With over 12.9 million ticket sales, the action comedy is currently the fifth highest-grossing movie in Korean film history.
A cat burglar named Yenicall (Jun Ji-hyun) seduces the owner of Leesung Gallery (Shin Ha-kyun), and steals a rare artifact with the help of three other criminals: Popeye (Lee Jung-jae), the leader, Zampano (Kim Soo-hyun), the assistant, and Chewing Gum (Kim Hae-sook), a middle-aged conwoman. They are visited by a detective (Ju Jin-mo) shortly after, and realize that staying in Korea is too dangerous. They decide to join a heist led by a master thief named Macau Park (Kim Yoon-seok), a Korean based in Macau who is also Popeye's former boss. Popeye brings along Pepsi (Kim Hye-soo), a convicted safe-cracker who was recently released on parole. In Hong Kong, Chen (Simon Yam), Jonny (Derek Tsang) and Andrew (Oh Dal-su) are contacted by Macau Park and agree to enroll as the Chinese part of the team, along with a safe-cracker named Julie (Angelica Lee).
Macau Park reveals the target to be the Tear of the Sun, a valuable diamond in the possession of Tiffany (Yeh Soo-jung), the mistress of a powerful crime lord named Wei Hong (Ki Gook-seo). The plan is to steal the diamond while Tiffany is visiting a casino in Macau, and to sell it back to Wei Hong, a risky venture seeing that Wei Hong is known for murdering whoever offends him. Each team agrees, however, when they learn that the diamond is worth USD 20 million.
It turns out that Julie is really an undercover police officer hoping to arrest Wei Hong. Moreover, both the Chinese and Korean teams are mistrustful of Macau Park. Chen, Johnny, and Andrew plan to ignore the diamond and run off with Tiffany's money, while Popeye and Pepsi have purchased a fake diamond to swap with the real one. A flash-back reveals that Macau Park, Popeye, and Pepsi were formerly a team, but Park's cable snapped during an escape as he was rappeling and he ran off with the gold. Pepsi, worried for his safety, inadvertently exposed herself to a security camera, leading to her conviction.
With the help of Tiffany's step-sister, Macau Park lays out the plan. Chen and Chewing Gum are to pose as a Japanese couple and keep Tiffany occupied at the gambling table. Yenical and Zampano are to infiltrate Tiffany's private suite through a window and open the door from the inside. Popeye, Pepsi, and Julie are to enter the suite and open the two safes, one of which allegedly contains the diamond. As this takes place, Johnny and Andrew must enter the security room and hold the guards at gun-point. All of this has to happen within 10 minutes, after which the police will arrive.
Chen and Chewing Gum find common ground in the Japanese language and end up growing closer. They fall in love over the course of the evening and spend the night together. Zampano, meanwhile, unsuccessfully prods Yenicall for a confession of love. She avoids answering by setting the plan in motion.
As the plan is being executed, the team, to their dismay, discovers that neither of the two safes contains the diamond. As the police rush in, Chen and Chewing Gum try to escape in a car, but Chen is shot dead and the car collides with a wall, killing Chewing Gum. Johnny manages to escape, and so does Yenicall after Zampano surrenders to the police to buy her time. In the commotion, Macau Park, disguised as an old janitor, steals the diamond from a safety deposit box. Popeye, Pepsi, and Andrew are arrested but fight inside the police van. Popeye, Andrew, and the police jump out before the van plunges into a sea. Pepsi, however, = is still hand-cuffed and nearly drowns, except that Macau Park suddenly arrives and rescues her.
Pepsi regroups with Popeye, Yenicall, and Andrew, and they force Tiffany's step-sister (who is in fact an actress hired by Macau Park) to reveal Macau Park's place of exchange: the Busan Grand Hotel, located in Busan, South Korea. While the step-sister distracts Macau Park in a cafe, the four break into Macau Park's apartment to search for the diamond. Macau Park reveals that it was Popeye who cut the rapelling cable four years ago because he too was in love with Pepsi. When Macau Park tried to find his way back to them, he discovered the two locked in a passionate kiss. Not realizing that it was Pepsi's way of dealing with his "betrayal", he left. Hearing this via earpiece, Pepsi confronts Popeye and then walks off of the job. Yenicall finishes it by taking the real diamond and replacing it with afake.
