A/N: This movie review will not be politically correct. Please feel free to leave the site as soon as you are offended!
Hot on the heels of Yoo Ah In’s last movie, “Burning” comes a new movie about the Korean IMF Financial crisis of 1997: “Default” or “National Day of Bankruptcy” (literal translation). I was especially interested in this movie not just to see YAI on the big screen again, but because I got an inkling about the IMF crisis while watching/recapping “Awl“, one of my all-time favorite Kdramas.
I did a lot of reading while I was watching Awl to research the IMF crisis. Here are some great background info links that I felt helped me understand the event. (1) (2) (3–longer read). I highly recommend reading these before you see the movie, as it will give you a much more enjoyable experience.
Side Note: TBH, my attention in 1997-1998 was on my own personal survival. In late 1996 I left my abusive husband. Due to my injuries from the beating he gave me, I was on disability for most of 1997. Late in 1997, my older son and I both had surgery, not to mention the countless court visits and child support issues that year. I was not paying attention to the news. I was too busy scrounging up money for gas and doctor visit co-pays or standing in line at churches for groceries to feed me, my 3 kids, and my daughter’s friend who was living with us while her family was also imploding.
First of all, I want to say this is not a movie for everyone. If you are expecting romance, excitement, cute fashion, skinship, kisses, or conventional humor, there’s nothing to see here. There are a few moments of black comedy; even those are few and far between. Most people would think that going to a movie about an economic crisis would be like watching paint dry. However, to a contrarian like Shamrockmom, this movie was irresistible. Shamrockmom truly lives for movies like this! I never once felt it lagged or that it failed to keep me engaged over nearly two hours of run time. (Korean movies are always two hours…or longer!) I believe the patrons in the CGV Buena Park theater with me felt the same way. Almost all the attendees on the late Saturday afternoon showing I attended were 40+, meaning that they had significant personal memories of the event as an older teen or adult. The theater was about 3/4 full, which I thought was impressive for a movie of this nature. No children were in attendance.
Disclaimer: I am not in any way an economics expert. My review is about my understanding of the movie, and my own feelings and experiences. Any economic related details I get wrong are simply due to the fact that I have a Pea-Sized brain, and never took a single class at college relating to economics or business.
Here’s the English subbed trailer from YouTube:
Based on RL events, “Default” is actually three interwoven fictional stories of the IMF crisis from the perspectives of a high ranking government financial analyst, a young financier/investor who seems to understand the implications way before everyone else, and a middle-class blue-collar set of dudes who think the new contract for the bowls they manufacture will be their financial windfall, only to find themselves totally wiped out.
My screencap program is back up and running! All screencaps from the English subbed trailers available on YouTube unless otherwise credited.
The first story revolves around Han Si Hyeon (Kim Hye Soo) and her team of financial analysts who work for the government bank aka The Bank of Korea. As things begin to financially teeter in other areas of Asia like Thailand and Indonesia, her team produces a report detailing the fact that South Korea is also about to go bankrupt. There has been too much lending using foreign investment as collateral, and the lending has exceeded the assets held. That’s not a good thing. Her detailed report sits for at least 10 days on the desk of her boss who was preoccupied with petty stuff relating to the next election round. When he finally reads it, he starts to panic:
Meetings are called, and the government bureaucrats start to work on a strategy to ward off the bankruptcy. Finally, the president is notified. This scene felt like it was ripped right from a sageuk:
HSH wants the government to make an announcement to warn people that there is trouble afoot:
Do the bureaucrats want that? Oh heck no! They fear a massive panic among the public. Everything has to be hush-hush. Plus there are elections coming up. Gotta keep everything looking good to the citizens. The level of secrecy that they are able to keep without a leak to the public is pretty amazing. The other fear is the largest corporations in Korea (what we call Chaebol) wield a lot of monetary and political power. Any decisions made will need to keep their interests at the forefront.
