Default (국가부도의 날, Choi Kook-hee, 2018)

Default poster 1The Korean economic miracle came to an abrupt halt in 1997. In an event the media labelled “the day of national humiliation”, the Korean government went to the IMF for a bailout in order to avoid bankruptcy. So, what went wrong? Choi Kook-hee’s Default (국가부도의 날, Gukga-budo-eui Nal) looks back at the fateful seven days before the country would go bust, asking serious questions about why it found itself in this position and why it chose to opt for external assistance rather than fix its own problems. The answer is, as always, a mix of disaster capitalism, incompetency, and a healthy disinterest in the lives of the less well off.

As if to signal its hubris, the Korea of 1997 is busy celebrating its accession to the OECD and emergence on the world stage as a major player, escaping post-war austerity once and for all. Young Koreans have embraced consumerism with gusto. Luxury goods and foreign travel are becoming increasingly popular with the government insisting everything is on the up and up. However, listeners to Son Sook’s Woman’s Era are telling a different story – cafes not getting customers, businesses going under, people not getting paid. With the Asian Financial Crisis mounting, the Korean Won is being hit hard and the government does not have the reserves to cover its debts. A high ranking Bank of Korea official, Si-hyun (Kim Hye-soo), has concluded that the nation has one week to find a solution before everything comes to a grinding halt.

Meanwhile, self-interested merchant banker Yoon (Yoo Ah-in) has come to the same conclusion on his own but his aims are very different. Where Shi-hyun sees crisis, Yoon sees opportunity. He quits his job and starts calling up wealthy clients with an innovative pitch. Explaining to them that the country is about to go bust, he outlines a plan to short the government which will make them a lot of money though at the expense of those without who will be hung out to dry when it all goes to hell.

As Yoon tells his investors, the trouble is that the entirety of the modern Korean Economy is built on lies. An underling is tasked with explaining the crisis to the president in simple terms, only for Si-hyun to grimly suggest he tell him “we spent borrowed money like it was water hoping to get an extension and here we are”. Factory owner Gap-soo (Heo Joon-ho) is excited to receive a large order from a major department store, but put off when he realises that they intend to pay him with a promissory note. The department store CEO belittles his concerns, implying that he can’t be much of a player if he doesn’t know that’s how business is done these days. Gap-soo’s partner is all for it and so they sign, but when banks go bust promissory notes become worthless and they need ready cash to pay their staff and suppliers.

Si-hyun tries to make the case for saving the economy to protect the working classes but her advice falls on deaf ears. Often the only woman in the room, Si-hyun is dismissed as a “secretary” while the all male officials make a point of talking to her male assistant and accusing her of being “sentimental” when she points out that people will starve if they put their plan into action. The conclusion that she gradually comes to is that the crisis is an elaborate game being played by elites for their own gain at the expense of ordinary men and women all across the country. Odious finance ministers prioritise saving the Chaebols, warning their friends and cronies, while deliberately running down the clock so the country will have no other option than running to the IMF full in the knowledge that an IMF bailout comes with considerable strings which will vastly constrain their sovereignty and economic freedom – effectively handing control over to the Americans who will use it as an excuse to extend their own business interests by insisting on destructive labour reforms which will devastate the working classes.

Si-hyun’s exasperation leaves her making a last ditch effort to get the government to see sense only for the IMF negotiator (Vincent Cassel) to make her removal another of his red lines, her plain speaking instantly deemed “inappropriate”. Meanwhile, Yoon’s headlong descent into amoral profiteering begins to prick at his conscience even as he tries to justify his actions to himself. 20 years later, it might seem as if the crisis is over but its effects are very much still felt. Gap-soo’s factory may have survived, but it’s running on exploited foreign labour while the Chaebols continue to run rampant over the increasingly unequal Korean economy. None of the problems have been solved and another crisis is always on the horizon. Tense and infuriating, Default is a story of moral as well as financial bankruptcy which places the blame firmly on systemic corruption and the undue influence of self-interested elites while acknowledging that little has changed in the last 20 years leaving the little guy very much at the mercy of capricious Chaebol politics.