Macau Park meets with Wei Hong, revealing that his main motive is revenge, as Wei Hong killed Macau Park's father. The meeting is raided by the South Korean police and SWAT and multiple gun-fights ensue. Popeye tricks Yenicall into giving him the diamond and then runs away with it, leaving Andrew and Yenicall behind. While running Popeye is hit by a car and the diamond breaks, revealing that this too is a fake, planted by Yenicall.
Pepsi is waiting at Busan Pier and spots Macau Park in the crowd, but Wei Hong arrives to kill him and Julie arrives to arrest Pepsi. After Wei Hong opens fire, Julie turns her attention on Wei Hong and shoots him to death, while Macau Park and Pepsi escape. Pepsi returns to Korea and learns that Yenicall has travelled to Hong Kong again, hoping to find another buyer for the diamond. Pepsi also finds a gift of gold bars left by Macau Park. The story concludes with Pepsi meeting Leesung Gallery's owner, whom Yenicall had seduced, and asking him to buy the diamond. Before the exchange can take place, Macau Park calls Pepsi and reveals that he has infiltrated Yenicall's hotel room and stolen the diamond, and he promises that Pepsi will reunite with him soon.
Casting negotiations began since late 2010, and on March 21, 2011, film distributor Showbox confirmed the star-studded cast in a press release. Director Choi Dong-hoon was quoted: "These are the very actors that inspired me to write what I have for the movie's script starting from its first line. I'm dreaming of creating explosive ensembles that will clash or harmonize within a single movie due to their different styles." Choi later confessed that the thought of directing this group of high-profile actors and actresses was "really scary", but "during filming, I couldn't take my eyes off the monitor because of the charisma of all these actors. Never did it occur to me that they needed to be handled in a certain way. It's just that the screenplay must be fully understood... We talk. Slowly infect them with my thoughts, mixing the individual with the movie's tone and manner."
Calling Choi "a genius who also works extremely hard," actress Kim Hye-soo was in awe when she first read the script, saying, "It was a product of great effort, genius ideas and a detail-oriented, calculative mind. I think he knows who he is, the exact kind of films that he wants to make, and how to make them. The Thieves proves it."
On comparisons with Ocean's Eleven, the director said he never went into production consciously thinking about the hit Hollywood film. Though similar to it, he thinks The Thieves is actually closer to his previous films The Big Swindle and Tazza: The High Rollers, with the action featured "invested with more emotion." Kim Yoon-seok added that contrary to the characters' compatible and harmonious collaboration in Ocean's Eleven, "In The Thieves, we are all over the place, all with our own faults. But I think that you will see through the friendships and love in the film, our unique emotional developments will show through."
After six months of location shoots in Seoul, Busan, Macau, and Hong Kong, filming wrapped up on December 7, 2011.
With 436,622 tickets sold on the day of its release, The Thieves recorded the second highest single day opening of all time in Korea after The Host opened with 449,500 tickets sold in 2006. On its sixth day of release, it broke the 3 million mark in audience number, drawing 3.35 million viewers. In eight days, the numbers had risen to 4,365,078 tickets, by the eleventh day, it drew 6.2 million viewers, by the thirteenth day, 7 million, and over 8 million by the sixteenth day.
After 22 days, it reached the "magic number" of 10 million viewers, only the sixth film to have done so in Korean film history. Kim Soo-hyun then fulfilled his public pledge to give a piggyback ride to the 10 millionth ticket holder, a middle school girl.
After reaching over 11 million viewers on its fourth week, it rose to number 4 on the Korean all-time box office charts, beating Haeundae. It then passed 12 million to leapfrog over Taegukgi, and on its sixth week its 12.31 million overtook King and the Clown's record to become the second highest-grossing movie in Korean film history.
Though the film's promoter sent out a press release that The Thieves reached 13,020,393 admissions on October 2 (70 days since its opening), making it the new number 1 on the all-time box office chart, the Korean Film Council reported the actual admissions to be at 12,983,334 — leaving the previous record of The Host unbroken.
The distribution rights to the picture were purchased by several countries including Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Vietnam. It made its North American premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, and was distributed in the US by Well Go USA Entertainment. Well Go released it on DVD and Blu-ray on February 12, 2013.