It’s a sign of the times: the financial thriller is officially a thing. It wasn’t so long ago that thrillers were dominated by communist infiltrators or spies, old fashioned corrupt cops, bank robbers, and garden-variety psycho killers. But as chatter of wealth inequality gets louder, globalisation continues to fail and the one percent closes ranks, the Big Bad du jour is increasingly the Wall Street banker or multinational CEO. As a ‘genre’, the financial thriller has been around in book form for some time; perhaps due to its inherently literary nature. After all, when the hero busts the bad guy, it’s because he/she did a lot of reading. But since the banking clusterfuck of 2008, the money monsters have really come to the fore. Aside from countless television series episodes and documentaries, the list includes (the criminally under-seen) Margin Call, Oscar-nominee The Big Short, Too Big to Fail for HBO, Arbitrage and even (one of 2016’s best) Hell or High Water as just some of the American entries. In Asia-Pacific, there’s been The Attorney, Inside Men, and Veteran from South Korea — all enormous popular hits — and Life Without Principle from Hong Kong (arguably the world’s last bastion of shameless money-grubbing).
Admittedly the Korean contributions to the burgeoning genre frequently conflate finance and politics, which is actually very telling of what Koreans tend to think of their captains of industry and elected officials. Nonetheless, the recent scandal involving impeached president Park Geun-hye makes audiences ripe for a movie like the workmanlike Cho Ui-seok’s Master. In it, Lee Byung-hun is Jin Hyun-pil, the Bernie Madoff/Steve Jobs-esque leader of the shady One Network, an ill-defined investment racket that’s put him in the crosshairs of fraud investigator Kim Jae-myung (Gang Dong-won, A Violent Prosecutor) and his partner Gemma Shin (Uhm Ji-won). When the cops finally convince One’s software engineer Park Jang-geun (model/starlet Kim Woo-bin, The Con Artists) to talk about the organisation, it turns out Jin is a step ahead, double-crosses his double crosser, and hightails it out of Korea with US$3 billion in investor money.
The bulk of the film is a standard cat-and-mouse game, but less so between Kim and Jin as between Kim and Park, and it starts off well enough. Gang is his usual, reasonably dull self (though he’s given little to do by director Cho and co-writer Kim Hyun-duk), but Kim is engaging as the constantly conspiring mastermind, always looking for his own escape hatch by playing both sides. He’s nimble enough to keep us guessing as to which way he’s going to go, but this is a Korean film, so the flawed hero must have his redemption.
The fundamental appeal of Master is easy to see: everyone loves to watch slimy con artists — the kind that play with working class people’s life savings — get theirs, and its even better when the cons are as attractive and having as much fun as Lee clearly is. Master also boasts the frisson of currency. When Jin snarks, “Do you know anyone that’s gone to prison for this?” at Kim in the last act, there’s something depressingly spot on in the comment, and which nearly takes the film into the wish fulfilment realm. Jin is a scumbag in part because he knows he’ll never face any consequences for his actions.
Unfortunately what Master doesn’t have is a sense of direction and an editor with a keenly developed sense of when enough is enough. Cho (Cold Eyes) and Kim have buried a solid, 100-minute thriller beneath a lot of dross, but by the same token haven’t bothered to fill the bloated run time with anything resembling exploration of a world that places such lopsided emphasis on wealth, consumer complacency in their own financial ruin (these guys take advantage of people because there are people they can take advantage of) and the legal and industrial infrastructure that allows Jin and his ilk to proliferate. Korean cinema of late has taken its banks, politicians, judges, police and corporations to task for their corruption, cronyism and rigidity (see: The Attorney) but for Cho, that’s not as interesting, evidently, as a flight to the Philippines and a final sting operation. They’ve also dangled two compelling female characters — cop Shin and Park nemesis, the over-protective Mama Kim as interpreted by Jin Gyeong (Assassination) — and dropped them both by the wayside. That’s a shame, as Mama Kim’s simmering mistrust of Park brings a charmingly cantankerous crackle to the whole thing, and by the time the equally cranky Shin gets a chance to actually do some policing the film is over. None of those flaws, however, have prevented Master from catapulting onto all-time box office triumph lists (currently in Korea’s top 40). There’s a lot to be said for an angry marketplace.
But Uhm and Jin’s fates are to be expected given Master’s by-the-numbers cops and robbers machismo, and its status as a vehicle for Gang and Lee. Once again, Lee, most recently seen as the knife-wielding sidekick in Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven, turns in the kind of grand, post-pretty boy phase performance that’s given him a mid-career renaissance in Korea (blackmail scandals be damned) as well as a touch of Hollywood cache. He’s well cast as a grifter that leans on his charm (watching him fleece an ambitious Manila politico is hilarious), which Lee has oodles of. It’s a shame his latest money-in-the-bank performance is trapped inside a mediocre film that had the potential to be a Korean Wolf of Wall Street.