(MENAFN - Arab Times) This gripping account of South Korea's sovereign default crisis packs all the elements of a tense political thriller.
Korean filmmakers turn national crises into riveting entertainment
Korean filmmakers have a knack for turning their national crises
into riveting entertainment, choice examples being last year's 'A Taxi Driver'
and '1987: When the Day Comes'. Following in that tradition, domestic hit
'Default' (which opened Nov 30 in the US) manages to make currency crashes and
the Asian Financial Crisis a juicy subject onscreen.
Set in 1997, when South Korea faced national bankruptcy, this
financial thriller dramatizes the tense run-up to the IMF's bailout, which the
Korean media coined the nation's 'day of humiliation'. Racily paced yet
boasting crystal-clear exposition, this hard-nosed and clear-eyed lesson on
capitalist hubris bristles with relevance given the escalation of the Trade
It's hard to believe that director Choi Kook-hee has only shot
one feature film 'Split' (on bowling, no less) before making a work of such
lofty ambition. With consummate skill, he pulls together three character arcs
that represent the lower-middle class, the financial sector, and the
government, the collision of which results in a domino effect that causes so
much pain and disruption.
Along with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, South Korea was
named one of the 'Four Little Dragons' for developing powerhouse economies in a
short time. The country's miraculous growth is captured in an opening sequence
of newreel footage listing milestones, the crowning achievement being
initiation into the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation). In one glib
scene, new recruits to a Korean merchant bank are handed wads of cash in
envelopes to deter them from being poached by competitors.
However, the precariousness of such brash confidence is
underlined by the panic triggered by one remark made by a Wall Street analyst.
Few can read the writing on the wall except personal assets manager Yoon
Jung-hak ('Burning' actor Yoo Ah-in). He summons his clients to a private
conference to offer them a chance to profit off the imminent crash. Unlike 'The
Big Short', whose cynicism and distrust of the system this film shares, the
script by Eom Seong-min explains the causes of the sovereign default in accessible
layman's terms through Yoon's lectures to his clients.
The film also depicts the crisis on a macro level as it recreates
the rigged negotiations between the Korean government and the IMF. Led by
executive director Michel Camdessus (Vincent Cassel, oozing douchiness), the
IMF is portrayed as a puppet of the US, ready to prey on Asian countries and
force them to open up their markets for hostile takeovers and other
exploitation. While the terms of negotiations are technical, the scenes are never
dry or turgid, thanks to an engaging emotional dimension that female
protagonist Han Si-hyun (Kim Hye-soo, 'The Thieves') brings to her role.
As a member of the Bank of Korea's supervisory authority, Han
tries to warn decision-makers against quick fixes (and cover-ups) that would
have longterm damage on the people. However, she is opposed by wily deputy
finance minister (Jo Woo-jin), who only wants to tip off the chaebols to curry
favor with them. His utter contempt for the working class which he feels deserved
to be trampled on is quite appalling.
Since the film is based on real historical events, how the
national crisis panned out is a foregone conclusion. Yet her impassioned
altercations with Camdessus are always engrossing, while her efforts to stay composed
despite being let down by her spineless superiors make her the moral compass of
the story. A long take of Han letting down her armor for a moment to sob in her
car is a delicate touch that humanizes her while accentuating the poignancy of
her defeat. Putting aside her sultry femme fatale screen image, Kim is totally
convincing as a smart finance exec with integrity.
However, the most affecting plight which any audience can
emphasize with is that of Gap-soo (Huh Jun-ho), a small factory owner who manufactures
Eager to get a large order from a big department store, he
accepts promissory notes as substitute for cash payments, not realizing it is a
ploy by his clients to secure more bank loans. His simple wish to make more
money for his children's education is a stark contrast to the unscrupulous
government heads or speculators who already live in clover. This makes his
financial ruin seem even more unjust. Gap-soo's few encounters with a supplier
who keeps cheering him up, despite being owed money by him, show the decency of
ordinary Korean citizens.
The three storylines trace the rippling effect of the collapsing
economy on different social strata, and how deeply they are connected to each
other. A small twist toward the end packs a particularly powerful emotional
punch as it again brings family and personal relationships to the fore. Equally
sobering are moments when Yoon lapses from smug glee about his windfall into
brooding silence, underlining the film's point that no individual can be absolved
of responsibility for their country's fate.
The film's nail-biting tension owes much to Shin Min-kyung's
editing, which allows for almost no downtime, abetted by screen captions of the
plunging South Korean foreign reserves and Won exchange rate, which is
ominously effective as a countdown clock. Period details by production designer
Bae Jung-yoon are spot on without diverting attention from the unfolding drama.
The coda, set 20 years later, sounds a note of optimism by showing the ordinary
people's resilience, while warning that the same scenario could happen again
By Maggie Lee