Fans love asking the question “Why remake a popular show when people can just watch the original?” and then looking for an answer other than “Money.” But all TV shows are made to make money, so I’m not one to hold that against a series — especially one that’s trying as hard as Money Heist: Korea is in this premiere, which spends the first ten minutes of its 77-minute run time working to convince us how different it is from its Spanish-language source material, La Casa de Papel, to partial success.
BTS bops and neon-noir vengeance define the first ten minutes of Money Heist: Korea, which is tonally distinct from not only La Casa de Papel but the rest of this episode. An extended prologue follows a character we will know as Tokyo (Jeon Jong-seo), a university student living in Pyongyang with seemingly not a care in the world other than how she will get her hands on the next Bangtan comeback (same, friend). From there, the premiere whiplashes us through the next decade of Tokyo’s life and this near future’s history. While Tokyo is serving in the Korean People’s Army, the war between North Korea and South Korea comes to an end, 70 years after the initial armistice. The two Koreas set about forming a — wait for it — Joint Economic Area (JEA), where their common currency will be printed, the first step in merging the countries’ vastly different economies and political systems. What could possibly go wrong?
Fast-forward to 2025. Tokyo has finished her military service and has moved to Seoul. But the Korean capital is not like it is in the K-dramas — especially not for North Korean immigrants, who are increasingly being taken advantage of and discriminated against in a South Korea flooded by North Korean workers looking for a better life. When a loan shark attempts to rape Tokyo for daring to question their violent abuse of another woman, Tokyo fights back and begins a life of targeted crime as “the robber who only steals from bad people who prey on immigrants” — the Professor’s (Yoo Ji-tae) words, not mine. When he shows up amid the pink-purple lights of Seoul’s backstreets with an umbrella, the poncho-wearing Tokyo sees a savior. He shields a suicidal Tokyo from the rain and promises her a future with greater purpose. We’ll see if he can deliver.
From here, Money Heist: Korea follows the same broad story and character beats as La Casa de Papel (called Money Heist for English-speaking audiences), with a few changes that could ripple out into a much different story but feel minor here. Our ragtag band of robbers attends the Professor’s Heist Summer Camp, at which they choose the same names as the cast of characters before them, though with some adaptation-specific reasoning: Former street fighter Denver, played by the magnificently maned Kim Ji-hoon, chooses his pseudonym because Rocky is his favorite movie and he knows the city is close to the Rocky Mountains. Taste! Tokyo chooses the Japanese capital because “We’re going to do a bad thing.” (Japan has invaded Korea multiple times, including a brutal 20th-century occupation of the country from 1910 to 1945 that still informs the two countries’ geopolitical relationship, depicted in Pachinko.) In another culturally specific moment, the Professor mentions that, in order to maintain anonymity, the group members will use casual language with one another. Politeness levels — informed by relative status, age, and intimacy between the speaker, the listener, and the person being discussed — are integral to the Korean language, so this is both necessary and probably awkward for native speakers. I wish Money Heist: Korea had a bit more narrative space and confidence to explore details like this.
The rest of the team is rounded out by Denver’s miner dad, Moscow (Lee Won-jong); diamond-loving counterfeiter Nairobi (Jang Yoon-ju); naïve hacker Rio (Lee Hyun-woo); and professional muscle duo Helsinki (Kim Ji-hun) and Oslo (Lee Kyu-ho). There’s also Berlin, who we’re told is North Korea’s most wanted man after escaping the Kaechon internment camp. The character will be the on-site leader for the robbery as the Professor pulls the strings (and works on his meticulously crafted model of the JEA) from off-site. Berlin is played by Park Hae-soo, who demonstrated to international viewers his immense talent at playing morally complex antagonist types via Sang-woo in Squid Game. I’m excited to see him bring his talent to this character and show.
Compared to the original, Money Heist: Korea broadcasts how this heist subverts genre expectations much sooner — namely, in the Professor’s partially political motivations for the crime and in how these initial stages of the robbery are really about buying time in order to print money. This is probably a smart choice, as at least a fraction of its audience will have watched La Casa de Papel, but it also makes for a less effective opening episode. Tokyo’s first-episode arc, in particular, loses some tension. While the viewer is actively encouraged to like defender-of-the-vulnerable Tokyo, we’re missing a focus for Tokyo’s emotional stakes. In La Casa de Papel, we are told Tokyo lost her lover in a previous heist, which is why her intense response to her current lover Rio’s apparent injury in the first episode is both understandable and affecting. In Money Heist: Korea, however, Rio and Tokyo have neither a romantic nor a sexual relationship. (Another character implies Tokyo is in love with the Professor, but I await further evidence.) This is a notable dynamic difference and one that could send the show in some very different directions. However, in this first episode, we are left feeling emotionally distant from our narrator once the prologue fades and the heist begins.
