Korea (2019) Dir. Park Noo-Ri

“Money, it’s a crime / Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie”

Sorry to be so predictable but is there any other way to open a review about a film with this title than to quote Pink Floyd? Plus it is rather apposite in lieu of the plot actually being about sharing a slice of a huge cash pie, but the greed aspect is always present.  

Cho Il-Hyun (Ryoo Joon-Yeol) starts a new job as a stockbroker in Seoul, coming from a humble family raspberry farm. With dreams of being rich, his career doesn’t get off to the best of starts until he is introduced by his colleague Yoon Min-Joon (Kim Min-Jae) to a mysterious man know as The Ticket (Yoo Ji-Tae). Through illicit insider knowledge, The Ticket gives Il-Hyun instructions on playing the market which yields great results.

After a rocky start, Il-Hyun is now earning more in commission than his colleagues are and his salary combined, putting him on the radar of Financial Supervisory Service (FSS) detective Han Ji-Cheol (Jo Woo-Jin). He has been investigating The Ticket for a while and hopes Il-Hyun will finally lead him to his target, but Il-Hyun is making too much money to let Ji-Cheol get to him this way.

Let’s get this out of the way now – Money is NOT a Korean Wolf Of Wall Street. Granted there are fundamental similarities in the plot and basic premise but whereas Scorsese’s film is based on a true story and almost celebrates the vulgar decadence of wealth accrued through ill-gotten gains, Park Noo-Ri’s debut is more of a cautionary morality play on such greed and excesses.

In fact, this aspect is surprisingly downplayed though not completely abandoned, as it is congruent to Il-Hyun’s journey from humble farm boy to stock market superstar, but Park chooses not to dwell on it. As the film’s tagline implies “Money has a price”, thus the theme is the moral corruption of Il-Hyun and others enjoying the high life with little view of it ever ending soon.

Something Money does offer is an insight into the daily working practices in the office of a top Korean stockbroker, which Wolf tends to gloss over. A voice over informs us how the day works, beginning at 9:00am sharp with trading kicking off as soon as the clock turns over, and ending at 15:00pm after non-stop selling and buying of shares, with money (hopefully) made for the client, and healthy bonus for the brokers.

For Il-Hyun it is the opposite, with an almighty clanger dropped just days before his one month trial is due to end. A client brusquely calls him up, demands 20k shares for a company, and then hangs up. Il-Hyun didn’t know if this meant buy or sell so he uses his gut-instinct and buys; the client is apoplectic as he meant sell (so why not say “sell then?) and Il-Hyun is one step away from being fired.

Min-Joon takes pity on Il-Hyun and lets him into a little secret that helped him get to the top, and puts him in touch with The Ticket. A charismatic, but clearly shady man, The Ticket thinks Il-Hyun has potential and gives a phone and tells him to buy 8,000 shares from a new company that will suddenly join the market. Il-Hyun does this and his bosses are aghast at his reckless actions until the deal pays off and he tops the commission board with a cool 50K.

As money is the only thing that matters, Il-Hyun is the new golden boy of the company but Ji-Cheol’s sniffing around threatens to ruin it, so The Ticket says he’ll take care of it. Soon, other traders are committing suicide, some have near-fatal accidents, Min-Joon is demoted, and others in the loop are laying low.

But Il-Hyun isn’t fazed as he now has a nice new flat, the office floozy Park Shi-Eun (Won Jin-A) is now his girlfriend and he can boost his family’s raspberry farm too, as well as afford the best hospital for his father’s tumour operation. Unfortunately, he is the only one who can’t see he is turning into a Grade A bell-end and is under The Ticket’s thumb whether he likes it or not.

Park might be a first time director but his film is fast paced and eventful in depicting the bustle and flow of the trading world, yet never loses sight of the fact the audience don’t need to be overwhelmed by the technicalities to enjoy the action. In capturing the drama and intrigue of The Ticket’s messianic control over the system, it carries all the hallmarks and quiet intensity Korean thrillers are known for.

There are a lot of visual flourishes to give things a modern feel and not leave younger audiences behind, with the use of split screen for busy scenes and on screen graphics to explain the mathematical quandaries Il-Hyun finds him pondering over when deciding to make a deal. It’s not much, but might appease those hoping for the sex, drugs, and general hedonism of Wolf replicated here.

Not all characters are that well defined but with so many important parts of the puzzle to feature and less than two hours to fit them in, this shortcut is sadly inevitable. Il-Hyun is the one to benefit most as this is his story, and Ryoo Joon-Yeol plays him as a willing foil who learns his lesson the hard way. He may from zero to jerk in record time but that is forgiven as Ryoo deftly captures the right inflections of every side of his character.

Korean dramas and thrillers are characteristically violent and edgily explicit, a trend that Money carries faint echoes of but essentially eschews, whilst still delivering engaging, insightful, top notch viewing. For Park, this is a confident and promising debut, showing signs he could break free from genre filmmaking to create his own identity and cinematic voice in the future.