Over the past two decades, South Korean cinema has offered many allegories exploring the country’s embrace of neoliberalism and its dehumanizing discontents. A recent example is Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018), in which a mysterious, seemingly foreign-educated figure drives two confused locals to self-destruction. So it’s surprising that filmmakers have rarely referred to the real-life cataclysm which led to all this: the catastrophic financial meltdown in South Korea in 1997, when the government agreed to slash its budget, deregulate markets and truncate labor protection laws in order to receive a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
With Default, director Choi Kook-hee has sought to fill that void in a dramatic and furious exposition of causes and effects as seen through the eyes of his three protagonists, who experience the crisis up close in different ways. In this taut, straightforward account of a society in meltdown, Choi and his screenwriter Eom Seong-min turn mind-boggling macroeconomic concepts into emotions aimed at the viewers’ heart. On the downside, this tends to lead to the film defaulting toward the simplistic and melodramatic, especially in one character’s face-off with IMF officials over their draconian demands in exchange for bailing South Korea out of bankruptcy.
An engaging multi-strand story about a nation in turmoil.
Then again, South Korean audiences seem to appreciate such on-screen heroics, and Default took in nearly 40 percent of the box office when it opened locally on Nov. 28. After topping the charts its first two weekends, it has since clocked up 3.7 million admissions. Apart from its relevance to the here-and-now — something explicitly hinted at in the 2017-set coda showing the villains from 20 years ago still sitting pretty in high places — the film also banks on a stellar cast of local A-listers Kim Hye-soo (The Thieves, Coin Locker Girl) and Yoo Ah-in (The Throne, Burning) plus French star Vincent Cassel. The pic opened in the U.S. on Nov. 30 in limited release and will unspool in Asia this month.
Default kicks off with a montage of archive news footage describing the “Miracle on the Han River” or South Korea’s ascent from a post-war agrarian backwater to one of the most dynamic economic powerhouses in Asia. As the story opens during the first week of November in 1997, the country — just like Japan in the 1980s, before the bubble economy burst — appears giddily drunk on its own success. New recruits at investment banks receive lucrative bonuses before their first day at work, middle-class parents are more concerned about choosing cram schools for their kids than making ends meet, and laborers grin ear to ear, knowing they will be paid in full and on time.
Amid such collective euphoria, hardly anyone seems sober enough to play the party-pooper. Yet three characters seem aware that South Korea is sliding toward the precipice. When Han Shi-hyun (Kim), a financial analyst at the central bank, tallies the non-performing loans across the country and concludes national bankruptcy is just one week away. Young investment banker Yoon Jung-hak (Yoo) reaches the same conclusion through his own research and decides to exploit the pending crisis for his own profit. Finally, there’s Gap-su (Huh Jun-ho), the mild-mannered owner of a modest factory that manufactures metallic rice bowls. While overjoyed at an order from a major department store, he’s worried about being given a promissory note instead of being paid in cash.
Thus the South Korean “sovereign default” crisis unfolds, with director Choi coaching uninitiated viewers along in regular onscreen texts that chart the plummeting values of South Korea’s currency and stocks. In the first thread of the story, Han spars with disbelieving, self-serving politicians about the best way to save the country and its people from impending doom.
Her main adversary inside the system is a deputy finance minister (Jo Woo-jin), who sees the crisis as an opportunity for him to endear himself to the chaebols, the mega-conglomerates that control the South Korean economy. When he and his cronies decide to forego other options in order to seek a loan package from the IMF, Han finds herself pitched against the organization’s ruthless executive director (Cassel). The pair’s arguments about the pros and cons of bailouts are informative enough, but smack of overwrought melodrama at nearly every turn.
Meanwhile, Yoon sets up shop in a rundown downtown loft, trying to get investors to join him in betting against his country’s economy. While failing at first to convince people that South Korea is soon to implode, he eventually recruits two investors and uses their capital to sweep assets at local banks and property agencies on the cheap. A socially awkward whiz-kid with an ego bursting at the seams, he’s a self-made rogue with an uncanny ability to be in the right spot to make his next killing. His cynicism and amorality are summed up in one of the film’s more shocking moments, when he refuses to leave an apartment he just bought even after discovering a dead body in it. “This is mine,” he hollers as he walks up to the corpse. “Why should I leave?”
Of the three main characters in Default, it’s factory owner Gap-su who stands to lose the most. While Han is stripped of her hope and Yoon of his humanity, Gap-su’s life is ripped out of his hands. As officials struggle to contain the crisis and speculators jump in to exploit the chaos, Gap-su just gasps at his misfortune as the department store ordering his goods goes bust, rendering the promissory note worthless. Struggling to pay his suppliers and staff, he watches his business teeter as he hears news of the deaths of businessmen like himself.
His traumatic downward spiral is the most authentic and empathetic of the three threads. While Kim and Yoo deliver deft performances as the despairing idealist and the gung-ho go-getter, their characters remain ciphers. Eom’s screenplay doesn’t explain why Han sticks with her lofty moral values amid such turmoil, or why amorality propels Yoon toward his relentless pursuit of gain over everybody else’s pain.
Fortunately, Default is rich in visual symbolism. When Han decides to expose the government’s mismanagement of the financial crisis, she organizes a press conference at a warmly lit Korean-style house. This location is markedly different from the impersonal spaces she works in, signifying the need for people to revisit the social values from simpler times. It’s just one highlight among many in Bae Jung-yoon’s excellent production design, which adds a nuanced sheen to Default‘s fiery call to arms against economic inequality and social injustice in South Korea and beyond.
Production companies: Zip Cinema in a CJ Entertainment presentation
Cast: Kim Hye-soo, Yoo Ah-in, Huh Jun-ho, Vincent Cassel
Director: Choi Kook-hee
Screenwriters: Eom Seong-min
Producers: Eugene Lee, Oh Hyo-jin
Director of photography: Choi Chan-min
Production designer: Bae Jung-yoon
Costume designer: Chae Kyung-hwa
Music: Kim Tae-seong
Editing: Shin Min-kyung
Sales: CJ Entertainment
In Korean and English