Cabaret said it best - "Money makes the world go round." Don't believe so? Imagine your life without it, right now (or, perhaps, you're like everyone else on the planet and cash - and the lack thereof - is all you ever think about). Pretty dour, right? No being able to pay one's way through life didn't always come with a case of clinical depression and a gross of Pepto Bismal. Before the bottom line became an obsession for every single soul (and the soulless corporations) in our society, art, experience, wisdom, joy, freedom, creativity, and general human 'being' were valued just as highly, if not more so. Now, if it can't be banked or doesn't end up in a (significant) paycheck, it's deemed worthless and without meaning in our world. So it makes sense that a movie like Penny Pinchers would challenge the status quo when it comes to dosh. In this light, often insightful dramatic comedy from Korea, we learn that a skin flint without focus is just as bad as a spendthrift without prospects. A happy medium is much, much better - for one's senses and for their bank account as well.
Ji-Woong (Song Joong-ki) needs money. He is virtually unemployable. He usually gets an allowance from his mother or gets by on his wits, but right now, he is flat busted and has just been kicked out of his apartment for overdue rent. Of course, he doesn't want to change his ways, his free spirited lifestyle requiring lots of disposable income - which he never seems to have. As luck would have it, a neighbor named Hong-Sil (Han Ye-seul) is willing to take him in...on one condition. Ji-Woong has listen to everything she says and agree to it. The point is to help her save as much money as she can, mostly through scams that are relatively legal and almost victim free. At first, he is a bit skeptical and doesn't like how Hong-Sil is obsessed with saving. But when he learns her reasons why (her father nearly destroyed the family with his gambling debts - and still comes scrounging for scratch), he agrees to cooperate. Besides, he needs the money, and it's not long before the two develop a cutesy kind of romantic respect for each other.
Penny Pinchers is an odd film. The first half seems settled on being a bizarre Asian goof with vignettes exposing the unusual ways our leads make money. Unfortunately, a lot of their antics get lost in the (non)translation. Sure, we snicker when they turn the lights off at a busy badminton court and then sell glow-in-the-dark shuttlecocks to the harried players, or when the duo salvage junk from abandoned houses and sell is as authentic antiques, but for the most part, the movie loses even the most considered Western viewer. The culture in Korea is different, as are the language barriers. The actors will look at some sign and nod with cheerful agreement. They will weep in a movie and we can't share that experience since none of the film is subtitled. Since we don't know what it says, and there is no translation of the words, labels, or tags, we are left wondering what the fuss was about. Equally unnerving is the way in which the characters cater to obvious cliche - at least, at first. Ji-Woong is a douche, the kind of guy who manages to survive because everyone misconstrues his nonchalance for confidence.
Hong-Sil, on the other hand, eventually overcomes her typical RomCom typecasting. Sure, she's cute and perky, but there is also a veil of darkness over her personality which plays against the proposed lightness of the material. When we hear the story about her dad, it's heartbreaking. At least Hong-Sil's problems come from a general laziness and a mother whose restaurant was wrecked by a wild boar. It's this wild inconsistencies in tone and storytelling that will throw most non-Korean audiences off. We expect things to be all goofy or all grim and Penny Pinchers is neither. Instead, it's a weird window into a society we still know very little about, of a heritage and a lifestyle which mimics most of the West while wildly deviating into places our young people have yet to discover. It's a clever film that clearly wants to showcase the importance of personal, not net, worth, and argues against the consumerism it otherwise embraces. Money make indeed make the world go round. It can also make a movie go wrong. For the most part, Penny Pinchers avoids real artistic penury.