Movie review: Default's depiction of Asian financial crisis marred by xenophobia

Stills from the film Default starring Yoo Ah-in. Set in 1997, the film presents a gripping account of South Korea's sovereign default crisis.
Stills from the film Default starring Yoo Ah-in. Set in 1997, the film presents a gripping account of South Korea's sovereign default crisis.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Drama thriller


114 minutes/Opens Thursday (Jan 03)/3 stars

The story: It is 1997 and South Koreans are basking in the glow of their nation's surging economy. All except two people: Han Shi-yeon (Kim Hye-soo), an analyst with the Bank of Korea who sees trouble in the data she is crunching, and Yun Jeong-hak (Yoo Ah-in), a brash trader who suspects that a crash is imminent. Both, however, are mocked for being pessimists when the nation's mood is as buoyant as its stock market indices.

Forget the tone struck by other money-matter dramas, such as the subtle suspense of Margin Call (2011) or the black comedy of The Big Short (2015).

This fast-paced but emotionally overwrought movie offers straight-ahead disaster action: Here are good guys who warn of danger on the horizon and there are the villains at the wheel who ignore the signals. When the ship is about to go under, here are cowards who rush for the lifeboats, while the noble who do what they can to help others.

The Asian financial crisis of 1997 struck South Korea particularly hard and the devastation can be compared to that of an earthquake or tsunami - deaths from suicides skyrocketed and many lived hand to mouth. Foreign aid, in the form of an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was summoned.

A disaster-movie framework seems appropriate, then. The story unfolds as a series of fast-paced interpersonal clashes, in which principled central bank watchdog Han fights a series of smug, horribly sexist old men who call her the b-word while violently sticking their heads in the sand.

Meanwhile, tricky financial concepts are simplified and spelt out in title cards.

Needlessly shoehorned into the boardroom drama is a heartstrings-tugging working-class-hero story, in which the honest, hardworking boss of a metal workshop bankrupted by the crisis tries to find hope in a hopeless situation.

Yoo, the actor last seen as the blue-collar lover in Lee Chang-dong's acclaimed Burning (2018), portrays the maverick investment guru Yun, a man who, while weeping for the victims, has no qualms about getting rich off their jettisoned valuables.

He plays Yun as a predator with a degree of self-awareness. He feels bad for his prey, but a wolf has got to be a wolf. His is the most interesting character in a roster made up of stock parts.

While the film is mostly correct about the real-life events of 1997 and accurately puts the blame on the corrupt and inept boys' club in charge of banks, government and major corporations, it becomes weirdly xenophobic and conspiracy-theory wacky in the third act, when the IMF enters the picture.

In a depiction of villainy that might have come from Black Panther (2018), the IMF team is shown to be a group of white colonialists intent on enslaving the Korean people, and led by a boss played with slimy gusto by noted French actor Vincent Cassel. Given the number of times Asians have been portrayed as bad guys in the West, perhaps that depiction is just deserts.

Watch the trailer at