You know who we aren’t emotionally distant from? Negotiator Seon Woo-jin, played by Lost baller Kim Yunjin. Woo-jin is a woman juggling motherhood, a messy custody battle, and geopolitical power plays at the workplace. I am obsessed with how she types, hunting and pecking as she loudly ignores intimidation attempts from Captain Cha Moo-hyuk (Kim Sung-oh), a former special agent and the North Korean representative on the hostage-negotiation team. Her escape from all of these responsibilities is (1) smoking and (2) a café and the hot barista who runs the place. Guys, it’s the Professor. The Professor is the hot barista who runs the place. In La Casa de Papel, the Professor doesn’t intentionally stumble into the lead negotiator’s life until the first day of the heist. But Money Heist: Korea says, “Hold my maekju.” They double down on the icky implications and messy complications of this relationship and have the Professor having dated Woo-jin for two months before the heist even begins. It says a lot about the chemistry of these two, and how much I already want good things for Woo-jin, that I am still hoping this somehow works out.
Finally, we have our hostages. From the gaggle of school children who are on a field trip when the heist breaks out, there’s the haughty, English-fluent teen Ann (Lee Si-woo), who is still pissed that her father is making her attend school in Korea. Representing the Mint, we have South Korean director Cho Young-min (Park Myung-hoon), who watches porn instead of doing his job and attacks workers with his lips and grabby hands. One such worker is Yoon Mi-seon (Lee Joo-bin), a North Korean accountant and Young-min’s mistress who may or may not be pregnant with his child.
Like its unwieldy name, Money Heist: Korea — Joint Economic Area could use some trimming, but I’d rather an adaptation premiere that goes too far out of its way to make a case for its existence than the alternative. I intend to spend less time in future recaps talking about the differences between La Casa de Papel and Money Heist: Korea, as this show needs to succeed or fail on its own merits, but as this premiere seems so interested in proving its purpose for existing past “money,” I decided to meet it where it’s at. I hope Money Heist: Korea leans further into its unique setting in coming episodes. In La Casa de Papel, the stakes were challenging capitalism’s inherent inequality — an evergreen topic! Those themes are here too, but this series has added another incredibly ambitious layer: the promise of reunification for the two countries of the Korean Peninsula. (Crash Landing on You would never.) The premiere flits superficially across the surface of this speculative-fiction setting without truly exploring its implications, but this heist has only just begun.
• Four years ago, Asian Boss did a series of interviews with South Koreans on the streets of Seoul and a group of North Korean defectors in the studio to ask about the prospect of reunification. If you’re interested in learning about how some of the people who would be most impacted by reunification feel about the issue, I recommend checking them out.
• Those red jumpsuits just don’t quit, do they?
• We’re told by Moo-hyuk that Woo-jin’s nickname is Sun, which is Kim Yunjin’s character’s name in Lost. I think the Money Heist writers are trolling us with this, but I don’t care, because it leads to Woo-jin delivering this burner: “It’s Sun because [the people who gossip about me] shrivel up and die when I smile at them.” I <3 her.
• Money Heist: Korea has swapped out the iconic Dalí masks for something more culturally specific to Korea: the Hahoetal mask. The currency depicted in Money Heist: Korea was created for the show and features historical figures such as Korean-independence activists An Jung-geun and Yu Gwan-sun, both of whom fought against Japanese annexation.
• Presumably, the JEA is meant to be in the same geographic space as the real-life Joint Security Area, which is part of the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea. We learn from this behind-the-scenes featurette that director Kim Hong-sun imagines the JSA as a city the size of Yeouido, which is a roughly three-square-mile island in the Han River with a population of just over 30,000 people. It is also home to Seoul’s main financial district.
• Marketing claims this series is set in the same fictional world as La Casa de Papel, which … sure. Personally, I am not hoping for a crossover cameo.
• Time jumps, big and small, counted in this episode: seven.
• Yes, I am hoping Mi-seon and Woo-jin become best friends and/or fall in love, leaving these men who don’t deserve them to a lifetime of productive therapy.
• Not to get too somber over here, but it remains incredibly difficult to watch TV shows that depict people — especially kids or teens — running from gunmen. These images obviously hit differently in Korea, which has much, much stricter gun-control policies and some of the lowest rates of gun deaths in the world.
• Well, it looks as if BTS will be back to doing group activities by 2025. That’s good to know.
• Let me save you a Google search: Four trillion won is roughly $3 billion in USD.