I love it. I absolutely, positively love it.
Liar Game premiered earlier this week on cable channel tvN, boasting an intriguing premise, solid production team, and a winning combination of cast members I wouldn’t have necessarily pegged for a perfect storm of success the minute they came together–but everything comes together with a surprising level of aptitude. That’s maybe one of my favorite things about this premiere, aside from nearly everything else: It all just works. It’s just good television.
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EPISODE 1: “500 Million Won Game Part 1”
Never trust anyone.
That’s what a bespectacled schoolteacher writes on the board for his class (in English) as he translates for added emphasis: “Never trust anyone. Never. Trust. Anyone.”
Why, he asks? Because humans are natural born liars. According to him, the average person will hear two hundred lies in a day—and when his students don’t believe him, he sets to prove it with a tally counter in hand.
He poses questions that can be answered by a simple yes or no, and in this case by a student raising their hands if the statements spoken apply to them. Things like whether they’ve cheated on exams, or stolen money—and instantly, the teacher is able to pinpoint who isn’t being forthcoming by studying telltale changes in their behavior when avoiding the truth.
Click. Click. Each time he catches a student in a lie, the tally counter goes up, and up, and up.
Meanwhile, the police are out in force to catch a man who’s slipped out of their grasp one too many times before. Judging by their numbers, they aren’t taking any chances. Is that the school they’re rushing into?
It only takes one minute and a little math for the teacher to tally enough lies to prove his point, which he repeats in English: “So, never… trust… anyone.”
This, he says, is what he wanted to impart to his students in his final lecture to them. The students—who had no idea this was his final lecture—whisper confusedly amongst themselves as the teacher turns his back to them and places his hands behind his head. He knows what’s coming.
“I killed someone,” he says, before the police burst through the back doors to arrest him. As they converge on him, he stares dead ahead at the writing on the wall: Never trust anyone.
One year later.
Hapless and hurried, NAM DA-JUNG (Kim So-eun) finds herself at war with her conscience when she so badly wants to ignore the kindly grandmother asking for directions, but finds herself doubling back anyway.
She’s just as lost as the grandma is when it comes to the directions written down on a torn calendar page, though she helps to wheel the grandma’s large bag without complaint. We all know what it feels like to be in her shoes.
As they near the destination(-ish), Da-jung agrees to watch the woman’s bags while she goes to the ladies room. Long minutes tick by, and though the grandma doesn’t reappear, Da-jung still faithfully waits with her bags, even when the friend she was in such a hurry to meet calls to ask what’s taking so long.
Da-jung tries to explain her situation, but her friend is much more flippant about Da-jung’s sense of social responsibility—if she’s so worried the grandma left something important, why doesn’t she check the bag?
She does, and is not expecting what she finds: Money. That entire bag is filled with stacks and stacks of cold hard cash.
Meanwhile, mysteriously dapper television host KANG DO-YOUNG (Shin Sung-rok) introduces his show with a worldview not too dissimilar from the never-trust-anyone teacher by saying how the aim of his show is to unveil people’s true selves by pitting them against an enormous sum of money.
To illustrate his point, Do-young unmasks himself for the camera and grandly gestures to the cubic ton of dollar bills just waiting for the right contestant. Because while people may lie, money doesn’t.
Speaking of dollar bills, Da-jung looks positively terrified as she pours out the contents of the grandma’s bag in her cramped apartment to count out the total: Five hundred million won, or half a million dollars.
The idea of the money is tempting when the only things written on Da-jung’s calendar are due dates for bills, but she doesn’t let herself entertain it for long, and resolves to return the money to its owner… somehow.
But that doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy it just a little bit, since it’s not every day one gets to sleep on a pile of money. “I’ll take it to the police as soon as the sun comes up,” she says, before snuggling in for the night.
A debt collector gives her a rude awakening the next morning, and Da-jung shoots out of bed to hurriedly stuff the cash back in the bag while shooting the debt collector a reminder that she has two days left to pay him. “Oh, is that right?” he asks, genuinely wondering. Haha.
Like a kid making petulant demands of his mother, the debt collector, JO DAL-GOO (Jo Jae-yun), asks Da-jung to feed him. Apparently he’s gotten used to her making breakfast, which is weirdly kind of adorable. I’ll take man-child debt collectors over the usual kind any day.
Da-jung’s attempts to shoo him away only make him more suspicious, and it’s like he can recognize the sound of money inside as he lets himself in using a spare key he sniffs out.
With one stack of cash still visible under her bed, Da-jung thinks fast and pretends to be in a state of undress so she can justify chasing Dal-goo out. At least he cares enough stops her from chucking a picture frame of her and her dad(?) at him.
