'Money Heist: Korea' differences and similarities to Spanish original are cause of criticism
Netflix Korea’s “Money Heist: Korea — Joint Economic Area,” the highly-anticipated remake of the Spanish crime drama series “Money Heist,” is receiving mixed responses though it ranked No. 1 on the platform’s weekly Global Top 10 chart in the non-English TV category from June 27 to July 3 by having been streamed 49 million hours.
Set in the very near future of 2025, the Korean peninsula is on the road to reunification with two Koreas opening up their borders, having established the Joint Economic Area for economic development of the two countries. Amidst nationwide changes, a criminal mastermind who calls himself “The Professor” recruits eight thieves with their own special abilities to commit a 4-trillion-won ($3 billion) heist.
The first season is divided into two parts each consisting of six episodes. Part 1 was released on June 24, and Part 2 will be released in the latter half of this year. Season 1 is a condensed version of the first two seasons of the original Spanish series, with the narrative following the original plot but not without some slight alterations — which is essentially at the core of the debate.
The Korea JoongAng Daily gathered input from the show's cast and creators regarding a few key complaints and compliments in local reviews, through a series of online interviews conducted last week.
BTS and North Korean ARMY
The first episode opens with a scene with a female North Korean soldier, portrayed by Jeon Jong-seo, who is later known by her code name Tokyo, dancing along to the K-pop phenomenon BTS’s song “DNA” (2017). The soldier admits that she’s a secret fan of the boy band and unlike other ARMYs, the name of BTS’s fandom, she is special because she actually has to serve in the military. Many Korean viewers have pointed out the scene came completely “out of the blue” or felt “contrived,” criticizing the series for apparently attempting to freeride on BTS’s global popularity.
According to director Kim Hong-sun, he inserted the scene based on their research. “We don’t know much about North Korean culture, but according to our research, BTS’s songs are popular in there as well,” he said, arguing that it was natural to show Tokyo, part of the MZ generation (a term including millennials born between 1980 and 1995 and Gen Z born between 1996 and 2010) in North Korea, having a Korean Dream originating from her love of BTS.
Compressed plot and reduced romance
As the remake crams two seasons worth of the original into one, some have complained that the sequence of emotions that the characters go through are unnatural — a claim to which the cast has also admitted.
Actor Yoo Ji-tae, who portrays the professor, said that he focused on properly conveying the heist strategy as the criminal mastermind, like a secondary narrator in line with the fast-forwarded narrative development.
“I thought the series would have more of an appeal to those who haven’t watched the original,” Yoo said. “This is the sort of content which zooms forward in narrative development because there are so many happenings compressed into those 12 episodes. I focused more on accurately carrying out the professor’s plans [to offer better understanding to the viewers] rather than focusing on making my character seem dimensional.”
The remake also scaled down the romance part and focused instead on two relationships: that between the professor and police inspector Seon Woo-jin, portrayed by Kim Yun-jin, and that between a thief and a hostage, Denver and Kim Mi-seon, portrayed by Kim Ji-hoon and Lee Joo-bin.
“What I thought was interesting [when comparing Korea's with] the Spanish original was how the atmosphere and sentiment of each country [Spain and Korea] were similar yet different,” writer Ryu Yong-jae said. “Our similarity lies in our passion, but what was different was how we resolved it. Unlike in the West, we Koreans are not as relaxed. We can be uptight once we set a goal, and we strive to reach it and we don’t usually lose focus. I think the same goes for romance as well.”
Ryu describes the romance between Denver and Kim Mi-seon as the “most pure, passionate” as they connect despite the fact that they are captor and hostage. Between the professor and Seon Woo-jin, Ryu tweaked the narrative to say that the duo met two months before the beginning of the heist.
“Although Woo-jin is manipulated by the professor, I didn’t want her to come off as unprofessional,” Ryu explained. “Regarding our sentiment, I didn’t think that Woo-jin would suddenly fall for and become close with the professor when she’s knee-deep in an important case.”
Tokyo and her blind loyalty to the professor
Tokyo is one of the characters that arguably went through the most alterations from the original. Instead of the free-spirited, unreliable narrator portrayed by Ursula Corbero, the Tokyo that Jeon pulls off is unconditionally devoted to the professor’s plans. She is intensely focused on the heist and the professor’s number one goal of “hurting no one” during the process, even if her counterparts aren’t. Some negative reviews commented on Jeon’s unnatural tone as the narrator and the lack of plausibility behind Tokyo’s loyalty.
“Before we went into shooting, the director and I discussed how I should carry out the narrator’s tone, and we decided to go for a different style than what I was used to,” Jeon said. “I purposefully dramatized the tone and lowered my voice when narrating the scenes.”
Regarding Tokyo’s faithfulness toward the professor’s beliefs, Jeon described that, for her character, the professor was her “savior.”
“[Tokyo] thought she didn’t have any reason left to live,” Jeon said. “She was about to pull the trigger, but the professor saved her. She became devoted to his beliefs, but I think she would have followed him even if he said something else.
“Rather than changing the world through stealing money, Tokyo feels a sense of kinship with him in that they both feel betrayed and want to rebel against the world.”
What to expect for Part 2 and perhaps season 2
Although Part 2 is yet to be released, fans of the original series complain that the remake is “too similar” to the Spanish heist. However, the series' creators and cast ask for viewers' patience for Part 2.
“If I were to compare the narrative to a train, Part 1 ended just as the train was picking up speed,” Kim Yun-jin said. “The narrative gathers speed in episodes seven, eight and nine, and all of the characters’ emotions spiral to a peak in episode 12, offering much more entertainment for the audiences. Especially regarding the relationship between Woo-jin and professor, we’ve had so much fun shooting the scenes, so I’m very curious to find out how people will view Part 2.”
“Important characters who weren’t in the original series appear in Part 2,” Ryu hinted. "Also, the reason behind why the professor strategized this heist comes up, along with the motivations behind each thief as to why they decided to participate in the heist and why they need to successfully walk away from the crime."
If season 2 becomes a reality, Ryu imagines that the narrative can become completely separate from the original.
“I created this season with the thought that we would finish the story within the first season,” Ryu said. “However, if another season can be created, I did imagine that we could create a completely new story based on the characters and the narrative universe that we created from the prior season. I personally think the questions and doubts about the narrative or the character build-up that the audience have may be resolved after watching Part 2.”
BY LEE JAE-LIM [email@example.com]