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)

Pandora (판도라, Park Jung-woo, 2016)

pandora (korean) posterIn a time of crisis, the populace looks to the government to take action and save the innocent from danger. A government, however, is often forced to consider the problem from a different angle – not simply saving lives but how their success or failure, decision-making process, and ability to handle the situation will be viewed by the electorate the next time they are asked who best deserves their faith and respect. Pandora (판도라) arrives at a time of particularly strained relations between the state and its people during which faith in the ruling elite is at an all time low following a tragic disaster badly mishandled and seemingly aided by the government’s failure to ensure public safety. Faced with an encroaching nuclear disaster to which their own failure to heed the warnings has played no small part, Pandora’s officials are left in a difficult position tasked with the dilemma of sacrificing a small town to save a nation or accepting their responsibility to their citizens as named individuals. Unsurprisingly, they are far from united in their final decision.

As the film opens, a group of children marvel at the towers of the new nuclear plant which has just been completed in their previously run down rural town. Not quite understanding what the plant is, they repeat snippets they’ve heard in their parents’ conversations – that the plant is a “rice cooker” that’s going to make them all rich, or it’s a “Pandora’s box” which may unleash untold horrors. Still, they seem excited about this new and futuristic arrival in their dull little village.

Flashforward fifteen years or so and one way or another all the kids now work at the plant, like it or not, because there are no other jobs available. Kang Jae-hyuk (Kim Nam-Gil) is one such conflicted soul who doesn’t disapprove of the plant in itself but has good reason to fear that the powers that be are not taking good enough care seeing that both his father and older brother were killed during a previous incident at the plant some years previously. Jae-hyuk lives with his widowed mother (Kim Young-ae), sister-in-law (Moon Jeong-Hee), and nephew (Bae Gang-Yoo) but is reluctant to marry his long-term girlfriend Yeon-ju (Kim Joo-Hyun) due to his lack of financial stability and growing disillusionment with small town life.

Meanwhile, the wife of the Korean president has been passed a file by a whistle-blower hoping to bypass the corrupt bureaucracy and go directly to the top. The file, compiled by a worried engineer, details all of the many failings at the recently reconfigured plant which has been recklessly rushed into completion without the proper safety checks and required maintenance procedures. Unfortunately the president does not have time to read the report before a 6.1 magnitude earthquake strikes and destabilises the plant to the extent that it edges towards meltdown.

Unusually, in a sense, the president is a good man who genuinely wants to do the best for his people even if he sometimes ignores sensible advice out of a desire to protect those on the ground. Unfortunately, he is at the mercy of a corrupt cabinet headed by a scheming prime minister intent on withholding information in order to push the president into cynical decision-making models predicated on the idea of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few but which mainly relate to the needs of the prime minister and his cronies in the nuclear industry.

The man in charge of the plant has only been there a few weeks and has no nuclear industry experience. His second in command is a company man and his loyalty lies with his employers – he needs to keep everything functioning and ensure the plant will not be decommissioned. The only voice of reason is coming from the chief engineer who wrote the whistle blowing report and nobly remains on site throughout the disaster putting himself at grave personal risk trying to ensure the plant does not pose a greater danger to those in the immediate vicinity.

Claiming a desire to avoid mass panic, the government attempts to order a media blackout, giving little or no information to civilians stranded in the town and fitting communications jammers to prevent the spread of information. The town is eventually given an evacuation order and orderly transportation to a shelter but once there the townspeople are kept entirely in the dark. When they become aware of the full implications of the disaster and try to leave independently, they are locked in while officials flee and leave them behind.

Conversely, the emergency services are hemmed in by regulations which state they cannot act because they would be putting themselves at unacceptable risk. Kang Jae-hyuk, despite his earlier irritation with his place of work, abandons his own cynicism to walk back into the disaster zone to help his friends still trapped inside. The president nobly refuses to order anyone to tackle the disaster directly knowing that it would mean certain death but opts to appeal for volunteers willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Unexpectedly, he finds them. The president is well-meaning but ineffectual, the government is corrupt, and the emergency services apparently overburdened with regulation while under-regulated commercial enterprises put lives in danger. The only force which will save the Korean people is the Korean people and its willingness to sacrifice itself for the common good even in the face of such cynical, self-interested greed.