Cut to: Da-jung’s incredibly unimpressed face as Dal-goo chows down on the ramyun she ended up making for him. Hah. Dal-goo then tsks over the possible temp jobs she’s circled in the newspaper and advises her to get a real job. I already love these two.
When she asks how Dal-goo found her spare key, he claims to have picked up some tricks from his fellow inmate during his last prison stint, who was so insanely smart that he’d read books upside down for the challenge. Reading normally just came too easily to him. He also had a saying: “People are complex beings, that’s why they’re such simple animals.”
After a round of sibling-like bickering, Da-jung uses the first opportunity she can to sneak the last stack of bills into the suitcase—which, consequently, Dal-goo had already taken notice of.
She’s pretty obvious as she tries to sneak the bag out the front door with her, and Dal-goo’s expression instantly sharpens as he asks if there’s money inside.
Da-jung can’t come up with a feasible excuse or lie, so she instead makes a run for it, dragging the suitcase behind her. She manages to steal away in a taxi after biting Dal-goo’s hand to free herself, but he’s nothing if not persistent as he pulls up next to her to try and dissuade her from taking the money to the police, who’ll treat her like a criminal.
Meanwhile, who should we find in prison reading upside down but CHA WOO-JIN (Lee Sang-yoon), the “Never trust anyone” teacher from the beginning and Dal-goo’s former cellmate. He’s called to meet someone—is he being released?
Outside the police station, Dal-goo has a death grip on the suitcase as he desperately tries to talk Da-jung out of what she’s about to do. He argues that she must’ve wanted the money if she dragged it all the way to her house, which she doesn’t deny—she can’t deny that it felt good to sleep on a pile of money.
That’s all the reason Dal-goo would need to take it for himself, as he temps Da-jung with all the things that money could do: pay her debt, her rent, her tuition. What reason is there not to take it?
“How can I?” Da-jung asks, tears in her eyes. “How would I sleep soundly after that?” To her, the loss of that money would be enough to drive the grandma and her family into the same kind of debt that’s landed her where she is today.
She knows exactly what would happen—that the grandma’s children would have to give up on their dreams, just like she had to. That they’d live every day struggling to earn pennies that won’t ever be enough, as useless as pouring water into a broken jar.
Her conviction is enough to make Dal-goo let go, but what neither of them notice is that someone is watching. A phone hidden in the suitcase suddenly rings, which Da-jung answers.
Then, a robotic voice and/or just a robot on the other end tells her she’s been chosen as a contestant for a reality show named Liar Game, where she could win up to ten million dollars.
Dal-goo, listening intently, overhears the robot prompt her to press 1 if she wants to keep the half a million dollars in her hand, and he presses it for her.
Da-jung tries to undo the command as a police officer approaches them to ask what the trouble is, causing both her and Dal-goo to go nervously stiff. They don’t know the officer is TV host Kang Do-young until he reveals so with a smirk: “Welcome to the Liar Game.”
Do-young holds out his hand, and the instant Da-jung shakes it, a camera crew surrounds them.
It turns out Woo-jin wasn’t called upon to be released, but to do a service for the detective… something only he can do. He’s left alone with an alleged criminal who passed his polygraph test, but Woo-jin knows better the moment he takes a look at the man, and puts together every little detail he sees into a full and alarmingly true picture of the criminal.
Not only that, he’s able to use an impressive round of questioning and his uncanny ability to interpret even the slightest facial tic into a fully formed thought to get the criminal himself to confess to kidnapping a little girl. Wow.
The detective who asked Woo-jin to perform the interrogation looks on with a satisfied smile, calling Woo-jin “a human lie detector.” Ain’t that the truth.
Da-jung is led in front of the live studio audience gathered for Liar Game’s recording by Do-young and his devilish smile. She admits she’s still not sure whether she’s dreaming or not, which I doubt is metaphorical—she does seem rather shellshocked.
She’s introduced to the audience with a video of her helping the grandmother, who the show hired as an actress. The whole reason Da-jung is now a contestant is because she was the only one who stopped to help her, when everyone else would’ve probably been glad to help only after finding out about the money.
Do-young also cites how Da-jung waited six hours for the grandma to return as another virtue of hers, and even agrees with what little she can stutter out as her reason for taking the money home that night as being totally understandable.
That and her attempt to return the money the next morning is what put Da-jung in the same lead as forty other contestants who’ve made it onto the show, which surprises Da-jung—she thought this was the end of the game.
“This isn’t the end,” Do-young replies. “It’s just the beginning.” In order to win the first round and the prize of one million dollars, she’d have to deceive another contestant. She’s uneasy with that idea and stammers that she doesn’t think she’d even be smart enough to deceive someone else.
Do-young presents this to the viewing public as yet another virtue of Da-jung’s, but his mention of the final ten million dollar prize gives Da-jung pause. As the wheels turn in her head, Do-young puts her dilemma to a vote for the people: Do they want to see her play the game, or see her give up?
