortunately, Sergeant Kwon, the biggest smuggler in Korea, asks Choonja to pay her dues for the products she is selling. Not having the money to repay, Choonja proposes an idea to smuggle goods from Kunchon since the ports in Busan where Kwon smuggles are under heavy patrolling. After Jin Suk’s father’s demise, the haenyeos continue to smuggle goods under Hammer. Meanwhile, Choonja visits the tea room now owned by Madame Ok Boon, as she is the only one Choonja can trust. With Ok Boon’s help, Choonja finds Hammer.

Why does Jin Suk agree to work with Choonja?

Smugglers (2023) Movie Ending Explained
A still from “Smugglers” (2023)

At the meeting with Hammer, Choonja proposes to do business with her and Kwon and calls Kwon to Kunchon. One of the haenyeos tells Jin Suk that Choonja is in Kunchon. Jin Suk witnesses Choonja making plans with Hammer. Unable to control her anger, Jin Suk slaps Choonja and blames her for her father’s death, and Choonja strikes back. Later, Jin Suk orders other haenyeos not to dive for Hammer. On the other hand, Hammer tells Choonja that if the deal needs to go through, they need the divers, and Choonja needs to make amends with Jin Suk. Later, Choonja meets with Kwon and asks him to help her out during the meeting with Hammer.

The trio sets sail to make a deal. Choonja brings up the problem with haenyeos, making it seem like their unhappiness was because of Hammer. With Kwon taking Choonja’s side, Choonja proposes to handle the haenyeos problem on her terms. In return, Kwon should agree to the terms that the haenyeos put forth. That night Choonja visits Jin Suk and reveals that she had killed a man who tried to rape her.

If the customs officers had caught her on the smuggling day, her life would have been over, and hence she had to escape. Regardless of the explanation, Jin Suk still suspects that Choonja snitched on the haenyeos that day. The next morning, as Toughie goes on a dive, a shark bites her leg off. With limited money, Jin Suk succumbs and agrees to dive for Choonja and the team with the condition that Toughie’s medical bills need to be cleared first.

The Truth about Officer Lee

As Choonja and the group are hanging out in the tea house, Officer Lee watches them from outside and recognizes Kwon. To catch the culprits, Officer Lee raids the tea house with the suspicion of hidden illegal goods. Unfortunately for Ok Boon, Officer Lee finds crates of smuggled goods. To save herself, Ok Boon tells the officer that there is going to be another dive soon. On the said day, Officer Lee and the group arrived two hours early to catch Choonja and the group red-handed. But when they stopped the boat, they didn’t find anything, and it was a different haenyeos group. In a flashback, we see Choonja had seen Officer Lee following her around, and they planned to trick him. Only Jin Suk, Ok Boon, and Choonja know about the situation.

Before the dive, Kwon asks Choonja to retrieve another suitcase without anyone noticing. Meanwhile, Choonja had changed the timing for the dive to three hours earlier than scheduled so Officer Lee could not catch them. Along with a successful dive, Choonja manages to retrieve the suitcase for Kwon, who hints at Choonja as a part of his inner circle. Meanwhile, Kwon is busy doing some digging on Hammer and shows photographs of Hammer and Lee sharing the smuggled goods, making it clear that the one who snitched on the haenyeos was Hammer. Moreover, Officer Lee was in on the smuggling business secretly.

Choonja and Jin Suk make amends

On the other hand, Hammer is planning to kill Kwon, and Ok Boon acts as a spy during the meeting. Still angry at Choonja, Jin Suk visits Officer Lee to snitch on Choonja and reveal information about another smuggling mission. Meanwhile, Choonja waits at Jin Suk’s doorstep to reveal information about the real snitch. Choonja also reveals that Hammer killed their uncle. Later, Ok Boon hangs out with another customs officer with whom she is romantically involved. As per the plan, there is a distraction, and Ok Boon steals a police report to confirm Officer Lee’s involvement.

