December 9, 2018

Default: The Cruelty of Capitalism

It's weird to call Default a thriller because there aren't any murders per se or thefts in the conventional sense. Indeed, for awhile, you wonder if hand-drawn flowcharts and freshly printed financial documents are going to be able to generate the necessary drama in this movie about South Korea's financial crisis of 1997. Yet eventually director Choi Kook-hee and screenwriter Eom Seong-min do create a palpable tension, primarily in the behind-the-scenes battles of a well-meaning Bank of Korea exec (Kim Hye-su) and a self-serving government official (Jo Woo-jin), each hellbent on pushing their own agenda forward. It's a painful struggle to witness because we all now know that over the last twenty years the rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer worldwide. And so you really hope that the noble effort wins out over bottomless greed in this case, even as you're fully aware that the chances are anorexically slim.

The policy wonks aren't the only ones having their stories told here either. Subplots concern a sweet-natured, small-business owner (Heo Jun-ho) whose livelihood is threatened by the collapsing economy, and a heartlessly ambitious trader (Yoo Ah-in) who is briefly struck with a conscience before moving on to the piles of cash. As you may sense and without giving too much away, Default is a bleak movie, despite its small, fleeting moments of compassion. There's something decidedly upsetting about watching a new generation of moneyed heirs gleefully reaping in profits while the common man jumps off a bridge or hangs himself or ends up in jail or somehow survives only to become a racist, slave-driving employer. Is this survival of the meanest? That the U.S. government played a role in the shady shenanigans with the International Monetary Fund is, at once, not surprising and a cause for despair. That the IMF is represented by the dashing French actor Vincent Cassel however brought us great pleasure.