Expectations were sky-high for Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area, even before its launch. The original Money Heist from Spain (La Casa de Papel) was one of Netflix’s most-watched series and later went on to win the International Emmy Award for Best Drama Series in 2018. This crossover with the seismic force of Korean content — in the golden age that it is in right now — surely throws open the sheer scope of what Netflix can achieve with its ever-growing library of popular franchises.
For the most part, part 1 is a lively adventure, helmed by a highly capable cast. The set design of the labyrinthian Unified Korea Mint deserves special recognition for its versatility — full of opportunities to reveal the restless mechanisms of money-making or to conceal the machinations of those who desire its riches. Viewers of the original Money Heist will also recognize familiar narrative structures bolstering the Korean remake: the achronological narrative, which both drives tension and withholds information, and the unreliable narrator, Tokyo, continuously shifting the sands of the story’s reality.
Gaining the blessing of Money Heist creator Álex Pina for a Korean remake, Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area launched its first six episodes (part 1) on June 24th. It is set in the near future, where the current Joint Security Area between North and South Korea has been turned into a Joint Economic Area. An area of bitter division quickly becomes the shining symbol of unification, with the exciting promise of new business opportunities and a shared currency — printed at the Unified Korea Mint.
However, a professor specializing in research on the economic impact of unification becomes increasingly disillusioned by the exploitation of low-wage migrant workers and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots after unification. He then assembles a ragtag crew of eight thieves to conduct a heist of 4 trillion won at the Unified Korea Mint.
Each character from the main ensemble feels equally capable of innocence or evil, mercy or violence. Veteran actor Yoo Ji-tae, as the professor, dances between a righteous, Robinhood-like charm and a penchant for cold manipulation. Lost’s Kim Yunjin delicately balances the immense personal strife that her character, senior inspector Seon Woo-jin, is facing and a high-stakes crisis negotiation amid the heist. Park Hae-soo (most recently of Squid Game fame) plays the formidable Berlin, who believes in wielding power through fear. Yet, privately, his unresolved trauma from surviving in North Korea’s infamous Gaecheon concentration camp can quickly turn him into an anxious figure, breaking out in a cold sweat. Jeon Jong-seo (Burning) plays a North Korean woman, Tokyo, who is quietly trying to piece back together her dreams after suffering from fraud and abuse as a migrant worker.
Relying on the strength of its cast and sleek action sequences, Money Heist: Korea seems more certain about its means — get into the Mint, hold people hostage (but don’t kill anyone!), print the money, get out — than its ends. After setting up such a promising context and convincing universe, Money Heist: Korea sometimes feels like it is imprisoned by its own ambition and unsure of how to get out.
Arguably the most important thing for any story to achieve is to convince the viewer to root for its protagonist(s) — however flawed they might be. We must grow to see the world from their perspective, feel with them in their triumphs and defeats, and champion for their victory. However, once we look past the charm of its main ensemble, one might question: why should I root for this group of thieves who are essentially seeking personal riches at the expense of hard-won reunification of the peninsula? (And not root for, perhaps, the hungry, overworked hostages, who really have nothing to do with all of this?) If we go by the endings of previous seasons of the original Money Heist, perhaps this is a question that will be answered when part 2 comes out (date still unannounced).
Some of the most lauded Korean Netflix original series in recent years — like Kingdom, D.P., or Squid Game — have demonstrated that its action-packed shows are immensely capable of sharp, incisive social commentary. However, the commentary in Money Heist: Korea feels a bit more blunted. It is certainly there, but it gets lost amid the bang and buzz of the hostage crisis in the Mint.
The strongest and most reasonable motivation comes through Tokyo. Seeing her own “Korean dream” shatter after leaving the North Korean army and migrating to the South, Tokyo drives home a point about the widening economic disparities brought about by reunification and the plight of migrant workers. In the first episode, she curses under her breath, “Welcome to capitalism.” The heist is her opportunity for a breakthrough — and to reclaim many times over what she feels she has lost through the cruelties of such an economic system.
Some of the series’ best sequences actually come in the first few minutes of each episode, where the show opens with a glimpse of each character’s backstory. It helps to sketch each character’s journey in a more nuanced manner, gives gravity to their cause, and allows us to understand why they might have joined the professor’s heist in the first place.
Another critical commentary is made through the masks that the heist crew wears, which are modeled after the Korean hahoe masks. The hahoe masks, in their varying shapes, forms and expressions, traditionally represent the social status of its characters. In the original Money Heist, the Salvador Dali mask was used to express resistance in the face of injustice, and the heist was a way of bringing financial restoration to people who have been hit hardest by the cruel edges of capitalism.
With the heist crew’s adamant sense that what they are doing is honorable and good, the six unreleased episodes that make up part 2 are left to answer: will the ends really justify the means?
Part one of Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area is streaming now on Netflix.