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 U.S.) 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 War.
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 U.S., 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 tableware. 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 anytime.