After the broadcast wraps, Da-jung approaches PD LEE YOON-JOO to request that her portion of the show be cut entirely. PD Lee praises her for being a good person, but not for being good at math—even if she won nothing, the money she’d make for just appearing on one episode would be more than she’d make in months of regular work.
Even so, Da-jung says she still doesn’t want to accept money for deceiving someone else. That’s when PD Lee scoffs, insinuating that her goody two-shoes nature is there reason why Da-jung is where she’s at in life right now. Which isn’t very far.
Da-jung: “You do have a right to say that to me right now. You’re young, pretty, capable, and you probably earn a lot more money than I do. But don’t think that’s because you did your best and I didn’t. It’s simply because the world that you live in was a lot kinder to you than it was to me.”
Da-jung spaces out at her part-time coffeeshop job the next day, unable to stop wondering how long she’d have to work at her current meager rate to make a half a million dollars.
While fretting over five thousand won (five dollars) that’s suddenly gone missing from the cash register, a customer claims to have found it—and Da-jung looks up to recognize him as her old high school teacher.
He’d once helped her in a similar situation at school, and had used his own money then to help Da-jung save face when class bullies had wrongly accused her of stealing. She worries that’s what he did again today and hands the bill he claimed to have “found” back over to him.
She and her teacher share stories of their sad family situations and shared debt, only for Da-jung to be completely blindsided when her teacher’s all, Isn’t it funny that we’re competing against each other in the first round?
He shows her the chart to prove it, and tries to convince her to participate in the game—just think, if she won the prize money, maybe her dad would be able to stop running from debt collectors and finally come home.
When Da-jung has reservations about competing with him, Teacher Hyun claims it’s actually better, because it’ll be like them teaming up against the show. He’ll lose on purpose so she can win, and they’ll split the prize money. Eeek. This guy reeks of skeeze.
Since Liar Game’s network has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, Do-young and PD Lee are called to explain how they can host a show promising a ten million dollar payout in a press conference.
Do-young does almost too well fielding questions, and claims that the show was his idea to revitalize the network—not to mention the mystery investors who helped make the prize money a reality.
One reporter isn’t buying it and calls Do-young out for playing both sides, like he’s not quite as interested to see the network succeed as he claims, and accuses him of trying to raise the network’s ratings by all but buying them.
He agrees, since he doesn’t know who doesn’t like money. To prove his point (without saying that’s what he’s doing, which is devious), he says that to whichever news organization that writes an article on Liar Game and garners the most hits, he’ll give them half a million dollars worth of advertising fees.
Do-young even adds that the articles don’t have to be positive, they just have to be popular—and lo, Liar Game is on every screen, every news stand, and every computer screen by the next day. Do-young just bought himself publicity. And it’s awesome.
While on her commute the next morning, Da-jung thinks about Teacher Hyun’s offer until she thinks she sees her father amongst the crowd… but she was just seeing things.
Dal-goo’s affection for Da-jung becomes clear when he defends her lack of payments to his boss, but is silenced when his job is threatened for it. He can’t keep it if he doesn’t make Da-jung pay, which, aww.
He’s still happy when she makes him another ramyun dinner that night, even though her thoughts are still lingering on all her debts and how she could get rid of them so easily…
During the recording that night for the first round, Do-young announces that even though Da-jung forfeited and has yet to show up, she ranked fourth in the show’s online popularity poll.
Much to everyone’s delight (especially Teacher Hyun’s), Da-jung makes a dramatic last-minute entrance. Do-young capitalizes on the event by asking what made her change her mind, only for a flashback to reveal that Da-jung had actually done so earlier—it was PD Lee who decided to delay the reveal for dramatic effect.
She’d also convinced Da-jung to talk about her father when she’d displayed reluctance, which Da-jung does in the present broadcast by addressing her father through the camera: “When I win the prize money, you won’t have to run because of the debt. We can live together. I’ll make sure to win and get the prize money… So come home.”
It’s time for Do-young to explain the rules: Each of the contestants will be given a briefcase filled with a little over ten thousand dollars and seven days to somehow cheat or steal money from the other contestants using any method under the sun EXCEPT physical violence.
He makes it clear that it’s not a matter of just holding onto your own cash, because the only way to win is by having the most cash by the end of the seven day period. Whoever does the most stealing and lying can win up to half a million dollars for the first round. Let the games begin.
Now that Da-jung’s decided to participate, PD Lee gives her an enormous contract detailing how she can’t forfeit from here on out without forfeiting her prize money. (Is that sympathy PD Lee is feeling?)
And after learning from a robot that replacing or adding to the game funds with personal money is a strict no-no, Da-jung calls Teacher Hyun to find out their game plan. He suggests, at least for now, that they pool their money together. What could possibly go wrong?
