Throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties, South Korea prided itself on its economic growth more than anything else. The export-led economic expansion, dubbed “the miracle on the Han River,” had lifted the country from poverty to a place among the world’s most developed economies. This had been accomplished through great personal sacrifice on the part of ordinary workers, but by the mid-1990s, citizens were finally able to enjoy some of the fruits of their labor.
This is why the financial crisis of 1997, which resulted in a US$58 billion bailout by the International Monetary Fund, was such a demoralizing and traumatic event. Its effect on the middle class was devastating, and it left the Korean economy forever altered. In particular, the economic “shock treatment” required by the IMF as a condition of the bailout had a lasting impact on many millions of lives.
Default (the Korean title – “The Day the Nation Defaulted” – is a bit more dramatic) revisits the crisis, from a historical and critical perspective. Director Choi Kook-hee wished not only to give younger generation viewers a vivid sense of this event, which they will have heard about from their parents, but also to look into the circumstances under which the bailout package was negotiated. In this sense, it shares some things in common with Hollywood film The Big Short, combining drama with a sort of journalistic expose.
The plot focuses on several (fictional) characters to provide multiple perspectives on the crisis. One of those heroes will seem familiar to anyone who has watched The Big Short. Yoo Ah-in plays a brilliant young financial trader who, intuiting that a meltdown is coming, pitches his expertise to investors who wish to bet against the economy. Yoo’s acting is a bit more unhinged than what he displayed in Burning (2018), but his lectures to his clients are illuminating in themselves. Far more heartbreaking is the story of Gap-soo (veteran Huh Joon-ho), a small business owner who, after being pressured by a corporate client to take out a risky loan, has to shoulder the responsibility when things go wrong. This is the most moving section of Default, and really helps to illustrate the human cost of the crisis.
The third major character is a policy researcher at the Bank of Korea, played with focused intensity by the brilliant Kim Hye-soo. She more than anyone else understands the depth of the crisis, and what needs to be done to limit the damage. But her common-sense proposals are rejected by senior figures in the government, who seem less concerned with protecting ordinary citizens than with shifting the blame elsewhere. After the economy spirals towards disaster, she is present to witness first hand the negotiations that take place between Korea’s finance ministry and the head of the IMF, played with a greasy arrogance by acclaimed French actor Vincent Cassel.
It’s not an easy thing to depict such complicated historical events in a two-hour film, but Default effectively conveys the panic, desperation and lack of leadership which characterized that moment. While it can’t provide the level of detail and insight that a non-fiction book might offer, what it does leave us with are enduring portraits of people forced to suffer the consequences of a government’s cruel incompetence.