Money (돈, Park Noo-ri, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

money poster 1“Could you ask him something for me,” the beleaguered yet victorious protagonist of Park Noo-ri’s Money (돈, Don) eventually asks, “what was he going to use the money for?”. Wealth is, quite literally it seems, a numbers game for the villainous Ticket (Yoo Ji-tae) whose favourite hobby is destabilising the global stock market just for kicks. As for Cho Il-hyun (Ryu Jun-yeol), well, he just wanted to get rich, but where does getting rich get you in the end? There’s only so much money you can spend and being rich can make you lonely in ways you might not expect.

Unlike most of his fellow brokers, Cho Il-hyun is an ordinary lad from the country. His parents own a small raspberry farm and he didn’t graduate from an elite university or benefit from good connections, yet somehow he’s here and determined to make a success of himself. In fact, his only selling point is that he’s committed the registration numbers of all the firms on the company books to memory, and his ongoing nervousness and inferiority complex is making it hard for him to pick up the job. A semi-serious rookie mistake lands the team in a hole and costs everyone their bonuses, which is when veteran broker Yoon (Kim Min-Jae) steps in to offer Il-hyun a way out through connecting him with a shady middle-man named “The Ticket” who can set him up with some killer deals to get him back on the board.

Il-hyun isn’t stupid and he knows this isn’t quite on the level, but he’s desperate to get into the elite financial world and willing to cheat to make it happen. As might be expected his new found “success” quickly goes to his head as he “invests” in swanky apartments and luxury accessories, while his sweet and humble teacher girlfriend eventually dumps him after he starts showering her with expensive gifts and acting like an entitled elitist. It’s not until some of his fellow brokers who also seem to have ties to Ticket start dying in mysterious circumstances that Il-hyun begins to wonder if he might be in over his head.

Unlike other similarly themed financial thrillers, it’s not the effects of stock market manipulation on ordinary people which eventually wake Il-hyun up from his ultra capitalist dream (those are are never even referenced save a brief reflective shot at the end), but cold hard self-interest as he finally realises he is just a patsy Ticket can easily stub out when he’s done with him. Yoon only hooked him up in the first place because he knew he’d be desperate to take the bait in order to avoid repeated workplace humiliation and probably being let go at the end of his probationary period. What he’s chasing isn’t just “money” but esteem and access to the elite high life that a poor boy from a raspberry farm might have assumed entirely out of his reach.

It’s difficult to escape the note of class-based resentment in Il-hyun’s sneering instruction to his mother that she should “stop living in poverty” when she has the audacity to try and offer him some homemade chicken soup from ancient Tupperware, and it’s largely a sense of inferiority which drives him when he eventually decides to take his revenge on the omnipotent Ticket. Yet there’s a strangely co-dependent bond between the two men which becomes increasingly difficult pin down as they wilfully dance around each other.

The world of high finance is, unfortunately, a very male and homosocial one in which business is often conducted in night-clubs and massage parlours surrounded by pretty women. There is only one female broker on Il-hyun’s team. The guys refer to her as “Barbie” and gossip about how exactly she might have got to her position while she also becomes a kind of trophy conquest for Il-hyun as he climbs the corporate ladder. Meanwhile, there is also an inescapably homoerotic component to Il-hyun’s business dealings which sees him flirt and then enjoy a holiday (b)romance with a Korean-American hedge fund manager (Daniel Henney) he meets at a bar in the Bahamas, and wilfully strip off in front of Ticket ostensibly to prove he isn’t wearing a wire while dogged financial crimes investigator Ji-cheol (Jo Woo-jin) stalks him with the fury of a jilted lover.

