Black Money (블랙머니, Chung Ji-young, 2019)

Following hot on the heels of Default, Chung Ji-young’s financial thriller Black Money (블랙머니) once again has some questions to ask about the nature of capitalism in South Korea. Loosely based on a real life incident concerning the sale of the Korea Exchange Bank (KEB) to American private equity firm Lone Star Funds, Chung’s film points the finger at systematised corruption as its collection of greedy financial elites peddle national interest as a reason for keeping the public in the dark when it comes to their dodgy dealings.

The trouble starts in 2011 when an illicit couple, one working for Daehan bank and the other for the Financial Supervisory Service, are bumped off after being called in by the Supreme Prosectors’ Office in connection with an ongoing corruption investigation into the sale of the bank at rock bottom prices. The male bank employee is killed when the couple is run off the road by a truck but the FSS woman, Su-gyeong (Lee Na-ra), manages to escape. Fully aware that her life is at threat, she tries to get herself arrested by the police for protection but fails and is later discovered dead in her car next to a charcoal briquette. A “suicide note” in the form of a text message to her sister suggests that she has chosen to take her own life because of the aggressive tactics of prosecutors one of whom sexually harassed her after which she felt too humiliated to go on living. 

The mention of sexual harassment is intended to act as a tiny bomb by the shady forces in play, fully aware that just mentioning those words makes the entire case toxic ensuring it will be shut down never to be mentioned again. They have, however, picked the wrong man for their patsy in “bulldozer” Yang Min-hyuk (Cho Jin-woong) who is outraged to have been unfairly labelled a sex offender and will stop at nothing to clear his name, eventually uncovering the entire conspiracy after realising that Su-gyeong’s death was almost certainly a murder.

In this, Yang is obviously acting in self interest, which isn’t to say that he doesn’t care about the conspiracy, but it’s not his primary motivation. His opposing number, Kim Na-ri (Lee Honey), is perhaps much the same, a victim of her upbringing but increasingly conflicted. Brought up by a right-wing, ultra-capitalist professor who is good friends with former prime minister Lee Gwang-ju (Lee Kyoung-young) now working on the Daehan bank sale, Na-ri tells herself she’s acting in the national interest in her desire to set up her own international trade law firm to prevent Korea being taken advantage of by bigger foreign economic powers and in particular the Americans. Despite her law background, what Na-ri has mainly found herself doing is more like PR, finding palatable ways forward to make sure the deal goes through on favourable terms despite the already widespread public outcry.

Surprisingly, Na-ri and Yang end up bonding over the course of the investigation, discovering they have more in common than either might have assumed. Given the kind of evidence that Yang is digging up which points to a wide scale conspiracy involving complex fraud and murder, Na-ri finds herself conflicted. Maybe she isn’t quite as committed to ultra-capitalism as her father is, giving Lee’s speech at the Davos conference the heart-warming title of “free trade with a human face” which apparently went down very well with the audience. Whatever else she is, she’s a lawyer, and the kind of lawyer who doesn’t really like it when people break the law, so she’d rather not think that she’s been party to criminality without ever realising. Lee, meanwhile, uses their familial closeness against her, adopting a sleazy kind of sexist paternalism as he brushes off her concerns as if telling her not to worry her pretty little head about it while tacitly admitting what he’s up to isn’t quite right but is justifiable because the economy must be protected at all costs. 

Only, that’s a difficult claim to square when Na-ri’s restructuring plans for Daehan involve hundreds of workers being laid off and some of them are currently on a hunger strike in the public square to protest. Na-ri is used to thinking in big numbers, she’s not usually confronted by the human face of their results and the weight of her responsibility does perhaps shake her. Yang too is used to being equivocal, declaring himself a neutral force because his job is to enforce the law equally, but he got into this after his dad was involved in a traffic accident where the other driver turned out to be a chaebol kid, so he knows all about systemic inequality and entrenched corruption. Nevertheless, self interest continues to play its part. The sympathetic chief prosecutor who put his career on the line to take the case forward is ousted through a trumped up charge while his replacement offers to shelve it in return for a promotion. A combination of bribery and violence conspires to keep the financial elites doing what they’re doing because no one is secure enough to stop them. 

