Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area

Money Heist: Korea - Joint Economic Area
Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area
Home » Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area

Even before it came out, Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area was expected to be great. The original Money Heist from Spain (La Casa de Papel) became one of Netflix’s most-watched series and won the International Emmy Award for Best Drama Series in 2018. This crossover with Korean content — which is currently experiencing a golden age — shows just how far Netflix can go with its ever-growing library of popular franchises.

Part 1 is mostly a fun adventure with an excellent cast. The set design for the labyrinthine Unified Korea Mint deserves special mention for its versatility — it can expose the frenetic mechanisms of money-making or hide them among those who want wealth. Fans of the original Money Heist will also see familiar narrative structures supporting the Korean remake: an achronological story that drives tension by withholding information, and Tokyo, an unreliable narrator who keeps shifting the sands of reality under the story.

With creator Álex Pina’s blessing for a Korean remake, Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area premiered its first six episodes (part 1) on June 24th. It takes place in the near future, when the current Joint Security Area between North and South Korea has become a Joint Economic Area. A place of bitter division rapidly becomes a radiant symbol of unity, promising new business opportunities and a common currency — printed at the Unified Korea Mint.

But after unification, when he sees low-wage migrant workers being exploited and the rich-poor gap widening, an economic integration researcher-turned-professor grows increasingly disillusioned. So he recruits eight thieves from different backgrounds to rob 4 trillion won from the Unified Korea Mint.

Each member character feels as potentially innocent as they are evil; merciful as they are violent. As the professor, veteran actor Yoo Ji-tae dances between righteous charm like Robinhood’s and cold manipulation. Lost’s Kim Yunjin strikes a delicate balance between her character, senior inspector Seon Woo-jin’s immense personal struggle and the high-stakes crisis negotiation she suddenly finds herself in during the heist. Park Hae-soo (recently of Squid Game fame) plays Berlin, a believer in power through fear — though privately his surviving Gaecheon concentration camp trauma from North Korea can quickly turn him into an anxious figure who breaks out in a cold sweat. Jeon Jong-seo (Burning) is Tokyo, a quiet North Korean woman trying to pick up her dreams after suffering fraud and abuse as a migrant worker.

Money Heist: Korea relies on its cast’s strength and sleek action sequences more than it does on its ends — get into the Mint, take hostages (but don’t kill anyone!), print the money, get out. After establishing such an exciting context and believable universe, Money Heist: Korea sometimes feels imprisoned by its own ambition and unsure how to break free.

Perhaps the single most important thing for any story to do is get us on the side of its main characters — no matter how imperfect they may be. We need to grow to see things through their eyes, share in their victories and defeats, and fight for them. So, beyond the charm of its central cast, one might ask: why should we root for this band of thieves who are essentially after personal wealth at the expense of hard-fought peninsula unification? (And not root for, say, the hungry, overworked hostages — who have nothing to do with any of this?) If previous seasons of Money Heist are anything to go by, perhaps this is a question that will be answered when part 2 drops (date still unannounced). This is just one example of what is very likely a long line of Korean adaptations inspired by La Casa de Papel.

In recent years some of Korea’s most internationally praised Netflix original series — like Kingdom, D.P., or Squid Game — have shown that they can combine action-packed entertainment with sharp sociopolitical critique. But it feels like there’s something distinctly blunter about Money Heist: Korea. It’s definitely there; it’s just buried beneath all the bangs and booms and bullets needed for a hostage crisis set inside a Mint.

The show does find its strongest and most cogent motivation through Tokyo. After seeing her own “Korean dream” shattered upon leaving the North Korean army and migrating to South Korea (only to be met with economic hardship), Tokyo highlights the widening economic disparities brought about by reunification and speaks directly to what it often means for migrant laborers. In the first episode she mutters under her breath: “Welcome to capitalism.” The heist is her chance at a breakthrough — and also an opportunity to take back many times over what she believes was taken from her by such an economic system.

What turned out as some of the series’ best sequences actually happened in the first few minutes of each episode, where we’re given a flash of each character’s backstory. It paints a more nuanced picture of their journey, gives weight to their cause, and helps us understand why they may have joined the professor’s heist in the first place.

Another critical point is made through the masks that the heist crew wears — modeled after Korean hahoe masks. These masks traditionally represent characters from different social backgrounds, as evidenced by their various shapes, forms and expressions. In the original Money Heist, resistance against injustice was expressed through Salvador Dali mask; and the heist itself was described as a way to bring financial restoration to individuals who have experienced worst sides of capitalism.

With such an unshakable belief that what they’re doing is righteous and justifiable, these six remaining episodes that make up part 2 have no choice but to ask: will it all be worth it in the end?

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