Default was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It will also be screened as the next teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival on 20th May at Regent Street Cinema, 7pm.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970, Yoo Ha, 2015)

gangnam-bluesYoo ha takes us back to the 1970s for some Gangnam Blues (강남 1970, Gangnam 1970) in a sorry tale of fatherless men caught up in dangerous times of ambition and avarice, very much at the bottom of the heap and about to be eclipsed by the “new world” currently under construction. Back then, Gangnam really was all just fields, owned by farmers soon to be cheated out of their ancestral lands by enterprising gangsters engaged in a complicated series of land grab manoeuvres, anticipating the eventual expansion of the bursting at the seams capital. Far from the shining city of today, Gangnam was a wasteland frontier town, the sort of place where a man can make a name for himself trading on his wits and his fists alone.

In 1970, Jong-dae (Lee Min-ho) and Yong-ki (Kim Rae-won), sworn brothers from the same orphanage, are two street rats trying to survive in straightened times. When the shack they were squatting in is demolished and they come in to contact with a petty gangster, Kang (Jung Jin-young), the pair end up getting a one off job as thugs sent to smash up a political rally but get separated when the police arrive. Jong-dae finds himself taken in by Kang and his daughter Seon-hye (Kim Seol-hyun AKA Seolhyun) as a surrogate son and brother, repaying their affection by saving Kang’s life during an assassination attempt which later prompts his decision to retire from the criminal world altogether. Yong-ki joins the rival gang instead and seems to be making a success of himself but both find themselves at the mercy of an increasingly corrupt, dishonourable system hellbent on progress but only for the few.

Gangnam Blues has an overly complex, intricate narrative overlaying the generic brotherhood and betrayal theme that runs through the film. Dipping into a particularly dark period of history, Yoo is not afraid to step back into those difficult days marked by both rapid progress and increasing inequality furthered by complicated systems of interconnected corruption. The gangsters are at the service of the politicians but it’s always debatable who is running the show. Jong-dae’s participation in the land grab scheme is painted as amusing cleverness (at least at first) but little attention is paid to the farmers who are being “convinced” to sell their land off cheaply to gangsters who are each competing for the prime sections. Modern day Gangnam was built on blood and extortion, by men like Jong-dae and Yong-ki, even in the knowledge that they will be discarded as soon as their usefulness has been exhausted.

Jong-dae and Yong-ki are the bottom of the pile, orphaned and without family connections they have only each other to rely on yet their brotherly bond is repeatedly tested. The ‘70s Philippine folk song, Anak by Freddie Aguilar, which forms the film’s major musical motif has some very poignant lyrics about parents and their children but neither Jong-dae nor Yong-ki are able to find the kind of family they’re looking for. Both end up opting for the fraternal bond of a crime syndicate to replicate the kind of support usually offered by the family unit with Jong-dae finding a father figure in Kang who eventually takes him into his household as a son outside of the criminal world, and Yong-ki eventually marrying and soon to become a father himself. Forced into crime by their poverty, each becomes an outcast, permanently shut out from the thing they most want even whilst living a life of material comfort.

Yoo opts for a highly stylised approach filled with beautifully photographed, expertly choreographed scenes of violence including the traditional mass brawl in the rain, and a sequence of intercut killings each artfully sprayed with blood. Lee Min-ho acquits himself well enough in his first leading role as the noble hearted gangster Jong-dae with quality support from Kim Rae-won as the much less noble Yong-ki though the superfluity of secondary characters leads to an avoidable lack of depth. Relative newcomer Kim Seoul-hyun also does well with her underwritten role of the film’s most tragic character even if her domestic violence themed subplot seems like one too many. Another classic slice of gangster action from Korea, Gangnam Blues is an unflinching look back at a difficult era with uncanny echoes of the present day, and a suitably period tinged tale of melancholy ‘70s bleakness in which brotherhood and honour are merely words misused by men trying to justify their own ambitions.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Freddie Aguilar’s Anak as featured in the film: