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Ko - production in Busan
  • The Rise of the Financial Thriller
  • by Pierce Conran /  May 10, 2019
  • Modern Anxieties Give Birth to New Korean Subgenre


    Ever in flux, the Korean film industry constantly tries to adapt itself to the trends and themes of the moment. When a film in a new genre catches the public’s imagination, it doesn’t take long for studios and filmmakers to cotton on to what made that film tick, and how it can be done again. If that sounds a little calculating, it should also be noted that the interests and desires of filmmakers shift along with those of the public.

    Among the popular themes explored in Korean films, public mistrust in government, big business, enforcement, education, the judiciary, etc., have long been a source of material for the industry and within that a new sector has begun to carve itself out which focuses on Korea’s financial structures. Although gambling is illegal in Korea (at least for local citizens, as some casinos that are only open to foreigners are permitted to operate), millions take risks with their money, investing in speculative areas such as real estate, business development, and, increasingly, the stock market. Get-rich-quick schemes, untrustworthy friends and family, and unexpected (or tampered with) fluctuations in the property market have thrown many people into financial jeopardy. As such, this aspect of society offers a natural source of relatable narrative tension and drama, as many people will have either experienced such an event, or at least know someone who has.

    On the other hand, following the financial meltdown of many global markets a decade ago, financial-themed thrillers have grown in popularity in the West as well. Oliver STONE made Wall Street three decades ago, but modern narratives have looked at how decisions made in Wall Street affect the rest of America, such as Margin Call or The Big Short, while others examine the wanton greed and power games that proliferate in the highest financial circles, such as Martin SCORSESE’s The Wolf of Wall Street or the popular Showtime series Billions.

    This week, KoBiz takes a look at some of the films that have emerged as the Korean film industry responded to both this contemporary theme and this sub-genre emerging in the West.

    Money


    DIRECTOR PARK Nu-ri
    CAST RYU Jun-yeol, YOO Ji-tae, JO Woo-jin
    RELEASE March 20, 2019

    Essentially the Korean equivalent of Wall Street, with a bit of The Wolf of Wall Street’s style and tone thrown in for good measure, Money is the debut film of director PARK Nu-ri, formerly an assistant director on RYOO Seung-wan’s The Unjust (2010) and The Berlin File (2013), as well as Man In Love (2014), produced by SANAI Pictures, which also handled Money.

    Rising superstar RYU Jun-yeol, of A Taxi Driver (2017) and Believer (2018) fame, plays the young stockbroker Il-hyun, who lands a new position in a shiny office on Yeouido, the island in the heart of the Han River that is home to Korea’s financial district. From a poor background, he dreams of making it big but soon realizes that without the right connections he’s ill-equipped to survive in this competitive field. So when he is contacted by the ‘ticket man’ (YOO Ji-tae), a shady character who operates behind the scenes to manipulate the stock market, he takes the opportunity to realize his financial ambitions, while abandoning any moral principles he may have.

    Money examines both the prevalence of relying on networks in Korea, and how not having connections can kill any chance of success, as well as the accepted existence of invisible figures that pull the strings of power, politics and finance at the highest levels of society. The film was second only to Extreme Job in the first trimester of the year among Korean films, giving distributor Showbox a hit worth 3.38 million admissions (USD 24.8 million).

    Default


    DIRECTOR CHOI Kook-hee
    CAST KIM Hye-soo, YOO Ah-in, HUH Joon-ho, Vincent CASSEL
    RELEASE November 20, 2018

    If Money is Korea’s answer to Wall Street, then Default, from SPLIT (2016) director CHOI Kook-hee, is surely the country’s answer to The Big Short. Examining the true life impending collapse of a nation’s financial markets from the perspective of several characters, the film examines how the actions of a few can have wide-raging consequences.

    In 1997, following similar problems in other Asian nations, the Korean economy began to fracture due to an overabundance of non-performing loans and excessive capital investment in ambitious corporate expansions. Si-hyun (KIM Hye-soo), a monetary policy manager at the Bank of Korea, can foresee the impending collapse, but she has trouble convincing her superiors to take action. Financial consultant Jung-hak (YOO Ah-in) can also read the signs, so he resigns from his job and assembles a small band of investors to bet against the market. Meanwhile, Gap-su (HUH Joon-ho) runs a small tableware factory and signs a risky contract when a huge opportunity come his way, unaware of what the near future holds. Vincent CASSEL stars as the head of the IMF, who visits Korea to negotiate a bailout.

    Exploring the IMF Crisis, an event that brought financial ruin to many, Default peppers a recent historical narrative with several familiar instances of corruption as well as more than a few star names. The concoction proved a fruitful one for CJ Entertainment, as the film welcomed 3.76 million (USD 26.57 million) viewers.

    Master


    DIRECTOR CHO Ui-seok
    CAST LEE Byung-hun, GANG Dong-won, KIM Woo-bin, UHM Ji-won
    RELEASE December 21, 2016

    Prior to Money and Default and not strictly a financial thriller, as it also falls in the con artist and action genres, Master ended 2016 with a bang, drawing an enormous 7.15 million spectators (USD 49.92 million) to theaters.

    LEE Byung-hun plays Jin, the president of the Won Network, an enormous investment company that is suspected by a financial investigation team led by Kim Jae-Myung (GANG Dong-won) of massive fraud. Jin and his section chief Park Jang-Goon (KIM Woo-bin) try to fend off the investigation just long enough for Jin to escape with mountains of cash from hard-working citizens who were duped by his extensive Ponzi scheme. Inspector Kim and his unit give chase to Jin, who has fled the country, while trying to get Park to crack and spill the beans.

    By using the image of one of Korea’s most handsome and trusted stars, Master plays into the ability of charismatic figures to convince the public to make decisions that go against their best interests. Master comes from CHO Ui-seok, one half of the directing duo behind the 2013 hit Cold Eyes, and distributor CJ Entertainment.

    The Scam


    DIRECTOR LEE Ho-jae
    CAST PARK Yong-ha, PARK Hee-soon, KIM Min-jung
    RELEASE February 12, 2009

    A full decade ago, the first major Korean film to delve into the financial thriller realm was The Scam, the directorial debut of LEE Ho-jae, who went on to make SORI: Voice from the Heart (2016). The film was a decent performer for Showbox in early 2009, selling 1.52 million tickets (USD 8.67 million).

    After suffering a major loss, Hyun-soo (PARK Yong-ha) hunkers down and tries to build a modest fortune as a solo investor and eventually reaches his goal, a sum large enough to allow him to support his mother and younger brother. But in doing so, he disrupts a stock market scam, which incurs the wrath of Hwang Jong-gu (PARK Hee-soon). Rather than exact retribution, Hwang instead uses Hyun-soo in an even bigger scheme, which brings together a ragtag group of people with different finance world connections.
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