Review: 'Default' should be the default standard for Korean movies to aspire to

Marcus Goh
PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

Movies which are based on real-life events often face a critical stumbling block — it’s difficult to turn a series of events into a coherent plot with proper narrative beats and dramatic tension. Default is one of those rare movies that manage to deftly sidestep that problem, delivering tense scenes despite the audience knowing how the movie inevitably ends.

PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

The movie is based on South Korea’s experience with the Asian financial crisis of 1997, told from the perspective of three different individuals.

The three protagonists of the film — Si-hyun (Kim Hye-soo), Yoon Jung-hak (Yoo Ah-in), and Gap-su (Huh Joon-ho) turn in masterful performances as they take to the crisis differently. Well-meaning government official Si-hyun strives to protect the common man, while the working class Gap-su struggles to stay afloat amidst the crisis. Meanwhile, opportunistic Yoon Jung-hak intends to short the market and make a fortune from it. Despite their varying perspectives, their responses and actions tap into basic human nature, allowing the audience to relate to all of them despite the fact they are wildly different characters.

In fact, it’s this balanced range of perspectives that makes Default so compelling. Many such dramas are usually limited to the political or financial perspectives, and lack the point-of-view of the Everyman. However, the film manages to show how the financial crisis will affect the country, on both a macro and micro level. This helps the story resonate on multiple levels, which helps the audience to understand the magnitude of the stakes involved.

PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

As a result, we empathise with all the characters (despite the fact that they may want opposing resolutions to the crisis), which is what builds the tension in the film. Ultimately, we know how it’ll end. But when you see how hard the characters work and the sheer amount of conviction they bring to the table, you can’t help but want them to succeed. This is what drives the conflict in the film, and what mitigates the issue of the audience already knowing how the crisis is resolved.

PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

As realistic and down-to-earth as the film is, it hews away from pointless grit while still maintaining its bleak, depressive tone. Thanks to the muted, washed out colour palette, it conveys the sense of foreboding that permeates the country, subtly reminding us of how just how horrible the financial crisis is going to be. There’s none of that Korean pretty-boy or plastic-girl nonsense in the film, thankfully — it’s a movie that focuses firmly on the plot, rather than trying to create some shallow and meaningless spectacle.

PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

As can be expected, the film ends on a bittersweet note and an on-the-nose moral. Yet, the fact that it manages to make the audience believe, even for a few minutes, that the financial crisis could be averted is testament to the strong storytelling of the writer and impressive performances from the cast. Default is one of those rare Korean gems that has a fantastic production team working together to present a cautionary tale. By bucking the trend of plastering aesthetically enhanced talents on screen, and picking true thespians to carry the story, Default shows that it should be the default standard for Korean movies to aspire to.

PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

Should you watch this at weekend movie ticket prices? Yes.

Should you watch this more than once? No.

Score: 4.0/5

Secret ending? No.

Running time: 114 minutes 

PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

Default is a Korean financial drama about the 1997 Asian financial crisis in South Korea.

Set in 1997, the film revolves around the impending financial crisis and the government’s mismanagement of it. Different characters seek to turn this situation to their own benefit, and the resulting consequences this has on the nation and its people.

Default is directed by Choi Kook-hee and written by Eom Seong-min. It stars Kim Hye-soo (Si-hyun), Yoo Ah-in (Yong Jung-hak), Huh Joon-ho (Gap-su), Jo Woo-jin (Deputy Minister of Finance), and Vincent Cassel (Managing Director of the IMF).

PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

Default is out in cinemas:
– 3 January, 2019 (Singapore) 

Marcus Goh is a television scriptwriter, having written for popular shows like “Lion Mums”,  “Crimewatch”, “Code of Law”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.

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