Edited by Hong Hyun Jung
Translated by Jeon Gyeong Ju
“Will it really make you rich if you work hard?” The tvN drama Money Game, which began airing on Jan. 15, puts forward the economic reality of South Korea, which is in a structural contradiction that cannot keep up with the rising rate of housing prices even if you work hard and save money. The story is based on the real-life case of Lone Star Fund‘s bargain sale of Korea Exchange Bank, like the film Black Money released last fall, and beliefs and conflicts of the economic officials in various fields amid the national economic crisis, like Default (2018)― another Korean economic film about the IMF crisis. Money Game aims to raise public awareness of the economic system that repeats the vicious cycle, critically dealing with a society that only prioritizes growths and numbers.
The intention of its story is good. The government officials and businesspeople who are corrupt and incompetent and the controversy surrounding the sale of Jung In Bank (a core story of this drama) is quite familiar with viewers in the real world, even though they are not familiar with the economic terms. This is a stereotyped version of the absurd reality, which has been too often seen in the media reports, that has bruised the economy of ordinary people. It first reminds me of some inconveniences, however, before I’m completely absorbed in the story of Money Game.
The biggest inconvenience of the drama, which has been run into the middle (the eighth episode), is that it creates confusions by using a sort of genre-deviation as a driving force. It refers to the two deaths that respectively appeared in the first and sixth episodes. First, Heo Jae, one of the three main characters in Money Game, accidentally pushes Chae Byung Hak, the neo-liberalist economist and professor, to the cliff while confronting Chae to carry his beliefs. And Seo Yang Woo, the chief director of Jung In Bank’s Strategy and Planning headquarters who is involved in the manipulation of ratio in BIS (Bank for International Settlements), leaps to his own death from his apartment just before meeting with Lee Hye Joon who tries to persuade him. The deaths of these two men directly reveal the harshness behind the financial scandal, which was generated in the process of chasing the goal by all means, as Heo Jae’s belief is described as almost as his insanity. Nevertheless, it’s questionable whether there is a need to bring death as a shock therapy to the narrative, which would be sufficed by the internal stories. That’s because it’s murder. Even without the crime of murder, it’s fully possible to proceed the narrative with the materials related to the sale of Jung In Bank, such as the manipulation case in BIS, controversy over the “take-the-money-and-run” deed of the foreign company, technology leaks and elite bureaucracy. The two deaths are more feared to be a stumbling block to the fun of this economic drama in the course of future developments.
It is also inconvenient to see the character-buildings of Chae Yi Heon and Lee Hye Joon, both being at odds with Heo Jae, who has chosen a strong enough offense to ignore others’ deaths. Although Lee Hye Joon has aroused sympathy among the viewers, holding fast to her belief at the Ministry of Economy and Finance, Chae Yi Heon hasn’t smoothly gone together with the narrative to show his belief as an economic official. He looks more like a good senior at work so far.
Money Game has often been held back by the situations that ignore probability and the narratives that make their own necessities questionable. The family of Lee Hye Joon’s aunt Lee Man Ok, who runs a franchise chicken restaurant, is the representative example of those obstacles. Lee Man Ok and her family, who seem to have gained the motif from Heo Joon Ho’s character in Default, seems to represent the hardscrabble economy of the working class, but looks closer to the method for providing an assortment. In addition, whenever the viewers see Lee Hye Joon’s uncle (Lee Man Ok’s husband) Jin Soo Ho, he only makes them sigh far more. As Jin Soo Ho’s petty tricks of hitting a jackpot have been highlighted rather than the difficulties of the self-employed, the aunt and her family are likely to stay only as a device that makes Lee Hye Joon, struggling with a glass ceiling of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, more embarrassed.
The family of Lee Hye Joon’s aunt isn’t an only narrative out of nowhere. In the last eighth episode, the president of Bahamas’ Korean branch Eugene Han suddenly showed his own childhood and it made the viewers feel embarrassed. Is there anyone to wonder about the past of this arrogant and cool-headed investor? Well, the drama seems to bring about his poor childhood and give him a kind of indulgence. Even if Eugene Han goes through a change of mind since he’s got to know Lee Hye Joon, it’s not exciting at all for the drama creators to draw his melodramatic past.
Money Game is certainly an interesting attempt for Korean dramas. Unlike the previous ones focusing on romance, crime or family narratives, the drama aims to capture the absurd reality that inevitably have repercussions on the economy of ordinary people, using economy as its subject matter, with a cold and dry tone. Unfortunately, as some inconvenient spots hinder the viewers from getting immersed in the story, this drama looks more as the long-overblown version of Default and Black Money, the two films dealing with the economic issues prior to Money Game. In other words, Money Game needs to be differentiated from the movies if it is to stand as an economic drama on its own. The eighth episode will be an important watershed in that sense. It is curious how the rest stories of Chae Yi Heon (he has chosen “co-operation” as an answer to the topic thrown by Heo Jae), Lee Hye Joon and the other officials at the Ministry of Economy and Finance who might have felt betrayed by Chae’s choice will go along with the narrative of Heo Jae, who is willing to sacrifice himself and others for his goal. (6/10)