Default (Gukgabudo-ui Nal)
Korea (2018) Dir. Choi Kook-Hee
Bankers. There is a reason its rude rhyming alternative exists and it’s not limited to here in the UK either. In 1997, Korea was embroiled in a major financial scandal due to the actions of corrupt politicians that was seen a key contribution to Korea’s financial crash as part of the Asian Financial crisis of that year.
For his second film, director Choi Kook-Hee takes this as the basis of his fictionalised account of the hubris, arrogance, and pomposity of high-ranking politicians trying to save their own backsides in the face of a national bankruptcy. He uses three separate storylines to explore this, looking at the effects of this from the top of the tree where the decisions are made to those at the bottom who stand to lose the most.
The film begins with international investors noticing many Korean companies haven’t paid any returns or hit their profit targets and withdrawing their investments. At the governor of Korea’s central bank, Han Si-hyun (Kim Hye-soo) has been sending reports to the chancellor (Kwon Hae-Hyo) warning of this which he chose to ignore until it was too late, and now his superiors want to cover it up.
Also noticing this impending crash is ambitious financial analyst Yun Jeong-hak (Yoo Ah-in) who quits his job and sets up his own investment fund with a couple of investors to make money betting against the Korean economy. Meanwhile, Gap-soo (Huh Joon-ho) is the co-owner of a small factory making bowls, encouraged by his partner Young-Bum (Jeon Bae-Su) to accept a lucrative order paid for with a promissory note, but the client goes bankrupt sinking Gap-soo’s factory too.
Looking at the central plotline involving Si-hyun and the Korean government’s blatant deception by lying to the general public over the crisis, it is easy to see who the “bad guys” are yet in the other two, the lines are blurred yet the pattern of the trickledown effect, in this case a negative and destructive one, comes from the same source. Either way this is a tale about the victims and how fortune doesn’t always come their way.
Choi is careful not to overwhelm the audience with financial jargon and or let the script get too involved in the ins and outs of how the business sector works, informing us with enough to follow the story. Some facets, like the promissory note and how they work – a legal scam if there ever was one – are explained, only clearly and succinctly as not to disrupt the brisk pace.
From the onset, as the film’s only major female character, Si-hyun is clearly the fulcrum upon which this drama plays out, as the only one with a conscience who is talking any sense and as the ultimate long term casualty within the government structure. Unfortunately, but to no surprise, Si-hyun’s gender is held against her by the Vice Minister of Finance (Jo Woo-Jin), one of the many totems of smug arrogance among the ministry.
Blatantly lying to the public about the severity of the crisis is in some ways the least of the government crimes, contradicting every news story about businesses and major companies shutting down in multiples on a daily basis, whilst the owners are selling their houses to pay off their debts otherwise they face jail for defaulting on their loans, or worse, commit suicide. Gap-soo is one of these people desperate to find a way out, finding himself clinging on by his fingernails supported by his wife’s wage.
In the meantime, the government are doing the one thing Si-hyun urges them not to do and seeks a bailout from the IMF, even telling the public this isn’t going to happen. Again, they should have listened to Si-hyun as the MD of the IMF (Vincent Cassel) lays down some very stringent conditions and preconditions before negotiating the deal that will only cripple Korea further by being under the IMF’s thumb.
One person who can’t be viewed as a victim is Jeon-hak. Even if he is smart enough to read the direction of the approaching ill winds, his shark-like desire to exploit and capitalise on this disaster is quite offensive. Maybe we should applaud his perspicacity in seeing the foreshadowing signs, but his Wolf Of Wall Street style manipulation of the situation goes beyond cynical guile and business smarts, despite the results being hard to argue against.
As a trenchant drama, Choi stays close to the beats and rhythms of a fictional template but keeps them within the framework of the story and doesn’t ruin them by introducing the usual sub plots like steamy romances, extraneous double crossings, etc. Running close to two hours, the film never feels that long, but it is likely the focus being more on Si-hyun’s story might deter some who want to see beyond the boardrooms.
However this also means the character definition comes through how they each react to the situation with little else to flesh them out. This would mean an additional thirty minutes of so which is probably a blessing for some but we are left wondering why Si-hyun is so morally straight, why Jeon-hak is so ruthless and why Gap-Soo’s business is so small.
Performances across the board are strong and compelling with nobody taking a backseat to Vincent Cassel, whose casting is a surprise. Kim Hye-soo proves an inspired choice to play Si-hyun, her noble resolve neatly juxtaposed with Gap-Soo’s working class despair courtesy of Huh Joon-ho. Yoo Ah-in is a paper thin caricature as Jeon-hak but worse still, in the closing coda set 20 years after the main story, he still looks the same whilst the others have aged!
Default is Korea’s first ever film set in the financial world and will no doubt encourage a swathe of entries in its wake. Choi has set a high but not unattainable benchmark with this relevant and advisory tale of corporate and political greed for others to match or exceed.