Economics in Foreign Film

The Fatal Encounter is a Korean movie from 2014 that was directed by Lee Jae-Gyu that takes place during the Joseon Dynasty, and tells the tale of the failed attempt of the assassination of the 22nd ruler named Jeongjo. Throughout the film, it reveals the hardships that lower class society, especially slaves and children of concubine, had to endure during this period of time: like those of the assassin that failed to kill Jeongjo and King Jeongjo’s clerk. The film reveals the existence of corruption and cupidity in the monarchical government of that time: the Queen Dowager attempts to indirectly assassinate King Jeongjo who acts as a threat to the possibility of full royal and governmental power for the Noran faction. However, King Jeongjo was a passionate and competent king that was able to foil these plans and remain the 22nd ruler of the Joseon Dynasty.

Throughout the film, there is a heavy emphasis put on the scarcity of resources: varying from the perpetual desire of governmental officials in obtaining more power through any means possible, to the hardships of lower class society such as slaves and children of concubine who were given even less of the already scarce resources. Every person that appears in the film all have their own self-interests and want to maximize their utility as much as possible with the lowest marginal cost. This is evident in the actions taken by the main antagonist, Gwang-baek the slave-master, who kidnaps orphaned children and trains them to become ruthless, emotionless, and rational assassins; and the reason for Gwang-baek’s lifestyle is that through kidnapping and training these children to become assassins, he is able to maximize his utility by becoming an important asset to the government. Gwang-baek realized the infinitely large amount of self-interest that the majority of government officials have in rising up in ranks and thus rising up in power and wealth. In contrast to Gwang-baek, the main protagonist, King Jeongjo, has a different manner in which he obtains a higher amount of marginal benefits while getting as little costs as possible. Many of the corrupt governmental officials such as the Queen Dowager attempted to emotionally trigger King Jeongjo to act irrationally and emotionally to certain memories and actions: including the mentioning of the death of Jeongjo’s father, the Crown Prince Sado, by his biological father, former King Yeongjo, by trapping him in a wrapped small wooden-box and leaving him in the burning sun to die a slow and painful death; the Queen Dowager also attempted to emotionally sway Jeongjo by manipulating the kidnapping of Jeongjo’s mother, Lady Hyegyeong, and threatening to have her executed by the government for attempting to poison the Queen Dowager. In the end, King Jeongjo remained rational and maintained his marginal thinking so that he could rationally obtain the most marginal benefits with the minimum marginal costs. He was able to do this through creating a facade that he did not care about the lives of his mother and father, and he secretly created ‘weapons’ to ‘fight against’ the Queen Dowager by obtaining info about the assassination, and then readying his personal guards to take the assassins by surprise, and finally by persuading the military General Koo to take his side and betray the Queen Dowager.

Although the majority of the ‘economics’ in the film is seen in the scarce resources and the economic mindsets of the characters, there is also a subtle perspective in the Joseon Dynasty that is shown: that efficiency is greater than equity. Throughout The Fatal Encounter, whoever did not work in the royal palace did not receive the same amount of benefits as that of those who did work and lived in the royal palace. The villagers outside of the palace are seen wearing clothes similar to those of rags, are clearly not cleaned, are not replaced very often, and are often created with dull colors; in comparison to those of the citizens of the palace, whose clothes are constantly steamed, cleaned, mended, and created with vibrant colors to show that the royalty receives more benefits, which in this case are luxuries, that the rest of society do not receive.

What other forms of art do you think has been affected by economics? Do you know any other films that show the importance of marginal (cost-benefit) analysis?

What do you think?


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