On 28 July 2011, an Asiana Airlines cargo plane from Incheon to Pudong in China crashed into the sea off Jeju Island after one of the pilots reported a fire. It was subsequently reported that a month beforehand one of the pilots had taken out seven life insurance policies. The speculation was obviously that a pilot had committed suicide to enable his family to benefit from the payout.
With eerie prescience, Suicide Forecast, a debut feature from Jo Jin-mo1 about people who take out life insurance policies with the intention of committing suicide, hit Korean theatres in April 2011. In a country that is consistently at the top of the suicide league tables, this is a topic which requires sensitive handling. It was therefore a surprise to see this film turning up as part of a stream of comedies (alongside Sunny and Detective K) in the London Korean Film Festival, as an antidote to the perceived diet of violent revenge flick for which Korean Film is known in some circles.
In reality though, this is not a comedy. Yes, there are welcome moments of light-heartedness, but this is much more a touching human interest drama.
But in addition, this is a film which could easily be used as a training video for financial services organisations in countries like the UK where the financial services industry has been plagued with cases of mis-selling of investment and insurance products.
Bae Byeong-woo is an insurance salesman driven by the need to maximise his commissions, in a company where sales teams compete against each other and individual salesmen vie to become salesman of the month. Bae is a star salesman, and his peak sales were achieved when he took on a client portfolio from a colleague and signed up a whole bunch of new life insurance policies with those clients. But the clients all had a history of suicide attempts.
No matter, because rather like with the remuneration strategies of the most aggressive investment banks, Bae is rewarded based on his up-front commissions, not the profits (or losses) over the life of the business to which he commits his firm.
So next, the firm’s reward strategy changes. After a particularly egregious incident where the salesman is alleged to have advised the client how best to get a payout on a suicide (get drunk beforehand, so that it looks like an accident), the firm decides to start monitoring not the commissions earned but how much the company has to pay out.
For some reason, the life assurance policies Bae has written all have a two year exclusion: if the policyholder dies within two years of taking out the contract, there’s no payout. It’s now one year eleven months since Bae was salesman of the month, so in a couple of weeks there’s potentially going to be big payouts if all his clients start having mysterious “accidents”.
The race is on. Solution number one: get his clients to convert their life insurance products into pension products. That way there’s ongoing premium income and no payout on early death.
He tries. But among his client base is a part-time contract worker, a down-and-out with a bad case of tourette’s, and a struggling singer-songwriter (played by the excellent Younha, Netizens’ choice for best female artist in the 2009 Korean Music Awards) who is being pursued by creditors. Hardly the people likely to want to save for a pension as a long-term financial priority. But as Bae continues in his futile attempts to get his clients to change contracts, he gets to know them and their lives.
Time is up. It’s now two years, the life insurance contracts are still in force, and any “accidents” will result in the policies paying out to the victims’ families. Fortunately, during the course of his emergency period of getting to know his customers, Bae is now better placed to figure out how they might go about committing suicide and therefore how best to stop them.
The cast is well-chosen, with the insurance salesman played by Ryu Seung-beom (brother of the director featured in this year’s festival) proving himself particularly adaptable in his transition from master of the universe to caring, trusted advisor and even friend to his clients.
As a debut feature from Jo Jin-mo the film is remarkably assured in tackling such a difficult subject so deftly. At times the pace drags a little, but casting is excellent and you leave the theatre feeling surprisingly uplifted.
- Suicide Forecast is also known as 수상한 고객들 (Suspicious Customers) and 인생은 아름다워 (Life is Beautiful).