In 1997, South Korea was hit by a major financial crisis that left the country teetering on the brink of national bankruptcy. The country was saved from economic collapse by an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout.
Default is a political thriller-esque drama that focuses on the seven days leading up to the bailout by the international organisation.
Director Choi Kook-hee centres his story around three people: Han Shi-hyeon (Kim Hye-soo), a senior financial analyst who foresaw the crisis and tries to convince government officials to implement long-term solutions rather than quick fixes; former investment banker Yun Jeong-hak (Yoo Ah-in), who also predicts the crash but intends on capitalising on it for his own interests; and Gap-su (Heo Joon-ho), a factory owner who has no idea about what is to come.
Each arc is important in its own right. Han’s focuses on how the government dealt with the impending crisis and the machinations that went on behind closed doors with the IMF (headed by French actor Vincent Cassel).
Her story is tense and politically fraught, and she faces heavy antagonism from senior officials as she proposes solution after solution that are shot down.
Yun’s examines how some within the financial sector were able to not just stay afloat but came out of the crisis far richer than they were when it started.
Gap-su’s centres on his frantic bid to keep his factory open after the companies he is working for declare themselves bankrupt and unable to pay him for his work.
This means he can’t pay the companies that he owes money to, which means he and his family are at risk of losing everything they have – even their home.
The ending of the film is a foregone conclusion – the IMF really did bail South Korea out to the tune of US$58.4 billion – but what Default does is highlight how much the Asian financial crisis hurt (or helped) people from across the entire economical spectrum.
The film is tightly edited and period perfect – everything, from the hairstyles to the technology the characters use, is very much of its time.
Captions pop up on screen every so often detailing the country’s drastically dwindling foreign reserves (the money South Korea loans from other countries), as well as the skyrocketing Korean won to US dollar exchange rate.
It’s a very visual countdown-to-doomsday device that hammers home how little time the government really had to react to what was going on in their country.
Whilst everyone’s acting was at least passable (especially in the case of Yoo), it was Heo’s turn as Gap-su that was especially engrossing.
His ever-growing despair and disbelief at forces completely outside his control is painful to watch, as are the lengths to which he ends up having to go to secure his family’s future.
Default is a great watch if you’re in any way interested in politics, economics, or films like Roger Donaldson’s 2000 political thriller Thirteen Days. If you aren’t, save your dollars for another movie.