After two years of reflection, it is not surprising that Netflix’s unprecedented success Squid game was not immediately reproducible. But it’s very surprising how few of the biggest television platforms have even tried to reproduce that success. There has probably been a visible increase in available Korean programming in the United States, but—perhaps in tacit recognition of the fact that Squid game became Squid game because of the covert word of mouth – there has been no apparent increase in the number of shows getting a big promotional boost in the hope of becoming the NEXT Squid game.
If nothing else, Paramount+ is giving a boost to the new six-part drama Bargain, from writer-director Jeon Woo-sung. It is often easy to understand why.
It comes down to
A sleek one-shot wonder.
Bargain is of course not next Squid game. Nothing is. Or if something is there, it will probably appear out of nowhere.
But it’s not an entirely inappropriate comparison, especially in thematic terms: like Squid game, Bargain uses an extensive genre exercise for a class critique in which the elite literally and figuratively preys on the economically disadvantaged. Bargain is perhaps a hair less cynical than Squid gamebut in its often metaphorical dismantling of a commodity culture that specifies and monetizes the poor, down to the biological detail, it is pretty damn cynical.
And, as was the case with Squid gameit will be easy for anyone who wants to ignore the show’s message – see Netflix’s soulless decision to make a ‘reality’ version of it Squid game — concentrate on the formal elements in Bargainbecause Jeon Woo-sung’s direction is attention-grabbing, challenging, and quite remarkable at best.
It happens that between the provocative themes and showy direction, Bargain has a story and characters stretched absurdly thin. But because the breathtaking episodes last between 35 and 37 minutes, you can avoid focusing on those shortcomings as much as possible.
Bargain begins with Park Joo-Young (Jeon Jong-Seo) staring listlessly out the window of a comfortable but secluded hotel. All she can see in the distance are mountains and a reservoir. She waits for Noh Hyung-soo (Jin Sun-kyu), who has reached an agreement to take Joo-Young’s virginity for the agreed price of $1,000 (according to the sometimes spotty subtitles). Hyung-soo likes what he sees and is happy that in a world where nothing is advertised like this, Joo Young looks like her photo. But he doubts her virginity and demands to see blood. Ew.
He then tries to negotiate her price, one of the many ways the show’s title is literal. Hyung-soo is dirty. The whole situation is disgusting. But do not worry. Getting worse!
See, despite her schoolgirl uniform and exaggerated giggling, Joo-Young is not, in fact, an 18-year-old high school student. She’s an operator in an organ trafficking business, and Hyung-soo – also not who he claims to be – is soon strapped to a gurney and subjected to an auction, selling his bits and pieces to the highest bidders. Hyung-soo’s first kidney has just gone for more than $100,000 to Geuk-ryul (Chang Ryul), a dutiful son whose father continues to be usurped by wealthier patients on the transplant list, when the hotel is rocked by an earthquake and then a landslide.
Hyung-soo, Joo-Young, and occasionally Geuk-ryul (whom everyone usually calls “The Good Son”) spend the next 2.5 hours trying to escape the collapsed ruins of the hotel, where they will discover that people whose morality allows them to buy and sell the organs of unwitting victims, are also willing to do anything to survive. Add to that the prospect of stealing millions from the coffers of the crumbling company and the stakes and number of victims will only increase.
It is here that I must mention the conceit, or possibly gimmick, behind Woo-Sung’s adaptation of what was apparently a 2015 South Korean short film: every episode of Bargain is designed to look like a single, continuous shot and if you were to remove the title sequences and episodic title cards, you could handle the show as a three-hour continuous shot – until some cheating in the lackluster final minutes, intended to set up a second season.
Now smart viewers have been trained to spot masked cuts. Bargain is full of them, some of them very, very obvious – as the camera follows characters plunging from a high floor of the hotel through a perfectly symmetrical hole that runs from the roof to the basement, it is in fact not a continuous practice recording – and some taking advantage of a chaotic environment in which flickering lights, dark places and plumes of debris provide distraction and technical feints.
Every now and then there’s a “How the hell did he do that?” quality of Woo-sung’s direction and Young-Ho Kim’s cinematography. More often than not, I enjoyed the cohesive claustrophobic effect that comes from the technique, as the characters start on the fifth floor of the hotel, work their way down to the basement where some workers dispose of the hollowed out bodies, and then go back up again. through the hotel looking for escape.
The hotel, as I said, is a metaphor, as is usually the case in the building escape subgenre. By The towering inferno Unpleasant The robbery Unpleasant Dreddstories like these use their institutions to embody a hierarchy in which the wealthy sit precariously at the top, doing everything in their power to ignore and then oppress the strivers at the bottom.
It’s also an easily segmentable environment that lends itself to episodic storytelling. The basement installation – home to a fish-filled swimming pool, gnarled corpse mutilation tools and grimy, chipped tiles on the walls and floors – resembles something out of a Saw film, in which the director stages torture and an escape attempt in the show’s most dazzling one-off performance. A later episode features action in a very cramped hotel room; someone else becomes something from it Reservoir dogswith lots of intense screaming and, well, negotiating as characters try to figure out who to trust and what to do to survive.
The series’ production design is, by necessity, a malleable marvel, full of winding corridors and strategically placed chasms and chasms for characters to navigate or spot oncoming horrors. The fact that few of the endless shots actually last longer than five or ten minutes without interruption doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of very complicated choreography involved.
I mentioned characters there a few times, and I probably should have put “characters” in quotes. Bargain consists mainly of Hyung-Soo and Joo-Young bickering and taking off, with occasional appearances from the Good Son, who shows up solely to demand that Hyung-Soo fulfill his responsibilities, organiously, no matter how involuntary that donation was. He’s there for a strange kind of serious comedy, part of an ongoing joke in which all these people, victims of circumstance, demand that other people take responsibility for things – medical equality, infrastructure improvements, decency – that are ideally the most important should be. mandate of state and religious institutions. Chang provides a kind of dark laugh and Jin provides both a lot of drama and a broader kind of comedy, as his character is stuck dealing with the apocalypse in red boxer shorts and shiny galoshes for much of the series. It’s left to Jun to play the most fully realized character on a show where virtually no one else even has a name, making Joo-Young both a victim and a capable perpetrator depending on the moment.
Don’t spend much time thinking about the realism of the interactions between the main characters. Don’t spend much time thinking about the practical geography of the hotel. And certainly don’t spend a lot of time trying to understand the business plan that drives this prostitution/human trafficking. This isn’t a show that thrives on common sense or nuance, which caused my interest to wane somewhat as the series barreled toward a conclusion that felt perfunctory rather than cumulative.
Yet it is an intense example of directorial ingenuity and a pitch-black satire on the dehumanized state of contemporary culture. Bargain is completely worthy of what initial curiosity and then budding buzz should be.