Featuring three bounty-hunting hotties who crack a treasonous plot during Korea’s Joseon dynasty, “The Huntresses” is pure silliness marbled with occasional entertaining moments. Despite a jumbled, pedestrian plot, South Korean helmer Park Je-hyun’s anything-goes attitude brings out the feistiness in his distaff principals, led by Ha Ji-won (“Haeundae”) at her foxiest. Though heavily panned at home as a mindless ruckus, it’s the kind of popcorn movie that would be a catch for genre fests as well as home formats.
Jin-ok (Ha), Hong-dan (Gang Ye-won) and Ga-bi (Son Ga-in) are three martial-arts experts who work for their master-cum-business-agent Mu-myeong (Ko Chang-seok) to catch wanted criminals, though Mu-myeong’s habit of short-changing them is a sore point that leads to much shouty bickering. The yarn takes place circa the 1620s or 1630s, when relations were strained between Korea and the aggressive Manchus, rulers of China’s Qing dynasty. However, it’s clear from the opening escape sequence that the pic’s representation of history should be taken with a grain of salt, especially when the three femmes swing yo-yos as weapons, ride a wooden “bicycle,” and hightail it in a cloth-and-bamboo parachute.
Their next job comes from the police chief, who commissions them to catch the elusive bandit Gong Gu. A wild goose chase ensues, leading the protags to uncover the scheme of court minister Kim Ja-hoon (Choi Seong-min) to sell the Joseon king’s stauroscope, containing military secrets, to the Qing Emperor. Like most Korean military epics and court sagas, “The Huntresses” doesn’t deviate from the formula of making the Chinese the bad guys, though as traitorous plots go, Kim’s is more laborious and inept than most. In one gag-worthy scene, a multi-story pagoda blows up in front of Kim and a Chinese envoy, but Kim blithely remarks, “It’s probably nothing.”
The action is presented in a cartoonish vein, laden with slapstick and facetious gags, so that the three beauties trip over obstacles and fall into puddles as often as they perform high kicks or let arrows fly. This clumsiness does not reduce their charm, though for klutzy antics, they are no match for their master Mu, whose rotund figure keeps inviting others to kick him around.
The busy screenplay by three co-writers boasts two romantic arcs with contrasting tones. One depicts Jin-ok’s enduring love for her childhood sweetheart, Sa-hyeon (Joo Sang-wook), who not only turned against her father but also became Kim’s henchman; although her dilemma should be agonizing, Sa-hyeon’s real nature and intentions appear too murky and inconsistent for the pathos of doomed love to come through. More direct and diverting is the kinky flirtation between Ga-bi and Song (Song Sae-byeok), an undercover policeman she keeps bumping into.
Not since “The Duelist” has Ha been cast in a role so frivolous and gamine, and she takes the film’s madcap atmosphere in stride, shedding the peaches-and-cream image she’s been made to project in blockbuster after blockbuster. As tomboy Ga-bi, Son is the sexiest figure onscreen with her lynx-like poise. Stuck in the film’s least cute role as a money-grubbing housewife, Gang nonetheless makes Hong-dan’s spunk endearing, while Song steals every scene from the glamourpusses with his deadpan expressions, especially when camouflaging himself in the most eye-catching manner imaginable.
The film’s generous budget is evident from the groovy Steampunk aesthetics of Ha Sang-ho’s production design: Mu’s wooden hut is outfitted with a security system ingenuously modeled on the “Mouse Trap” game, and the final act takes place in a trading port that boasts impressively epic yet exotic sets. Lee Hong-pyo and Kim Yong-soo’s serviceable chopsocky action plays second fiddle to the bombastic explosions, and Hwang Sang-joon uses 70s jive music to absurdly rousing effect. The Korean title means “Three Beautiful Musketeers of Joseon.”