Korea’s breathless transformation from an outlying nation into one of the world’s leading economies is nothing short of astonishing. These days the country is a technology leader and is quickly becoming one of the world’s foremost purveyors of entertainment. By and large the changes have been good for the country as its citizens have become more prosperous and the standard of living has rising dramatically. However, there is always a price to pay for progress and one of the offshoots of Korea’s good fortune has been a certain shift in values. Brand fetishization can be seen as a natural and perhaps necessary ill following the collective increase in disposable income. Whereas thirty years ago the general Korean public may not have been aware of foreign luxury goods, now they’re omnipresent across the land.
Penny Pinchers is a lighthearted romcom which acts like an antidote to the recent raft of consumerist films that have come out of Korea, such as Little Black Dress (2011). It’s a quirky film which takes a different approach to the genre compared with Korea’s recent offerings. Thriftiness is the name of the game and the bulk of the narrative is given other to the sometimes difficult process of survival that many directionless 20-somethings are forced to endure.
Ji-woong is an unemployed 26-year-old who is about to lose his apartment and seems hopelessly lost as he attempts to navigate adulthood in modern day Seoul. His next door neighbour is Hong-shil, a remarkably clever and frugal girl who goes to great lengths to 'pinch pennies'. After taking advantange of Ji-woong’s late rent payments, which get him kicked out of his lodgings, she takes pity on him and brings him on as a sort of apprentice in thriftiness.
The film starts off as a comedy and the romantic element of it doesn’t really get going at first as it will take a long time for the pair to realize they like each other, though we surmise it much earlier on. There’s also not too much in the way of a plot as we mainly witness the various little schemes and tricks they employ in order to save money. The vague goal is for Ji-woong to have enough money for a new apartment and as we learn later on, Hong-shil's path will be a melodramatic one at the end of which she must reconcile the death of her mother.
Hong-shil is thrifty (to put it mildly) and her sort-of-foil is an airheaded golddigger, whom Ji-woong chases after, trying to fool her into thinking he’s a prosperous young man. This minor protagonist is far less characterized than the lead but I wonder whether she is intended as a reflection of the shifting values in modern Korea. Is the director lamenting it? If so, why do men get off so easily?
If this is a commentary on the commodification of modern Korean’s interests and desires perhaps the two female characters act as signposts of two different generational paradigms. On the one hand the lead represents a generation that can’t let go of the past while the floozy is an airhead blithely unaware of anything that falls outside of her instant and selfish gratification, though she does get her comeuppance in the end. She’s even ready and willing for sex on a first date (ostensiby a reward for designer shoes), a rare thing in Korean cinema, also most likely a slur on her character.
The great charm of Penny Pinchers is its easygoing nature and while it sometimes begins to explore bigger issues it is never less than a well-paced and enjoyable film. A lot of the film’s affableness can be credited to the film’s endearing leads. I was not familiar with Han Ye-seul and Song Joong-ki before the film as they have primarily plied their trade in Kdramas but their humour, charisma and charm really make this one of the best romantic comedies of the last few years. What’s more, while the film does predictably wind down on a melodramatic note, their warmth as performers shines through and guides us serenely through to the film’s climax.
Korean romcoms frequently suffer with their conclusions which often ring false and malign any good groundwork that has been made earlier on but Penny Pinchers deftly handles the combination of pathos, humour and romance that concludes the narrative. It left me wanting more, in a good way, and I came away very satisified. Kim Jeong-hwan, a first time writer/director with ample experience in the industry, proves a light touch behind the lens. A must for romcom fans but also a great standalone film for those who wouldn’t normally seek out such fare.
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