Ryu Jun-yeol has had quite the upward career graph. Beginning his career as an important part of an ensemble of young actors in 2015’s “Socialphobia”, he begun making his mark on South Korean cinema in 2017 with important supporting roles in “A Taxi Driver”, “The King” and “Heart Blackened”, some of the year’s biggest films in which he shared screen space with South Korean bigwigs such as Song Kang-ho, Jung Woo-sung and Choi Min-sik respectively. He followed that up with more prominent roles in films such as “Little Forest” and “Believer” the following year. Now, 2019 brings with it his first leading roles in the financial thriller “Money” by director Park Noo-ri.

Money” is screening at New York Asian Film Festival

Jo Il-hyun, the son of raspberry farmers, comes from humble upbringings but dreams of becoming a stock broker and getting rich. He joins one of the top firms on the Yeouido, the Korean equivalent of the Wall Street, but though he’s armed with an above-average intelligence and a straight moral compass, he cannot manage to crack it in the business. So when a mysterious figure known simply as “The Ticket”, because he is the ticket to your good times, makes contact through Il-hyun’s colleague and makes him an offer that sounds too good to be true and which requires Il-hyun to bend his ethics around a bit, he deliberates a lot before taking up the offer. Surely, the gamble works and Il-hyun rises towards the top of the game, which brings not only money, girls and fame, but also the watchful and persistent eye of the Financial Supervisory Services’s Han Ji-chul, who has been after The Ticket for a long time.

Park Noo-ri may be a debutant with “Money”, but she is no stranger to the thriller genre, having served as assistant director on both “The Unjust” and “The Berlin File” for Ryoo Seung-wan. “Money” thus works not just as a financial thriller but also an action thriller, as it goes along as well as a heist movie in parts. The film successfully manages to mix genres well enough to not feel disjointed. Several elements of the script, which has been adapted from a former stock broker’s novel by Park, may seem familiar to audiences who have seen films about the stock market like “Wall Street” or “The Wolf of Wall Street”, but it it is refreshing to see the story set in the Korean dynamics of the corporate culture. The differences in how wealth affects the newly wealthy in the aforementioned films and in “Money” is interesting and would sit in well with viewers who might be of a similar age to Il-hyun. The film should also not be a problem to follow for viewers not well-versed with the world of the stock market, because things are either explained in voiceover adequately or are details too minor to matter to understand the proceedings.

The characterisation, however, is the film’s biggest issue. Il-hyun is the most well developed character but not necessarily a very strong one, or indeed likeable, despite Ryu Jun-yeol’s best efforts. Supporting characters are sadly not as rounded as he is. The Ticket, for example, is an enigma, but there’s practically no explanation to how he got to be so. The length of the film is also an issue. It feels needlessly long, with several characters and events adding unnecessary burden to the story. Despite that, the movie manages to reach a final act that is satisfying and exciting, as the authorities begin to close in on Il-hyun and The Ticket.

Ryu Jun-yeol manages to make Il-hyun more likeable than the character has any right to be. Beginning with a fish-out-of-water clumsiness of a countryside boy moving to the big city, he moves to the successful wealthy stock broker with loads of swagger to spare with ease. Yoo Ji-tae brings the aura of mystery that surrounded his character in “Oldboy” to The Ticket as well, and is much more convincing as the conman here than he was in his last outing “The Swindlers”. Jo Woo-jin has really emerged as the go-to supporting actor recently, having featured in as many as eleven films in 2017 and 2018, and he impresses as much as he did in “Default” last year, another financial thriller. Sadly, Jung Man-sik, as Il-hyun’s senior and Won Jin-ah, as the token female and love interest, feel wasted as their characters are underwritten and serve little to no purpose.

The cinematography by Hong Jae-sik manages to capture the urban landscape of the Seoul Financial District well. The sparsely used special effects are done well, used mainly to explain the financial jargon or for comic value. Hwang Sang-jun provides the music, which complements the scenes well, mostly notably in the “heist” ones when Il-hyun does The Ticket’s bidding once the stock market opens.

Much like the stock market, “Money” has its ups and downs, but its ups are entertaining enough to just about make you sit through its downs. It also goes to prove that Ryu Jun-yeol’s Rising Star Asia Award at the New York Asian Film Festival is very justified indeed.

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