After stealing the folder, Ok Boon meets with Jin Suk and Choonja, and it is revealed that Officer Lee has bought a house with the smuggled gold. Realizing her mistake, Jin Suk apologizes to Choonja and reveals that she had snitched on Choonja to Officer Lee. Despite the problems, the three of them team up to take down Kwon, Officer Lee, and Hammer by making them doubt each other.

Hammers’s Crew Clash with Kwon

It is time for the next smuggling job, and Kwon gives the details to Choonja, who mentions the risk of sharks. As they discuss, Hammer and his men arrive and start to attack Kwon and his buddy. At the same time, Officer Lee is harassing Ok Boon for stealing the police reports, assuming Ok Boon is working under Choonja’s orders. On the other hand, Kwon and his buddy do their best to take down Hammer’s gang. But in the end, Kwon’s buddy is dead, and Kwon is severely injured. Now Hammer finds Choonja, who reveals that diamonds are arriving at the ocean in exchange for her life. With the temptation of more money, Hammer takes Choonja as a hostage.

Smugglers (2023) Movie Ending Explained
Another still from “Smugglers” (2023)

As Officer Lee continues to harass Ok Boon, Jin Suk arrives on time and tells Officer Lee to stop Choonja as Hammer has gone after Kwon, and there is a possibility that Kwon is dead. The idea Hammer has is to keep all the diamonds for himself and release the hold Officer Lee has over Hammer. Meanwhile, Hammer and his men are tending to their wounds when the police surround them. The customs police, specifically Officer Lee, drags Hammer and opens his safe to find the stolen document. Turns out Ok Boon had placed the stolen document in Hammer’s safe. On cue, Jin Suk and Choonja tell Officer Lee about the diamonds and the dangers of sharks. However, Officer Lee does not care and takes the entire group on the boat.

Smugglers (2023) Movie Ending Explained:

A Bloody fight between the haenyeos and Hammer’s men

On the boat, Officer Lee, at gunpoint, forces haenyeos to jump into the shark-infested waters. Later, he asks Hammer and his men to jump into the water to kill all the haenyeos in the water after taking the goods. Underwater, Hammer’s men start attacking the haenyeos. But the women defend themselves as they understand the sea and its flora and fauna better than Hammer’s men.

The haenyeos manage to cut off all the Hammer’s men’s oxygen masks, letting them die underwater. However, as the haenyeos come up for some air, Officer Lee shoots at them from the boat. Having had enough, Ok Boon drags Officer Lee and jumps into the water. With the other haenyeos’ help, they push Officer Lee underwater and bring Ok Boon to the boat.

The troubles are far from over as Hammer takes the suitcase with the diamonds and scratches Jin Suk’s leg with the knife. The blood is now attracting sharks. But Jin Suk and Choonja manage to get on the boat, and Hammer escapes the shark as well. On the boat, the haenyeos try to revive Ok Boon, and Hammer sneaks up on them and asks them to jump inside the water at gunpoint.

The haenyeos do as they are told. However, they place the boat’s anchor on a large rock, making it difficult for Hammer. One after the other, haenyeos get on the boat, and in a dispute, Hammer falls into the water. Making a decision, Jin Suk decides to let Hammer die, and the haenyeos leave with the diamonds. As they leave, a shark approaches Hammer. During the end credits, we see Choonja approach an injured Kwon at the hospital and place one diamond on his food.

The ending of the film suggests that Choonja and the other haenyeos may join Kwon, the biggest smuggler in Korea, to survive. However, the haenyeos succeed in punishing Hammer and Officer Lee, who made their lives hell by making them do hard work and pocketing a large amount of money. The film also sheds light on the corruption of the higher-ups who join hands with prominent smugglers to make more money and live lavish lives.

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Smugglers (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd
The Cast of Smugglers (2023) Movie: Kim Hye-su, Yum Jung-ah, Zo In-sung
Smugglers (2023) Movie Genre: Crime/Drama/Action | Runtime: 2h 9m
Where to watch Smugglers

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