'Money' ('Don'): Film Review

Courtesy of Megaton Entertainment
Ryu Jun-yeol and Yoo Ji-tae in 'Money'
Greed is still good — once again, unless you get caught.

Emerging star Ryu Jun-yeol and veteran Yoo Ji-tae headline first-timer Park Noo-ri’s financial thriller about wealth and its real cost.

A young stockbroker with visions of market glory dancing in his head gets in over it when he teams up with an enigmatic, behind-the-scenes stock manipulator in writer-director Park Noo-ri’s fittingly titled Money, something of a Korean spin on Wall Street for the new millennium.

While Money is polished to a bright sheen, the narrative — adapted from a novel by former stockbroker Jang Hyun-do — bites off a great deal more than it can reasonably chew. Either that or first-timer Park isn’t quite sure which story it is she wants to tell. Nonetheless, the film was a modest hit at home in Korea, where financial inequality and malfeasance remain popular movie topics, and the timely subject matter could win it a few slots at Asia-focused festivals. Money’s best bet, however, is streaming, where the conventional filmmaking will be less noticeable and the swift financial-thriller aspects will float to the surface.

As the junior guy at DM Securities, Il-hyun (Ryu Jun-yeol, Hit-and-Run Squad) occupies a lowly post where he’s expected to get lunch for senior brokers and fund managers, yet still sit through the traditional long post-work drinking sessions with his team. Nicknamed Raspberry for the family farm he grew up on, Il-hyun is a small-town nerd at heart, gifted with numbers but lacking the finesse and confidence it takes to make it in cutthroat Yeouido — Seoul’s Wall Street.

After a year of menial tasks and zero commissions, senior broker Min-joon (Kim Min-jae) takes pity on Il-hyun and introduces him to a shadowy financial Machiavelli known as The Ticket (Yoo Ji-tae). The Ticket appeals to Il-hyun’s pride and desire to be rich (stated in the opening voiceover) by offering him a side gig effectively gaming the game and making him the official — and barely legal — partner he needs to continue his market domination. Before you can say “Greed is good,” Il-hyun is reveling in shocking wealth, alienating his parents, dumping his loyal, middle-income girlfriend and callously pushing Min-joon off his pedestal. Also just as quickly, his irregular trades catch the eye of Financial Supervisory Service officer Han Ji-cheol (Jo Woo-jin, Rampant), who’s been chasing The Ticket for years. Eventually random car crashes start happening and brokers start falling from high buildings.

Money is at its best when Park focuses on the workplace dynamics, dropping in little details illuminating Korean corporate culture that will have Koreans nodding furiously in recognition and everyone else wondering how much dramatic license could possibly have been taken (not much). DM Securities is chock-full of archetypical characters given depth by the strong supporting cast: the well-positioned Min-joon, who nonetheless knows what it’s like to be at the bottom; the take-no-guff fund manager Byun (Jeong Man-sik, always welcome) who knows precisely how much he relies on his underlings; the rich pretty boy Woo-sung (Kim Jae-young) who genuinely doesn’t care about the layers of social strata between him and Il-hyun; and Shi-eun (Won Jin-a), the lone woman who has to work twice as hard for acceptance in an office full of men who use her gender as a weapon against her.

Each of them eventually falls victim to Il-hyun’s growing arrogance, and that is Money’s fatal flaw. Each is also a more interesting character, compared with Il-hyun or in any context. Park misfires by focusing on an irritating, unsympathetic "hero" whose bravado is baffling and whose downfall and redemption feel unearned. Had Park and Ryu been able to make us believe Il-hyun was screamingly self-deluded — or better still, a jerk from start to finish, as the book suggested — Park would have had the makings of a compelling character study about hubris, ethics, capitalist culture and what drives someone to bend the rules so drastically. Instead, Money relegates its most interesting ideas and characters to the periphery and dives wholeheartedly into financial thriller territory that’s only moderately gripping. And for anyone who comprehends Old Norse better than economic jargon, nothing here is going to help. There’s no Big Short-style explainer infuse the action with a greater sense of what's at stake.

Fortunately, that supporting cast is on hand to buoy the script’s more leaden moments, including the third-act sting wherein Il-hyun gets to make amends for his earlier behavior, and a Daniel Henney cameo that, however charismatic he may be, can't pull the plot machinations back from the brink of nonsense. Ryu’s serviceable performance is made better by Yoo's as the slick and sinister mastermind, though he’s flirting dangerously with self-parody: His turn as The Ticket shares a few too many cadences with his breakout role as the heavy in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. No faults on the production front; tech specs are unsurprisingly impeccable.

Production companies: Sanai Pictures, Moonlight Film
Cast: Ryu Jun-yeol, Yoo Ji-tae, Jo Woo-jin, Kim Jae-young, Kim Min-jae, Jeong Man-sik, Won Jin-a, Kim Jong-soo, Jin Seon-kyu, Daniel Henney
Director: Park Noo-ri
Screenwriter: Park Noo-ri
Based on the novel by Jang Hyun-do

Producers: Han Jae-duk, Yoon Jong-bin
Executive producers: Kim Do-soo, Hwang Soon-il
Director of photography: Hong Jae-sik
Production designers: Cho Hwa-sung, Son Min-jeong
Costume designer: Cho Sang-gyeong
Editor: Kim Sang-bum
Music: Hwang Sang-jun
World sales: Showbox

In Korean
115 minutes