Penny Pinchers is a romantic comedy that follows the story of two individuals who are complete financial opposites. Ji-Woong (Song Joong-Ki) is a lazy and unemployed deadbeat who is months behind on his rent and can barely scrounge up enough pocket change to survive. Hong-Sil (Han Ye-Seul) is the epitome of the titular penny pincher. She routinely rummages through junk in search of valuables and has no qualms with taking up morally shady odd jobs in order to make some money. Near the start of the film, Ji-Woong gets evicted from his apartment, and for her own reasons, Hong-Sil decides to take him under her wing, promising him $5000 if he follows her directions for the next couple of months.
Okay, I admit. At first glance, this movie sounds like a typical romcom, but there are a few subtle differences about this premise that drew me in and made me decide to watch it. On a surface level, the movie is about two very different individuals who come from very different backgrounds meeting unexpectedly and potentially falling in love. What came off to me as strange, however, is that the film somewhat inverts the typical rags-to-riches story. Usually, Korean dramas and movies have plots about a poor working-class girl meeting a rich guy from a prestigious family, or about a commoner falling in love with a member of an elite family… or about promising young talents who must face and overcome difficult obstacles on their path to success, etc. You get my point. The plot is rarely about someone who learns how to be poor, and yet, that’s exactly the story that this movie is telling. And it does a pretty good job of delivering this story.
The characters are… interesting. For the first half hour of the movie, I really, really wanted to stop watching because of how one of the protagonists, Ji-Woong, was depicted. He is, for lack of a better word, a loser. Despite having a college education, his incompetence causes him to fail all of the job interviews he has, and even though he is unemployed, he lies and says he got a job working for SK-Telecom in order to impress a girl he likes. In another scene, his mother calls, and he lies yet again, telling her he needs a lot of money in order to pay the “job application fees” for the jobs he’s applying to. He does this shamelessly, even though he knows his mother, who runs a small restaurant, barely has enough money to make ends meet herself.
Even though I had to give props to the actor for portraying such an irritating character so successfully, I really didn’t like the thought of having such an undeserving protagonist be the shining star of the story. Fortunately, this movie is about change. And both Ji-Woong and Hong-Sil develop significantly throughout the duration of the film. We find out more about Ji-Woong as a person, and we learn the reasons behind why Hong-Sil is such a miser. The development is a little on the quick side, but that’s expected because this is a movie and not a 50-episode TV series.
The story is a little on the predictable side, but it is delivered extremely well. I was never surprised by any of the decisions that either protagonist made as each of these decisions is hinted to way in advance. To be honest, though, a romantic comedy is all about the people, and I’m completely fine with a little less emphasis on the plot if it means there’s more time fleshing out the characters.
One thing that Penny Pinchers does well with the story was the way in which it mixed together extremely serious and dramatic problems with lighthearted, comedic moments. When Hong-Sil approaches Ji-Woong with her offer, he has already lost his place to live and has less than $5 in his pocket. Later, we find out that he has maxed out his credit card as well. In other words, if Hong-Sil hadn’t picked him up, he would have had no place to stay and nothing to eat anytime in the foreseeable future. Likewise, Hong-Sil has her own troubles, no less serious than Ji-Woong’s. With only a little bit of tweaking, the director could have easily turned this comedy into a tragedy, but I’m glad he didn’t. He instead chose to mix the serious and lighthearted moments to create a comedy that has a little more depth than the typical romcom.
I felt the need to add this section because for a romantic comedy, the romance in Penny Pinchers was a bit lacking. At the beginning of the film, the two protagonists each have their own crush (and no, they didn’t crush on each other). They spend a good chunk of the movie’s duration separately chasing their own crushes, and not much time was devoted to their feelings for each other. We do see many moments of character development where one of the two changes the other’s perspective or ideas about life, but it’s debatable whether these moments could be considered “romantic”. As a result, the romance aspect of the movie feels rushed and seems like it was tacked on at the end rather than being integrated as a core element of the story.
Though the storyline is a bit predictable, the strong character development and the deft fusion of serious and lighthearted moments makes Penny Pinchers a pretty good movie.