Obsessed with “winning” in one sense or another, Il-hyun does not so much redeem himself as simply emerge victorious (though possibly at great cost). Even his late in the game make up with Chaebol best friend Woo-sung (Kim Jae-young), who actually turns out to be thoroughly decent and principled (perhaps because unlike Il-hyun he was born with wealth, status, and a good name and so does not need to care about acquiring them), is mostly self-interest rather than born of genuine feeling. In answer to some of Il-hyun’s early qualms, Ticket tells him that in finance the border between legal and illegal is murky at best and it may in fact be “immoral” not to exploit it. What Il-hyun wanted wasn’t so much “money” but what it represents – freedom, the freedom from “labour” and from from the anxiety of poverty. Life is long and there are plenty of things to enjoy, he exclaims at the height of his superficial success, but the party can only last so long. What was the money for? Who knows. Really, it’s beside the point.


Money was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Memories of a Dead End (막다른 골목의 추억, Choi Hyun-young, 2018)

Memories of a dead end posterSometimes dead ends show up unexpectedly, as the heroine of Memories of a Dead End (막다른 골목의 추억, Makdareun Kolmokui Chueok) points out while ruminating on the abrupt revelation which has just rendered all her life’s hopes and dreams null and void. Adapted from the Banana Yoshimoto novella, Choi Hyun-young’s debut feature follows a young-ish Korean woman to Japan where she finds out something she probably knew already but didn’t quite want to accept and, thanks to the kindness of strangers, begins to see a way forward where she feared there might not be one.

Yumi (Sooyoung), a woman in her late 20s from a wealthy family, has been engaged to Tae-gyu (Ahn Bo-hyun) for the last few years but he has been working away in Japan supposedly preparing for their shared future. Unable to get in touch with him and worried he seems to be dodging her calls and refusing to return her texts, Yumi decides (against the advice of her steadfast sister) to go to Japan and confront him. Sadly, her family were right when they advised her that perhaps she should just forget her fiancé and move on. Tae-gyu has met someone else. On arriving at his apartment, Yumi is greeted by another woman who knows exactly who she is and why she’s come, but takes no pleasure in explaining that she and Tae-gyu plan to marry and were hoping Yumi would take the hint given a little more time.

Confused and heartbroken, Yumi checks into a hotel for the night planning to return to Korea the following day but a nagging phone call from her “I told you so / plenty of fish in the sea” mother (tipped off by her loudmouth sister) makes her think perhaps that’s not the best idea. Wandering around, she winds up at the End Point hotel and cafe where she cocoons herself away to think things through, trying to reconcile herself to the “dead end” she has just arrived at in the life path she had carved out for herself.

“End Point” is not perhaps an auspicious name for a hotel. A hotel is, after all, a deliberately transient space and not in itself a destination. The reason it might accidentally become one is perhaps on Yumi’s mind when she decides to check in, but despite the name the cafe is a warm, welcoming, and accepting place perfectly primed to offer the kind of gentle support someone like Yumi might need in order to rediscover themselves in the midst of intense confusion.

This is largely due to the cafe’s owner, Nishiyama (Shunsuke Tanaka), who, we later discover, was himself neglected as a child and almost adopted by the community who collectively took him under their wing and sheltered him from his childhood trauma. This same community still frequents the End Point cafe and is keen to extend the same helping hand to those in need, becoming a point of refuge for a series of lonely souls many of them travellers from abroad. Despite her desire for isolation, Yumi is finally tempted out of her room by the gentle attentions of the cafe’s regulars who make sure to include her in all their gatherings, reawakening something of her faith in humanity in the process.

In introducing her to the cafe, Nishiyama remarks that though it is literally in a dead end, many begin their forward journeys from here. A dead end does not, after all, have to be an “end point” but can become an opportunity to turn around and start again without necessarily having to go back the way you came. Yumi likes the End Point so much she briefly considers staying, but it would, in a sense, be a betrayal of its spirit. Nishiyama, becoming a staunch friend and ally, finally comes to the conclusion that her former fiancé was not a bad man even if he was a weak one, but that in all the time he knew her he never discovered the “treasure” of her heart as he seems to have done despite knowing her only a few days. Yumi takes this new knowledge with her on her forward journey as she abandons her much commented on practicality for warmhearted connection as a path towards fulfilment, learning to treasure her “dead end” memories not as time wasted but as a pleasant diversion which led her to exactly the place she needed to be in order to discover the treasure in her own heart and the willingness to find it in others.