Trying to discourage her from her newfound sense of responsibility, Na-ri’s father reminds her that Lee is like family to them, which is one reason he’s put her forward for a top job as a financial commissioner, explaining that “that’s how we live through capitalism. Just accept it. It’s not something you can change on your own”. Chung ends the film with a sense of triumph as the common man, Yang, makes an impassioned speech in front of an angry mob, but according to the on screen text his was an empty victory because no one was ever brought to justice over the “illegal” bank sale which put a lot of ordinary citizens out of work while already wealthy elites lined their pockets aided by the financial authorities and a rotten judiciary. An attack on rampant capitalism, Black Money is not afraid to announce where its allegiances lie but seemingly has few answers other than indignation towards an inherently corrupt society ruled by greed and indifferent to the suffering of ordinary people.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea (南部軍 / 남부군, Chung Ji-young, 1990)

North Korean Partisan in South Korea poster 1Under the intense censorship of South Korea’s military dictatorships, “anti-communism” had become the single most important cultural signifier to the extent that all films were in some sense “anti-communist” even if some were more obviously anti-communist than others. As power shifted away from the dictators and towards a new era of democratic freedom, a more nuanced view of the recent past became possible with the “division film” taking the place of the old-fashioned anti-communist drama. Rather than demonise the North, the division film emphasised the tragedy of partition, painting the two Koreas as equal victims of geopolitical finagling.

Arriving in 1990 shortly after Korea’s democratisation, Chung Ji-young’s Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea (南部軍 / 남부군, Nambugun) is among the first to directly address the subject of the Korean War from the perspective of the North Korean partisans, albeit obviously from those who eventually came South. Adapting the memoirs of war correspondent Lee Tae, Chung ignores ideology in order to explore the gruelling experience of guerrilla warfare largely being fought by ordinary people with strong convictions rather than by career soldiers or committed revolutionaries.

Lee Tae (Ahn Sung-ki) himself is an “intellectual” North Korean newspaper reporter working as a correspondent in Jeonju which is currently in North Korean occupied territory. When they get word that the Americans and South Korean forces are on their way, the newspaper staff evacuates and eventually ends up heading into the mountains to join the partisans. As he has previous experience, Lee Tae is given command of a platoon and the instruction to try and make up for his bourgeois intellectualism with hard work on the job. To keep them all in one place, Lee is assigned a series of other “intellectual” recruits including conflicted student Kim (Choi Min-soo) who joined the fight to figure out what this “inhuman” war was all about.

One of the reasons Kim is so conflicted is that he brought his hometown, high school-age girlfriend with him and wonders if that was a very responsible thing to do, especially when they are eventually separated by the command chain who decide to send her to headquarters while Kim stays with the troops. Though we are shown that the North Korean soldiers are just ordinary men and women who call each other comrade, the regime itself still comes in for subtle criticism for its oppressive hardline austerity. On the run and separated from his unit, a wounded Lee is accompanied by an earnest nurse, Min-ja (Choi Jin-sil), with whom he falls in love, but when the romance is discovered by a superior officer Lee is taken aside and reminded that here there can be no love, only revolution. He must give all of himself to the cause, reserving nothing for such bourgeois affections as romance. Both Lee and Kim spend the rest of the picture trying and failing to reconnect with their respective women while fantasising about a different kind of life in which they would not have been kept apart.

Yet, despite the fact that we clearly see a world of near total equality among the partisans, it is clear that Lee’s own thinking at least is not quite as progressive as one might assume. Bonding with Min-ja and dreaming of the future, he envisages a life for himself as a reporter in Seoul at which point she asks what she’s supposed to do and receives the answer “have dinner ready for me”.  Min-ja, apparently an orphan whose brother was killed fighting for the South, found herself becoming a field nurse for the North and perhaps has a lower ideological consciousness as a result, freely offering her medical knowledge to anyone who might be in need of it. “Why is it that we’re fighting?” she asks Lee, “you both need me”, embodying the wounded innocence of the one Korea unfairly torn apart by forces beyond its control.

All gusto and determination, Lee and the others start out with pluck and positivity but gradual disillusionment accompanies the shift from the warmth of spring to the dead of winter as the partisans find themselves starving to death on a frozen mountain. Win or lose, the victory belongs to the US or USSR, one particularly dejected soldier intones laying bare his loss of faith in the primacy of North Korean communism and accepting that they are all playthings in a proxy war being fought by Koreans on Korean soil. Kim fails to find “meaning” in conflict and emerges only with shame and regret while others clutch at pamphlets dropped by the Americans promising an amnesty for those who surrender willingly. Lee trudges on alone, frostbitten and starving, encountering only the dead and finally contemplating suicide only to be given one last source of hope and to have that too crushed. Chung humanises the communists, but still they have to lose in the spiritual as well as the literal sense. Ending on a howl of existential despair, the film dedicates itself to all those on both sides who fell on Jirisan or sacrificed their lives for a vision of a better world but does so with pity more than admiration for all that they suffered as victims of their times.


Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.