Next up, viewers are introduced to Yoon Jeong Hak (Yoo Ah In) who seems to be in charge of training new employees at the investment firm he works for. His business suit is strangely ill-fitting; it’s way too big on him. Was YAI still trying to put weight back on from “Burning” where he was almost painfully thin? Or was this just to show that he didn’t have the funds for a sharply tailored suit?
Side note: Korean tailors make the best men’s suits IMHO. My dad had a dozen suits custom made for him while he worked in Korea. His favorite was the navy blue pinstriped one. Believe it or not, he wore that same suit which was made in 1984 when he got married in 2016! It looked great and was still reasonably fashionable–no goofy large lapels or anything like that. Only minor alterations were done–my dad is thinner now than he was back then!
As the busload of new employees enjoy a raucous and jolly bus ride to a retreat/meeting, Jeong Hak is going over some paperwork….and he also starts to believe that South Korea is at the brink of a major financial crisis:
YJH is no dummy. He makes some phone calls to foreign investors. What he hears from them confirms his research. I just love YAI’s English lines; it is compelling to hear how the tone and pitch of his voice change from the way he speaks Korean to the way he speaks English. YJH goes back to work and immediately submits his resignation. He sets up a sparsely furnished office and makes more phone calls to different companies, which seems to cement his theory that big money can be made by quickly buying up dollars with Won, and then using the dollars to buy property that everyone else is selling at rock-bottom prices. At the beginning of the crisis, the exchange rate was about 800 Won=$1.00 USD. YJH believes the exchange rate will rise to 1600 Won=$1.00 USD. (Note: it actually topped out at about 1700=1) He also buys some put options so he will make even more money as Korean stocks fall in price during the crisis.
YJH calls his clients in for a meeting. He’s got an eclectic group of customers, and he’s made them pretty wealthy over the last few years. One lady brags about the building in Gangnam she owns thanks to his wise investment advice. In a highly enjoyable scene, YJH draws out a diagram on a glass board of how over-leveraged the banks are.
If one of the parts of the scheme collapses, it will take down everything else with it. YAI tells his clients: The government’s inabilities and ignorance…
He explains to his clients that they need to trust him and invest aggressively. They will be extremely wealthy if he’s right. And he believes he is right. YJH knows the government will not come to the rescue of the common people. Instead, they are going to protect their own interests and basically, the public will get screwed over. My favorite line he utters is here: “I’m going to invest in the government’s incompetence.” Heh–you can’t go wrong with that!
Sadly, the vast majority of his own clients don’t believe him. Only one older ahjussi (who wears a Bolo (lariat) knot tie–what a hilarious detail!) and a goofy punk rich kid who is dressed like a “party hearty” character in a bad late ’90s teen movie are going on the ride with YJH. Yoo Ah In is at his finest in this scene as he passionately explains just how bad the default is gonna be, and how the government is going to lie, obfuscate and completely Eff over the Korean people. Knowing how YAI has protested against the government previously, and his general outspokenness on social media makes me think he must have positively reveled in this role.
Side note: I am cheering for YAI’s character here. I get it. YJH thinks there is no limit to the depths the government bureaucrats won’t sink to in order to defend their interests aka getting re-elected. And in this movie, he is proven correct in a devastating way. Lie? Cheat? Steal? Threaten? Destroy a country’s economy, throw millions into bankruptcy, and impoverish an entire generation? All perfectly acceptable to the politicians, as long as they come out with their own wealth intact, and their heads attached to their necks. The movie really stresses that the average Joe/Chul Soo has not one clue what is going on thanks to the government controlling the media, and implicitly trusts the government to act in the “people’s best interest”. If you personally think a bigger government that wields more power is a good idea, I hope that this movie will dissuade you of that point of view for good. “A Government that is big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take it all away.”
I admit I do not understand why younger people today embrace the big government/ socialism concept the way they do. Then again, perhaps they have not seen what I have seen. I watched my uncle get financially wiped out and have to start over in his mid 40’s when the Vietnam war ended. He escaped with one suitcase. I have heard more frightening “escape by boat” or “escape through the jungle” accounts from Vietnamese and Cambodian friends than I ever wanted to hear. I’ve personally known Jewish doctors who were smuggled out of Eastern European countries in the 1980s and heard their stories of being detained and the violent anti-semitic rhetoric they endured. I am no fan of socialism. It’s a recipe for disaster.
