Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area: Episodes 2-6 (Series review)
Netflix’s ambitious remake weaves together intricate strategies and ideological conflicts, pitting a motley crew of vastly different individuals against capable leaders representing a system that has sorely failed its people. Perhaps the resulting show may not be greater than the sum of its parts, but it’s still a pretty enjoyable watch.
Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area is a show that you either love or hate. Much of it can probably be boiled down to whether you’ve watched the original series; as an adaptation that tried to stay as loyal as it could, comparisons are inevitable.
Still, as someone who knows absolutely nothing about the original series, I quite enjoyed this show for what it was. I think there’s a certain kind of excitement that can only be felt when stepping foot into this world for the first time, and experiencing its twists and turns with fresh eyes. As such, this review will be kept general and spoiler-free with regards to major plot points, for those who haven’t watched either version but are considering checking the show out.
We’ve already outlined the characters and the heist setup in our Episode 1 review, but the show soon reveals much more dimension to both. If you thought it was a breeze getting in, that’s because it’s meant to be — the real difficulty is buying enough time to stay in the Mint, and then escaping unscathed. (There’s a genius reason they chose to overtake the Mint, and not a mere bank!)
The Professor’s meticulous planning is the glue that holds the plan together, and the fuel that keeps the wheels spinning. He’s laid the groundwork months in advance, which means that not only is he able to read the enemy like an open book, but he also has an arsenal of contingency plans.
Problem is, humans have a tendency to act irrationally, especially when under duress — and that’s exactly what the hostages do, backed into a corner and overcome by fear. Clandestine schemes are set in motion, most of them spurred by the sly and selfish Mint director, and that’s where the excitement comes in. When plans go awry due to the hostages’ crafty attempts to contact the outside world, the crew must think on their feet in order to tackle the disobedience and keep everyone in line.
Before long, though, discord begins to brew amongst even the heist team themselves. While some members establish a sense of camaraderie, others soon find that their beliefs are antithetical and utterly incompatible. Separated from the rest and overseeing it all from the outside, the Professor soon finds himself juggling too many problems to count.
Contrary to my expectations, the Professor’s insistence on not harming or killing any hostages actually served to heighten the stakes. Not only did it contrast sharply with the police’s absolute lack of hesitation before commencing a shootout, but it also provided an unforgiving limitation that the crew had to work around. Typical robbery tactics were off the table, which forced the team to innovate and come up with genuinely brilliant strategies.
While I do feel like the tension could have been ratcheted higher at parts, there were several suspenseful moments that managed to keep me on the edge of my seat and have me pumping my fists in gratified relief when the crew’s plans worked out. I thought the execution was well done, leading to some nail-biting moments and unexpected reveals that caught me entirely off guard.
I didn’t expect to get so invested in the characters, considering the sprawling cast and the condensed episodes, but they were so humanized that I couldn’t help but feel for them. Or, well, at least the ones that had sufficient screen time — some characters definitely got shafted in favor of others, but I suppose that can’t be helped when you’ve got such a large crew.
Despite some less-than-illustrious backgrounds, none of the characters come off as truly threatening or capable of evil (except for Berlin, but I’ll elaborate on him later) — their circumstances pushed them into joining the heist. They may have been cherry-picked for their expertise in certain specialized areas that make them invaluable to the plan, but ultimately it’s their motivations that ensure their dedication to the cause.
As such, it makes sense that they’re not particularly adept at controlling the hostages, or capable of coldhearted deeds. Even though they’re committing a crime, they’re not here to mete out punishment, but to strive towards a better future.
At the backbone of the entire heist is the Professor, a composed and collected ex-professor who spearheads the robbery. He’s the chess master that thinks ten steps ahead and manipulates his opponents like marionettes in the palm of his hand.
I liked that despite his astounding intelligence, the Professor was very human; he was not infallible, which made his ideals more relatable. It was that very idealism that made him believe in the JEA at first, before the system’s self-serving corruption was revealed; what makes him compelling is the revelation that he hasn’t become a pessimistic cynic. Rather, he still has lofty dreams, but this time they go against the system rather than along with it.
I’ve seen some criticism saying that the Professor lacked charisma for a leader, but in a way I think that worked for this series. Instead of reducing the crew in the Mint to mere underlings, having them exude more charisma than the mastermind himself resulted in a good balance of the powerful brawn and the unassuming brain. Neither can succeed alone, and both are equally instrumental in the plan.
That isn’t to say that there are no brains to be found at the Mint — in fact, there’s plenty. Berlin certainly has razor-sharp acuity in spades, with his keen senses quickly sniffing out any hint of unrest and nipping potential mutiny in the bud. He’s unapologetically conniving, and willing to stoop past morals and ethics if it means he can keep the hostages in line.
