REVIEW: ‘Money Heist: Korea — Joint Economic Area’ is a Character-Driven Thriller

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Money Heist Korea - But Why Tho (1)

Money Heist, the Spanish heist thriller created by Álex Pina, became one of Netflix’s first international phenomena. Now, the concept has been revamped from a Korean perspective with Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area. Directed by Kim Hong-sun and written by Ryu Yong-jae, Kim Hwan-chae, and Choe Sung-jun, Money Heist Korea is a take on an existing series that is fresh and unique, even if it carries some similarities.

Money Heist Korea takes place in 2025 in a newly united Korean Peninsula. With the North and South brought together to build a stronger economy. Like the original series, Money Heist Korea has a packed extended cast that embodies and plays with the tropes that are so engrained in the heist genre. Only here, the added layer of reunification means that loyalties are pushed and tested through the lens of the North and the South, with characters coming from both.

The series is centered on Tokyo (Jun Jong-seo), a North Korean immigrant to Seoul whose love of BTS and dramas have made the South her goal since she was a teen. However, when she makes it to Seoul she has to grapple with the bitter reality of capitalism. As pointed out by the series, she is a BTS ARMY who also has army training. Her ability to fight turns into a Robinhood, trying to punch back at capitalism as much as she can until it breaks her. At her lowest, a man called The Professor (Yoo Ji-tae) approaches her with a plan to steal 4 trillion won from the Korea Unified Mint. In hopes of overturning the unfair world where only the rich get richer, the Professor plots a scheme with an assembled group of thieves.

Told out of order, Money Heist Korea jumps directly into the action in episode one, building out the backstories in flashbacks as the heist develops, evolves, and disintegrates. Storming the Korea Unified Mint, hiding their identity under the Hahoe mask to take control, the group executes an elaborate plan, or tries to. The crew’s on-site commander, Berlin (Park Hae-soo), divides hostages based on their nationality – North and South – heightening tensions inside the Korean Unified Mint and among his crew. Callous and practical, Berlin has no line he won’t cross and this brutality sends the plan awry with each member of the team having to decide where they stand. With chaos growing as the team begins to push back against each other, the six-episode series is a test of loyalty, planning, morality, and more.

Against this backdrop, the North and South form a joint task force with South Korean negotiation specialist Seon Woojin (Kim Yunjin) and former North Korean special agent Cha Moohyuk (Kim Seung-o) as key members driving search operations. This push and pull between the team within the Mint and the agents outside is complicated as tensions rise and the well-thought plan begins to dissolve.

While we see the story unfold, with each moment building on the last, Tokyo’s narration of the series serves as a bird’s eye view into what’s happening. We get the chance to see everything from her perspective as a sort of omnipotent voice guiding the audience through the story as the events unfold. Without being overused, Tokyo’s narration helps explain complicated moments and unravel elements of the series as twists happen in a way that never feels like too much exposition.

Money Heist Korea is a phenomenal series because of its cast, not just its thrilling subject matter. With characters each more compelling by the next, all I want is more. Tokyo is a loyal follower but a fierce leader, with military training and the ability to stick to her morals regardless of pressure, she’s a guiding light in the series. While she serves as the series narrator and because of this holds power for the audience, it’s how she is consistently underestimated by the men around her that allows her to excel. Tokyo is about action, taking her power and her place instead of waiting to be given it. That said, she does this while allowing the men around her to walk into corners, completely capable of holding her own in every way.

An opposite force, Berlin is cold and calculating, having lived a hard life, he’s only harder and more ruthless because of it, using charisma as much as fear to move the people around him. Berlin is a spectre of violence, relying on his ability to intimidate to never have to perform it himself until he cracks. The Professor is a genius, looking for an outlet to cure the failings of Reunification that his own theories helped bring to life.

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But while the series expertly used the power struggle between these three, the extended cast also puts in the work to round out the story in a compelling way through action and reaction.

Denver (Kim Ji-hoon) is a classic himbo, with good intentions, gorgeous looks, and a real heart of gold, he’s the golden retriever of the group, only there because he loves his father. Moscow, Denver’s father is wracked with guilt for bringing his son into the heist as the plan evolves, an drilling expert, the team’s escape relies on him. Nairobi (Jang Yoon-ju) is beautiful, charismatic, and the right kind of dangerous. She’s a con artist whose opportunistic streak pushes her to align with those who benefit her or can overall lead her to escape alive to dramatic effect. Then there are the muscle, Helsinki (Kim Ji-Hoon ) and Oslo (Lee Kyu-Ho ), a pair that work as enforcers to whoever holds the power at any given time. And finally, there is Rio. Probably one of my favorites of the extended cast next to Denver, his dedication to hacking is a shock against his prim and proper life.

It’s the chemistry that crackles between each and every cast member that pushes Money Heist Korea to be a dynamic show with uncertainty running through every scene. Sure, we know the trajectory we’re on as the plan unfolds, but the winding road to achieve the goal becomes a shocking and thrilling one to travel. These characters manage to not get swallowed up by chase sequences, hand-to-hand combat, shoot-outs, and the other big action moments of the season.

The only element of the series that stands out as a flaw is how quickly characters recover from injury, particularly how fast their bruises disappear from their bodies. While this includes characters who were badly beaten and later revealed their bodies to be unmarred it also extends to characters that were once near-death walking around with ease. This is a stark contrast to the gritty reality the series shows across its six episodes. The lack of consequences or rather, the lack of lasting ones, is what leaves the narrative open to critique.

While some questioned whether this would just be a reskin of a Spanish series instead of something original and interesting, the answer is no. This is a series that can stand on its own, compelling in its own right —yes, even with similar beats. The only thing left to ask is, are we getting more like its predecessor?

Ultimately Money Heist is expertly crafted to push tension and showcase action while also managing to investigate the way people interact with each other. While the dramatics about the series’ heist is strong, it’s the conning, the strategy, and the way every character opens up is manipulated or overpowers others that makes this character-driven drama well worth watching in one sitting.

Money Heist: Korea — Joint Economic Area is streaming exclusively on Netflix June 24, 2022.


Money Heist: Korea — Joint Economic Area
  • 8.5/10
    Rating - 8.5/10
8.5/10

TL;DR

Ultimately Money Heist is expertly crafted to push tension and showcase action while also managing to investigate the way people interact with each other. While the dramatics about the series’ heist is strong, it’s the conning, the strategy, and the way every character opens up is manipulated or overpowers others that makes this character-driven drama well worth watching in one sitting.