Kolorful Palette: Let the games begin [Liar Game]
I have to say, it comes as a massive relief to finally watch a drama that delivered everything I had hoped for and didn’t leave me resenting its squandered potential. I’ve been clamoring all year for a show with twists and turns that actually carry through to to the end, and my hunger has been more than satisfied (if anything, I’m full to bursting). Liar Game delivered so much more than that though, and I can’t think of a drama this year that I’ve enjoyed more.
I’ve tried to think of something to nitpick, but the only thing that ever really annoyed me was the card game with Jaime where Da-jung had to pull cards out of a bag face-down (how could she know if the card was face down or not?). I’m generally a pretty eye-rolly person, so if that’s my biggest issue, I know I have a winner on my hands. Everything from the casting, to the pacing and directing was impeccably carried out to intensify the suspense that was so consistently present throughout this drama’s entirety. Overall it is a little disappointing though, since now I want more (and I know I’m not getting it, at least for a long time).
One of the reasons that complex stories often don’t work is that they use their complexity to mask simplicity of character. Red herrings and surprise twists are exciting and satisfying to a point, but often such plots are largely mechanical, and the characters are just devices for the viewer to observe the story through, and they act as nothing more than tinkerers trying to understand the cogs in a machine. What makes Liar Game work so well is that a lot of the complexity is a direct result of the characters and the choices they have to make. When a detective is trying to solve a crime, we know his motivations and we can pretty accurately predict how he will behave in any given situation. Liar Game is full of shades of gray, and there is never a clear right choice for anyone. Everyone is stuck in the pressure cooker together, and that has the added benefit of making me empathize with every single character. I never begrudged anyone for making a selfish decision, and if anything felt more conflicted about the “nice” decisions (which often seemed foolhardy).
Throughout every round of the game I found myself wondering what I would do in the given situation, and I could never come up with a concrete answer. So many perspectives made sense, and that’s an ambivalence that I love to feel when watching TV. I never even found myself able to blame anyone for anything (including Do-young). Did Woo-jin’s mother make the right choice about “selling” Do-young? Obviously not if you consider where he ended up, but in the moment she did something slightly questionable in order to save many more children (including Do-young himself who would have been out a home if the orphanage closed down). Would I have done any differently if I had been in her shoes? I doubt it.
What makes all these questionable decisions even more satisfying is that the characters themselves seem to sympathize with the others almost as much as I do. This isn’t just a bunch of people fighting tooth and nail to the bitter end, for revenge, or out of a sense of righteousness. Da-jung forgives and understands Woo-jin without actually needing to understand him, and Woo-jin ends up seeing Do-young more like a lost friend than an outright rival (at least that’s how I interpreted it). Even Do-young didn’t pull them into this game from a place of malice, and that makes everyone more believable and relatable (not to mention likable). No matter how television tends to depict human nature, I don’t think we naturally gravitate towards vengeful extremes, and instead try to trust and understand people when we can (even if it takes us a while to get there). How many of us found ourselves feeling sorry for Do-young instead of hating him? That’s human nature at its best.
Another reason reason the structure of Liar Game worked so well for me is that the complexity struck the perfect balance between confusing us, surprising us, and making us feel like we had figured some things out. For example, I had it figured out pretty early on that Do-young was probably from the orphanage, but I had absolutely no clue that Da-jung had been there too. It’s important to be thrown a bone once in a while so we don’t feel like complete idiots, but the surprises still need to be genuinely surprising while also making sense. Da-jung’s presence at the orphanage could have very easily felt contrived, but in retrospect it made a lot of sense (which is very important when it comes to plot twists!). I thought it was just one of those K-drama acts of fate when Da-jung quoted Woo-jin’s mom about trusting people, but nope, there was a reason she had that thought in her head.
I was also ready to be pretty skeptical about Da-jung forgetting about her past at the orphanage, but even that made sense. As far as she was concerned nothing particularly memorable or out of the ordinary happened while she was at the orphanage, and there’s no reason that she would think about it as an adult. I personally only remember about 1% of my childhood, and I can’t even imagine how many interactions with other kids have completely escaped me. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a drama reflect our memories in such a down-to-earth way though, and it’s little things like that which really make me appreciate this show all the more.
Woo-jin was perhaps the simplest of the characters and had the least dramatic arc, but Lee Sang-yoon was still perfect for the part and I don’t think I’d ever get tired of watching his clever manipulations. Da-jung was a lot more annoying, but I think that ended up making her personal story all the better. I think we all wanted to shake some sense into her at some point, but she managed to change herself without changing at her core, and that’s an impressive feat to pull off. Part of the reason she was so frustrating at the beginning was that she was naive and weak. Rather than turning her back on her virtues, she turned those virtues into strengths. She even managed to take down Do-young a peg when she called him out for his misguided ideals (and what a glorious moment that was). Rather than the Liar Game weakening her resolve and making her question her beliefs, it instead confirmed for her that she ultimately doesn’t want to change. That’s pretty badass in its own way, and made me forgive her for all her previous acts of stupidity.
The question of romance has been a big point of contention since Liar Game began, and although I expected it to happen I think the correct decision was made. Da-jung and Woo-jin had good chemistry, but they never really felt like the types to be attracted to each other in that way. The question of betrayal between them would also have felt more forced with a relationship at stake, and it would have provided a much weaker setup for a second season (if one happens). Besides that, when would there have been time for them to get smoochy? I guess they could have made this drama longer, but that certainly would have taken away from the suspenseful pacing. Their gradual growth of respect and reliance on one other was enough for me, and felt just right within the context of the story.
Of course the real scene stealer for me was Kang Do-young, and in the end he reminded me a little of Shrek. Perhaps a little stinky and slimy overall, but so many layers. He gave me chills in the best way possible, and what’s even better is that even he was ultimately a puppet. If there is a Season 2 it’s going to be insane. Shin Sung-rok has been doing a fantastic job in all his roles this year, and I couldn’t be happier to see his career taking off.
There’s so much to rave about that I almost forgot to mention the scene I drew. Whoops! Every time a drama comes to an end I hope against hope that there will be some gorgeous scene to give me an aesthetic sense of closure (does that make me ridiculous?) and once more Liar Game delivered. This is Woo-jin right after he burns his files on Do-young but keeps their orphanage photo, which besides being a great finish to his story, also showcases him in a rare state of vulnerability and sentimentality. Woo-jin was no doubt the show’s most emotionally introverted character, and that made this moment all the more touching. I actually wish I had painted this with real paint, but who knows, maybe I still will!
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. One of the reasons I love Korean dramas so much is that they are only one season and don’t drag on and on and on like so many American shows. Well, Liar Game is officially my exception. Ratings be damned, give us more! Please, Dramaland needs it.
- Will Liar Game produce a Season 2?
- Our love-hate relationship with drama remakes and adaptations
- Kolorful Palette: Honestly great [Liar Game]
- Liar Game: Episode 1
- Trailer and highlights: Let the Liar Game begin
- Masks, blindfolds, and betrayal in Liar Game
- Liar Game’s naive heroine, shrewd lifeline, and mysterious gamemaster
- tvN’s Liar Game remake confirms and adds to cast
- Korean remake of Liar Game lines up its cast of liars and swindlers