There is a certain risk in making a movie based on a true story: The creator takes sides and ends up having an agenda. When the audience is on board with the idea, it’s great. Otherwise, it becomes a problem.
“Black Money” is a movie that has a clear purpose and a message to get across, which is to raise awareness about the ongoing multibillion-dollar investor-state dispute between the South Korean government and a private equity firm.
“‘Black Money’ is different (than other movies). It carries a certain significance, in that it is an ongoing, real event. … I asked my stylist and I was told that it made that person mad, and realize the truth,” lead actor Cho Jin-woong said in a press conference after the premiere.
“Black Money” (Acemaker Movie Works)
Truth is the key word. The film claims that it knows “the truth” and wants the audience to learn what it believes to be the truth. How “the truth” will be received is another story.
The film kicks off with an employee of the Financial Supervisory Service and an employee of a fictional bank anxiously discussing details of a corruption case in which they played a part, and the subsequent investigation by the prosecution. The bank employee is killed when a dump truck deliberately runs the car over, and the very suspicious “suicide” of the regulatory body employee is blamed on maverick prosecutor Yang Min-hyeok (Cho).
Yang sets out to clear his name, but soon learns that the victim was due to testify in a case where a bank was sold to a foreign investment bank for a suspiciously low price. Determined to get to the bottom of this, Yang runs into Kim Na-ri (Lee Ha-nee), a lawyer working for the said bank who defends her employers but says she will not tolerate injustice. The pair soon gets a glimpse of an enormous conspiracy that involves former and current elites within the Korean government.
The film is justified in taking liberties and assuming all the allegations in the real-life case are true, given that it is, after all, a film.
What I do have a problem with is how it tells the story. It uses a lot of cliches and a predictable plot to introduce very one-dimensional characters who are clearly meant to be just evil. A clear case in point is Moon Sung-keun, an actor and politician who for some reason makes it his personal mission to play the most evil person in the politically themed movie in which he stars.
It also felt a bit formulaic. Many Korean films in the crime drama genre have a formula: a comic relief character, a person fighting on the wrong side with internal doubts, a protagonist fighting for justice, and the seemingly gentle bigwigs who loom over you.
A classic example of this being done well was “Inside Men,” which followed the formula but had its own unique flavor. That film was also a story of good vs. evil, but it was a metaphorical evil that was exaggerated to the extremes. It worked because we knew it was a fictional setting that served its purpose in the plot.
“Black Money” should have focused more on the complexity of the issue -- the market vulnerability that enabled foreign investment to get involved, and the alleged network of corruption that spans across the civil and government sectors, instead of “evil“ corporations and government officials plotting.
Director Chung Ji-young’s earlier work “National Security” was full of heart and righteous anger, but I don’t think anger was the proper path to take in this particular picture. It doesn’t work that well when things aren’t so black and white.
This film is likely to get mixed responses from the audience, depending on their knowledge of the controversy, their opinion of it, but I do not think oversimplifying the matter will help much in changing anyone’s already-existing opinions about this very relevant issue.
“Black Money” opens in local theaters Nov. 13.
By Yoon Min-sik