The third story of the movie is about two blokes who own a small factory. They produce the large stainless steel bowls Shamrockmom has seen at Korean restaurants and at the Korean Pastor’s home where the most delicious homemade soups like Galbitang, Samgyetang, and Bukeoguk are served by his wife:
Note: the Korean pastor and his family moved to the US in 1994, so they missed both the IMF crisis and the LA riots. That’s some good timing!
Gab Soo and his business partner are stoked to learn that a large upscale department store wants to sell their bowls. However, the department store is operating on a thin margin as well. The department store wants to pay them with a promissory note which is cashable at a Merchants Bank. Gab Soo is initially reluctant to go this route; previously the business had been able to get hard cash up front from buyers so that they could get supplies and pay their staff. The guys borrow from their personal funds and their families to get started on the project.
However, the department store goes bankrupt in a heartbeat, and so does the Merchant Bank. Suddenly the promissory note they hold for $400,000 is worth less than the paper it’s written on. The department store’s accountant tries to escape, but there is a huge group of vendors–including Gab Soo–all wanting to be paid and waiting for him outside the store. In a harrowing scene, the accountant is swarmed by the angry crowd, and although the movie cuts away, I would not be surprised if the mob beat him to death.
Side note: Even today, many small Korean businesses in my area operate on a cash-only basis. The little shop where I buy my ginormous gallon bottle of kimchi? Yep, cash only. My new Korean acupuncture doctor? Same deal. In the Korean drama “The Best Hit”, Hyun Jae has a cashiers check from a bank that went under during the IMF crisis, and it was worthless too. As a Kdrama viewer, it’s good to know about the IMF crisis, because it’s referenced in many dramas.
The guys try to sell their homes, but there are so many people in the same rotten mess that the market is flooded, and home prices drop precipitously. Gab Soo tries to sell his home for $170,000 (the figure was given by subbers) but is told by the real estate agent that the going price is now about $140,000–and it’s dropping by the day. His business partner ends up in prison for writing bad checks, and his wife is given “voluntary resignation” papers and a new contract to be a part-time worker with fewer hours and no benefits.
Warning: “Default” shows two graphic suicides and one near suicide. During the IMF Crisis, the suicide rate in SK rose 45% (link). Gab Soo contemplates suicide and even starts to climb out on the balcony railing of his house, but he thinks about his children and doesn’t do it. The government started greasing Han River bridge railings in 1998 to make them more difficult to climb over for those considering suicide.
Han Si Hyeon is also subjected to the worst level of misogyny and discrimination. It’s bad enough when it’s by her own co-workers in the government. However, nothing tops the disgusting attitude of the IMF representative (played by a well-cast Vincent Cassell, who gives off a threatening and evil vibe) who realizes this lady is far smarter than her superiors and is not willing to accept the harsh terms of the IMF’s bailout. HSH is even intelligent enough to figure out that the IMF is simply the puppet of the US–there’s an American contingent staying at the same hotel. They are getting advice and “pre-conditions” to devastate the economy of Korea for years in order to keep the American economy afloat. The scene where HSH confronts the IMF representative is a powerful one, and Kim Hye Soo should get an award for her acting performance.
I read one review that didn’t buy into how HSH was treated. I respectfully disagree 100% with that viewpoint. From what I’ve seen portrayed in dramas, read about on the internet, and from what I’ve heard from a friend’s language partner (a Korean young lady who is currently employed in Australia but has a Korean older male boss) this movie is absolutely spot on. Especially given that this happened twenty years ago, it would seem to be completely believable.