Dal-goo couldn’t be happier that Da-jung has chosen to play the game, but since he knows she’ll suck at stealing and cheating others out of their money, he suggests she bring in an expert. He just so happens to know a master swindler who’s getting out of prison soon…
Teacher Hyun ferrets Da-jung and her money away that night to take her (dollars) to his “secret safe” in the bank. Granted, his excuse is legitimate, since having catalogued bills prevents them from depositing them normally.
He takes her through the whole process, and even gives her the key to the safe because he trusts her THAT much. Uh huh.
That night, Da-jung caves into buying an expensive shirt for her father’s upcoming birthday, since she now has hope that he’ll come back to her if she wins and pays his debt. Aw.
The broadcast from the first recording plays on televisions everywhere, even in prison—but when Woo-jin happens to look up at the screen, his eyes narrow the second Teacher Hyun pops up. Ah ha!
Do-young tells the nation that only two contestants have had an upset in their totals: Da-jung, because she now has zero dollars, and Teacher Hyun, because he stole it.
Woo-jin’s cellmates wail that poor Da-jung was just too nice for the game (and they tooootally knew it), but Woo-jin didn’t have to watch more than a second to deduce that she and Teacher Hyun were trying to fool people about their relationship.
There’s already footage of Da-jung finding out she’d been conned, which happened while she was buying her father’s new shirt. They even filmed her collapsing to her knees in the bank after finding out that she couldn’t access Teacher Hyun’s safe without him there, and also all the times she thought she and Teacher Hyun weren’t being filmed. Woo-jin was, of course, right about them before the show broadcasted it.
Da-jung’s embarrassment and shame is shown for all the world to see, even as she cries outside Teacher Hyun’s house while its scumbag of an occupant happily turns up the music to drown her out. Do-young and the rest of the Liar Game team just bask in the climbing ratings.
Dal-goo tries to comfort a distraught Da-jung through her door, genuinely mad at Teacher Hyun on her behalf. He won’t let her give up even though she’s ready to, convinced that all she needs is the help of his genius trickster and former cellmate who’s being released tomorrow.
And so, on the next day, Woo-jin finds Da-jung waiting for him and extends his hand…
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be on the opposite end of the spectrum where watching adaptations are concerned, since the experience of not being familiar with the source material of a drama/movie/video game is new for me, and honestly pretty fun. It’s not a state I normally get to choose to be in, since no feat of mental gymnastics ever allows us to willfully forget the source material when going into an adaptation no matter how much we lie to ourselves, so I’m excited to be viewing this with completely fresh eyes.
That being said, even if I don’t know how many fans of the original Japanese manga/drama/drama sequel/movie/movie sequel/drama spin-off there are among us, I know that comparing versions in the early stages can be half the fun in the early stages. Again, since I’ve never experienced life from the vantage point where every comparison to the original will read like a spoiler, all I ask is that general rules of not being a buzz killington apply. Just resist the urge to write a treatise on the ending of the movie sequel’s manga drama spinoff twice removed, is all.
This drama does feel like hitting the jackpot as far as having our character cake and eating our story too (that’s how it goes, right?), because I tuned in for the intriguing premise alone and stayed for that same premise and the cast of characters, which are spread so far across the map that they’d be interesting taken by themselves. But this show does better because it offers them in a shiny package laden with possibility—and why that seems so surprising and fresh when it should be normal, I’m still not quite sure. If I had to guess, it’d be that Liar Game has figured out how to package excitement into single episode doses which somehow compel us to want more. (Crazy, right?)
I also like how the drama takes characters who’d usually seem quite cliched for a premise like this and presents them as being a direct result of the world it’s so carefully created—one that hits so close to home it’s all but knocking down our front door. We’ve got the poor heroine mired in her father’s debt and forced to face the world alone, but add an all-too-human fallibility to her and you get Nam Da-jung.
In that same vein, we then get a cold-on-the-outside hero with a genius intellect and a superhuman gift no one else possesses, but when we add in the fact that he might have, y’know, killed someone—or at the very least has a trust complex that stems from being LITERALLY unable to see the good in people, we get someone as perplexingly mysterious as Cha Woo-jin.
And that’s not even mentioning the most empathetic debt collector ever, or the silver-tongued modern Mephistopheles offering Faustian bargains with a side of soul searching and national shame. He may not have the exact ability Woo-jin has, but there’s no doubt that Do-young has a gift when it comes to reading people, playing them, and pleasing them—but we can’t denounce him for using his powers for evil when he’s got one less dead body on his conscience than our hero (so far), or because he’s narrowed down the art of knowing exactly what he’s doing when he’s doing it into a lucrative career. Every character we’ve seen so far shares a commonality in being products of an unfair system—it’s just a matter of who knows how to play the game.