Memories of a Dead End screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 17, 7pm, at AMC River East 21.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Prison (프리즌, Na Hyun, 2017)

prison poster bigPrison can be a paradise if you’re doing it right, at least if you’re a top gangster in the movies. Na Hyun’s The Prison (프리즌) paints an interesting picture of incarceration and the way it links into his nation’s infinitely corrupt power structures. When investigators wonder why a crime spree suddenly came to an end, one of the frequently offered explanations is that the perpetrator was most likely arrested for another crime but what if you could turn this obviously solid alibi to your advantage and get those already behind bars to do your dirty work for you?

Disgraced policeman Song Yoo-gun (Kim Rae-Won) has wound up imprisoned alongside several of the men he himself helped put away. Like many cops who suddenly find themselves on the other side of the bars, Yoo-gun’s life is not easy. Badly beaten, tortured, and threatened with amputation Yoo-gun eventually starts fighting back and seizes the most likely path to prison survival – allying himself with the inside’s big guy, Jung Ik-ho (Han Suk-Kyu). Ik-ho, a notorious gangster famous for eating the eyeballs of his enemies, is the one who’s really in charge around here, not least because he’s the one running the gang of prison based hitmen trotted out to take care of the bad guys’ hit list.

What starts out as an intriguing idea quickly descends into predictability as Yoo-gun and Ik-ho face off against each other, finding common ground and camaraderie but ultimately existing on the plains of good and evil. Yoo-gun has his own reasons for landing himself in prison but his policeman’s heart still loves truth and justice even if he’s forced to become a prisoner whilst in prison. While he goes along with Ik-ho’s crimes, joining in the violence and intimidation he practices, he also wants to take Ik-ho down even if it means becoming him in the process.

While the interplay between the two men forms the central axis of the film as they develop an odd kind of grudging friendship which may still end on the point of a knife at any moment, Na tries his best to recreate the world of the grim ‘80s action thriller. Technically speaking, The Prison is set in the ‘90s (not that viewers outside of Korea would notice aside from the external lack of mobile phones, computers, internet etc) but wants to be the kind of tough, bruisy, fight heavy action movie they don’t make any more in which a righteous hero defeats a large-scale conspiracy by jump kicking hoodlums. He almost succeeds in this aim, but never quite manages to anchor the ongoing background conspiracy elements with the intense pugilism of the prison environment.

Yoo-gun and Ik-ho are obviously a special case but aside from their efforts, prison life in Korea is not too bad – the guards are OK, the warden is ineffectual, and the inmates are running the show. Nevertheless the prison is the centre of the conspiracy as elite bad guys take advantage of put upon poor ones who’ve found themselves thrown inside thanks to ongoing social inequality, trading cushy conditions to guys who’re never getting out in return for committing state sponsored crimes. Needless to say, someone is trying to expose the conspiracy which would be very bad news for everyone but rubbing them out might prove counter productive in the extreme.

Na lets the in-house shenanigans drag on far too long, pitching fight after fight but failing to make any of his punches land with the satisfaction they seem to expect. Flirting with the interplay between Yoo-gun and Ik-ho in wondering how far Yoo-gun is prepared to go or whether he is destined to become his criminal mentor rather than destroy him, Na never fully engages with the central idea preferring to focus on the action at the expense of character, psychology, or the corruption which underlines the rest of the film. Nevertheless The Prison does have the requisite levels of high-octane fights and impressive set pieces including the fiery if predictable prison riot finale. Life behind bars isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all, the corrupt elites of Korea will have to actually pay people to off their enemies. Predictable and poorly paced, The Prison is best when it sticks to throwing punches but might be more fun if it placed them a little better.


The Prison was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)