As an American, I feel somewhat ashamed about the way the US manipulated the situation to the detriment of the Korean people. The way it was spun in the media back then to us here in the USA….well, let’s just say there was not the level of alternative news sites available, and internet access was not what it is today. In 1997 I still had dial-up internet (now that was like watching grass grow!) and I think more people believed what their government told them. If someone is in a leadership position, then they are responsible and accountable for their decisions, much more so than for a worker. In addition, mistreating employees, and/or delaying/shorting paychecks will be a big problem for that employer, both here on earth, and in the next life.
Another really interesting scene in the movie was when YJH and his two cohorts realize that they’ve made a boatload of money. When the younger punk guy starts to obnoxiously celebrate this fact, YJH punches him. It seems that YJH is glad he made the money, but he feels ashamed when confronted with the reality of what he has done. Or does he? In another scene late in the movie, YJH buys an expensive high rise apartment home, only to discover that the former owner has committed suicide and the body is currently hanging in the bathroom. He seems completely blase about the whole thing, declaring that the place is his now. Whoa, that’s cold!
The ending of the movie also provides food for thought. Fast-forward to 2018….
YJH is now the director of a large investment firm. He’s obviously done well in the ensuing 20 years. However, he’s beginning to see things in the financial markets that give him reasons to think the whole deal in 1997 might happen again–and with even more devastating results. He starts to map out a strategy for his clients that is very similar to what he did back in 1997, with a few changes added in due to technology.
Interestingly, YJH does not seem to age in the least over the 20-year gap, but HSH and Gab Soo certainly do. YJH does have better fitting suits in the present day!
Side note: My FF writer’s mind wonders what Seon Jae and Hye Won would look like in the future when he’s 65 and she’s 85. What would they be doing? Ahhh, if I could only retire and write every day…
HSH resigned from the Bank of Korea and started her own financial analysis firm. She is approached in 2018 by a couple of younger analysts from the Bank of Korea, who want to pick her brain. They have run the numbers, and fear that Korea is in a similar position today–too much borrowing, not enough collateral for loans, etc.–and they want her to look at their findings. She looks at them through her world-weary eyes, but then you see there’s still a spark inside. She tells them she only works in a team, and they start making plans.
By 2018, Gap Soo has gotten his factory back, although it appears he has not updated his machines or modernized a single thing. His college-educated son is trying to hustle for a job with a large corporation. (No mention of the daughter.) Dad and son chat on the phone; then GS breaks away to holler at one of his workers to hurry up, “Hassan!” he barks out, as a dark-skinned Arabic guy turns around….Oh my goodness! So he’s got foreign workers in there, working in dubious conditions with antiquated machinery making bowls?! And he’s probably paying them minimum wage or less? Wow. That’s priceless.
Side note: One of the things that I noticed right away when I shopped at a Korean market (or any local Asian supermarket) was that the guys who did the hardest work at the store were Hispanic! There were almost no young Asian kids working in the stores– probably because they are all in school studying! There might be a few ahjummas manning the cash registers, and you might find an older ahjussi Korean butcher in the meat department, but the persons sweeping up, stocking the vegetables and clearing the parking lot of carts are all non-Asian. Even my (now former) co-worker who is Hispanic acknowledged this fact. Well educated himself as a dentist in a Central American country, he understood that the majority of his people eschewed education for themselves and their children, and then suffered the consequences. I always tried to strike a balance with my kids. I wanted them to have a PT job, earn some money and get some RL experience, but the job had to come second to their school work, and if it was between work and school–work was the first to go. I see many rich, entitled kids of my patients and coworkers who come out of college with a degree and have zero work experience. They have no idea how to treat others in a work environment, and they typically have a poor work ethic. Gab Soo has no work ethic issues–I’d wager he is nearly 70, and he still works hard!
As everyone left the theater, you could have heard a pin drop. The few conversations were very muted and I got the feeling that the other theater patrons and I were deeply sobered by this movie and its message. For me, I think I will be reflecting on a different meaning of Christmas this year–one that has less to do with monetary gifts and more to do with how I spend time with my children and how I can help others who are less fortunate than myself. I truly hope my readers get a chance to see this intellectually challenging and engaging movie in your local Kmovie theater or on a streaming site.