Park Hae-soo plays Berlin with an edge that’s as unpredictable as it is unnerving, and it’s an absolute treat to watch. You can never quite tell where he stands; is his aggression born out of malice, or is it simply a means to an end? Perhaps it’s both, and it places him in an interestingly gray area.
There’s an explanation for Berlin’s ruthlessness, and it’s the twenty-five years he spent suffering in a North Korean labor camp until he overthrew the guards and walked out a free man. To him, it’s kill or be killed, and his faith in humanity is long gone.
That puts him in direct conflict with Tokyo, who has also seen the worst that humanity has to offer, yet she still believes in the Professor’s principles. In contrast to Berlin, whose trauma has hardened his heart and turned him into a cynical misanthrope, Tokyo’s adversity has instilled in her the determination to save others like her from their circumstances.
Her resilience gives her the strength to stand her ground against even the most ferocious of men, refusing to compromise on her morals regardless of whatever situation she’s thrust into. It’s this righteousness that makes her a captivating protagonist; despite being betrayed by others time and time again, she refuses to stoop to that same level.
I liked the rare moments of vulnerability she let slip, too; underneath her tenacious ferocity is a young girl that’s been forced to grow up too fast. We see this when she doubts the choices she’s made and her ability to lead, and it’s a nice touch that what gets her back on her feet is the reassurance of her fellow robbers — the comrades she hadn’t had before.
As a longtime fan of Kim Ji-hoon, Denver was (unsurprisingly) my favorite character; I found his naiveté endearing, and his simplemindedness had me sighing in fond exasperation. Though such a character can easily become insufferable, I liked that he didn’t make dumb decisions out of a mere lack of intellect, but because of his trusting nature and his insistence on seeing the good in people (even when there was none).
His relationship with his father Moscow is perhaps one of the most heartwarming parts of this show; the glimpse we get into their backstory is enough to tug at my heartstrings. Shunned by society and left with nothing to turn to but crime and each other, the pair share a rapport that had me enthusiastically rooting for them.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast gets the short end of the stick when it comes to character development. Helsinki and Oslo are essentially reduced to buff bodyguards, and their staunch loyalty to Berlin is left unexplained. Nairobi is supposed to exude charm, but her limited appearances don’t do her character any favors. Worse yet, the show teases a frenemy dynamic between her and Tokyo, except it’s barely convincing with the five minutes of screen time it’s afforded. With a cast that’s filled with testosterone, I was excited for a strong female friendship, but alas.
As the youngest of the team, Rio is adorable with his budding crush on Tokyo, trailing after her like a starstruck puppy. More than just romance, though, his admiration of her stems from her fierce independence and the freedom she represents. Stifled by parents that expect him to live up to a strict standard forced upon him rather than embracing him for who he is, it’s no wonder that he’s awed by Tokyo’s self-assured confidence. It’s a shame the drama didn’t explore this angle further, since it ties in with his reason for joining the heist.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the show for its ingenious plot twists and compelling execution, but I do feel like it had room to improve. One major point is the show’s unique setting — against the backdrop of reunification, with tensions still running high between North and South Koreans, you’d expect the class divide to play an integral role in the plot.
It was used to good effect in certain aspects; the professional and ideological conflict between Woo-jin and Moo-hyuk clearly arose from their contrasting methods. The lawful diplomacy of the South was often at odds with the forceful military approach of the North, leading to much suspicion and distrust. Still, I wish the reasons for the dissension ran deeper, especially given the decades of history between the two countries.
I was simultaneously appalled and impressed by Berlin’s strategy of dividing the hostages by their country of origin and weaponizing their animosity; it was such an effective method of having both sides keep each other in check, turning their hostility against each other instead of against the crew. Yet again, though, the show didn’t delve as deeply into the discord as I expected it to. Instead, it quickly shuttled onto the next plot point, keeping in line with its fast pace but sacrificing depth in the process.
I wonder if the show’s condensed format did it a disservice; I would have appreciated more time to linger on character motivations and introspection. Director Kim Hong-seon balanced character and plot brilliantly with his work on The Guest, giving us a compelling trio that still holds a special place in my heart to this day — I have faith in his abilities, and I wish he exercised more of that deftness here.
Perhaps this show would have benefited if it avoided taking the path of a remake, and instead chose to make an adaptation with more creative liberty. Capitalism is no stranger to anyone; there’s so much room for interpretation of the central theme, especially given the unique cultural background that the show took pains to set up. Instead, the show’s faithfulness to the original work ended up constraining its potential.
All in all, the engaging plot still has me looking forward to the second half out of curiosity, but I’m definitely hoping for more character development and a deeper exploration of the show’s ideology.