Despite the scale of the disaster, Pandora takes its time, eschewing the kind of black humour which typifies Korean cinema disaster or otherwise. Serious rigour, however, goes out of the window in favour of overwrought melodrama, undermining the underlying messages of widespread societal corruption from corporations cutting corners with no regard for the consequences to politicians playing games with people’s lives. The powers that be have opened Pandora’s Box, but the only thing still trapped inside is men like Kang Jae-hyuk whose disillusioned malaise soon gives way to untempered altruism and eventually offers the only source of hope for his betrayed people.


Original trailer (English subtitles available from menu)

Black House (검은집, Shin Terra, 2007)

Black House (korea)Yusuke Kishi’s Black House source novel was previously adapted by Yoshimitsu Morita in its native Japan back in 1999, but eight years later the tale made its way to Korea by way of director Shin Terra who opts for a much more straightforward approach than Morita’s characteristically bizarre take. Sold as K-horror, the tone is closer to nasty thriller only giving way to classic slasher action in the final stretch. In eschewing Morita’s idiosyncratic tendency to insert himself into the material, Shin crafts a more mainstream aesthetic, but loses the various layers of social and psychological commentary that went with it.

Juno (Hwang Jung-min) is a mild mannered insurance clerk, new on the job and extremely naive. His first case involves a visit to a hospital with his boss to visit a persistent claimant whom they believe is deliberately scamming the system and possibly with the hospital’s help. In many way, Juno is an innocent, he believed in insurance as a safety net and a power for social good so he’s shocked that anyone would deliberately manipulate the rules in this way – particularly when he discovers some people will go so far as to deliberately maim themselves just to claim on their insurance policies.

Not long after he starts working at the company, Juno gets a strange phone call from a man asking if insurance policies pay out in case of suicide. It’s possible, Juno says – he’ll need to check the policy to make sure. Suddenly worried the person he’s talking to is in a dark place, he starts trying to dissuade him from the idea of taking his own life and unwisely gives a lot of first hand advice despite the highlighted section in his employee guide cautioning him never to reveal personal information to clients. Soon enough, a client has asked for him personally to go out to their remote house and chat about a policy, When he gets there he receives a nasty surprise as the man’s young son has apparently “hanged himself” in the back room. Appalled, Juno waits to greet the police but becomes convinced the man has deliberately killed the boy, who was his step-son, to get the payout on his life insurance.

Juno refuses the claim but Choong-bae, the claimant, won’t give up and starts coming to the office everyday to ask for his money. Choong-bae is a scary looking guy and frightens most of the other staff with his vacant staring. He also has an insurance policy on his wife leading Juno to fear that she is next but his decision to try and alert her to her husband’s plans will prove a mistaken one, drawing him into the web of a dangerous and psychopathic serial killer.

Shin’s adaptation is most likely closer to the original novel but he is far less interested in the psychological or social implications than Morita was. There is no explanation offered for the actions of the killer though the childhood sequences with their reliance on dreams and hearsay remain intact, only with lesser impact. The question of insurance fraud and scamsters, people so desperate for money that they will literally sacrifice an arm or a leg, only exists as background and isn’t presented as a societal problem so much as just something that happens because there are some shameless people out there who would rather play the system than do an honest days work. Juno has also been given his own tragic backstory which tries to play him off as a mirror of the killer though somehow this never quite works and Juno’s own flashbacks are overplayed.

Beginning as a slow burn thriller where Juno plays the nervous, softhearted neophyte as yet uninured to the murkiness of the insurance world, Black House (검은집, Geomeun Jip) takes a huge detour during the final third which sends it into slasher territory when Juno decides to travel to the titular Black House, alone, during the middle of the night, because the police won’t listen to him and there are people in danger. When he gets there he finds a veritable house of horrors with body parts and nooses hanging from the ceiling, blood and carnage everywhere. Then it’s a straightforward fight to the death as Juno faces off against the psychopathic terror despite his nervous disposition culminating in some unexpectedly gory business with a key.

Like most slasher movies, Black House has several endings and finishes on a note of uncertainty but it never quite manages to make its sudden descent into violence work in its favour. Lacking the depth of Morita’s adaptation, Shin’s Black House may have stronger genre influences but with nothing to back them up all that remains at the end is a darker than usual serial killer tale with mild slasher tendencies. A decent enough mainstream thriller, Black House has a lot to offer despite stumbling in its final third but nevertheless lacks a distinctive element to mark it out from similarly themed genre efforts of recent times.


Unsubbed trailer: