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[Herald Review] ‘Money’ a suspenseful story with good character, but formulaic

Some may call their acting cliche, others may say it is a formula that works. I’d say actors like Ryu Jun-yeol, Jo Woo-jin operate best when they just run amok with their own unique style.

And run amok they have, in the upcoming crime drama “Money” by Park Nu-ri that deals with a small-time stock broker hooked into a life of wealth that has strings attached to it, ones that could drag him right to the bottom.

In Park Nu-ri’s directorial debut, Ryu plays Cho Hyeon-il, a young stock broker on the verge of being fired for being absolutely terrible at his job. His life is turned upside-down when a colleague introduces him to “Beonhopyo (Yoo Ji-tae),” a mysterious figure who is an architect of shady but lucrative stock transitions.

“Money” (Showbox)
“Money” (Showbox)

Cho’s newfound sense of invincibility is challenged when Han Ji-cheol (Jo Woo-jin), a maverick investigator of the Financial Supervisory Service better known as “the hunting dog,” sniffs out dirt on Cho’s hands and starts pressuring him.

From the beginning to the end, the film feels a lot like Ryoo Seung-wan’s 2015 flick “Veteran,” from the strong characters, how it starts with humor, builds up suspense and all the tension erupts in the third act. Of course it is devoid of Ryoo’s signature action, but that is where Park’s talent stands out.

Stock trades, market manipulation, financial regulations are not subject matters that an average moviegoer would have keen knowledge of, yet the director simplifies the process and makes it easy to understand. She also cleverly avoids being sidetracked by too many subplots, instead focusing on the main storyline.

What was particularly impressive was how she paced the movie. A story about money is always interesting, but she manages to maintain the suspense by picking up the pace at the right spots. The director takes things slow in the first act, allowing the audience to learn and like the characters, who are likeable enough.

Ryu and Jo both play roles that the audience has grown accustomed to seeing them in. Ryu is a young, innocent man that “turns” after an enormous incident of some sort, while Jo is a strong character with his own set of beliefs, unwavered by the outside pressure and often comes off as eccentric.

In one scene, Ryu even throws something into the water and shouts cathartically, a Korean cinema equivalent to Hollywood’s “slowly walking from an explosion” cliche.

But while formulaic, both of these styles are very compatible with the characters the young director created, that they end up being enjoyable against all odds.

Someone once told me Ryu has a face that can look either plain or handsome, and his look matches perfectly with the Janus-faced money that is the true protagonist of this film. Ryu’s transition works here because he has a face and acting talent that tell the story on their own.

Jo is a perfect combination of slimy, stubborn, strong-hearted and intriguing. Despite being an antagonist, he is actually the good guy. You can’t really root for him right away, but you see his heart and that makes him both irritating and also likeable.

I’m mentioning Yoo Ji-tae last because the quiet, well-mannered demeanor of Beonhopyo is getting much too old for the actor. Jo and Ryu are relative newcomers, but Yoo has been doing this since the early 2000s.

Still I would not say it hurts the movie because it still works here. If I look past the fact that Beonhopyo looks, talks and acts like an older version of Lee Woo-jin from the 2003 masterpiece “Oldboy,” he is intimidating, charismatic and formidable figure that plays a crucial part in the story.

Another problem I had was with the ending. Every now and then a crazy genius like Park Chan-wook wows us all, but a lot of Korean films have a certain “formula” for ending a story and this follows it. And the message was pretty generic, too.

It is not a terrible ending, but I half-expected Park to exceed expectations here after cooking up such an interesting story.

Overall, the film is a bit formulaic and not one that gives us a ton of food for thought, but one that is fun and has interesting story and characters.

“Money” opens March 20.

By Yoon Min-sik