With two years of reflection, it isn’t surprising that the unprecedented success of Netflix’s Squid Game wasn’t instantly reproducible. But it’s very surprising how few of television’s biggest platforms have even attempted to reproduce that success. There has probably been a visible uptick in available Korean programming in the States but — perhaps in tacit recognition of the fact that Squid Game became Squid Game because of its stealthy word-of-mouth explosion — there hasn’t been an evident rise in shows getting a big promotional push in the hopes of becoming the NEXT Squid Game.
If nothing else, Paramount+ is giving a push to the new six-part drama Bargain, from writer-director Jeon Woo-sung. It’s frequently easy to see why.
The Bottom Line A taut one-shot wonder.
Airdate: Thursday, October 5
Cast: Jin Sun-Kyu, Jun Jong-Seo, Chang Ryul
Creator/Director: Jeon Woo-Sung
Bargain is not, of course, the next Squid Game. Nothing is. Or when something is, it will probably emerge out of nowhere.
But it isn’t a wholly inappropriate comparison, especially in thematic terms: Like Squid Game, Bargain uses an elaborate genre exercise for a class critique in which the elite are literally and figuratively preying on the economically disadvantaged. Bargain might be a hair less cynical than Squid Game, but in its often metaphorical evisceration of a commodity culture that itemizes and monetizes the poor, right down to biological minutiae, it’s pretty damn cynical.
And, as was the case with Squid Game, it will be easy for anybody who wants to ignore the series’ message — see Netflix’s soulless decision to make a “reality” version of Squid Game — to concentrate on the formal elements in Bargain, because Jeon Woo-sung’s direction is attention-grabbing, format-challenging and, at its best, pretty remarkable.
It happens that in between the provocative themes and showy direction, Bargain has a story and characters that are stretched absurdly thin. But with the breathless episodes clocking in at between 35 and 37 minutes, you can avoid focusing on those flaws as much as you choose to.
Bargain begins with Park Joo-Young (Jeon Jong-Seo) staring listlessly out the window of a comfortable but remote hotel. All she can see in the distance are mountains and a reservoir. She’s awaiting Noh Hyung-soo (Jin Sun-kyu), who has reached an agreement to take Joo-Young’s virginity for the agreed-upon price of $1,000 (per the sometimes spotty subtitles). Hyung-soo likes what he sees and expresses pleasure that in a world in which nothing is as advertised, Joo Young looks like her picture. But he doubts her virginity and demands to see blood. Ew.
Then he tries bargaining down her price, one of several ways in which the title of the show is literal. Hyung-soo is gross. The whole situation is gross. But don’t worry. It gets worse!
See, despite her schoolgirl uniform and exaggerated giggle, Joo-Young is not, in fact, an 18-year-old high-school junior. She’s an operator in an organ trafficking ring, and Hyung-soo — also not who he claims to be — is soon strapped to a gurney and subjected to an auction, selling off his bits and pieces to the highest bidders. Hyung-soo’s first kidney has just gone for well over $100,000 to Geuk-ryul (Chang Ryul), a dutiful son whose father keeps getting usurped on the transplant list by wealthier patients, when the hotel is rocked by an earthquake and then a landslide.
Hyung-soo, Joo-Young and occasionally Geuk-ryul (who everybody mostly calls “The Good Son”) spend the next 2.5 hours trying to escape from the collapsed ruins of the hotel, where they’re going to discover that people whose morality allows them to buy and sell the organs of unwitting victims are also willing to do anything to survive. Throw in the prospect of stealing millions from the crumbling enterprise’s coffers and the stakes and body count only rise.
It’s here that I should mention the conceit, or possibly gimmick, behind Woo-Sung’s adaptation of what was apparently a 2015 South Korean short film: Each 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, one could process the show as a continuous three-hour shot — up until some cheating in the lackluster final minutes, designed to set up a second season.
Now at this point, smart viewers have been trained to recognize masked cuts. Bargain is full of them, some very, very obvious — when the camera follows characters plunging from a high floor of the hotel through a perfectly symmetrical hole that goes from rooftop to cellar, it is not, in fact, an uninterrupted practical shot — and some capitalizing on a chaotic environment in which flickering lights, pockets of darkness and plumes of debris offer distractions and technical feints.
Occasionally there’s a “How the heck did he do that?” quality to Woo-sung’s direction and the cinematography by Young-Ho Kim. I was more frequently just enjoying the cohesive claustrophobic effect that comes from the technique, as the characters start on the hotel’s fifth floor, make their way to the basement where a pair of laborers dispose of the hollowed-out bodies, and then move back up through the hotel in search of escape.
The hotel is, as I already said, a metaphor, as is generally the case in the building-escape subgenre. From The Towering Inferno to The Raid to Dredd, stories like this use their settings as embodiments of a hierarchy in which the rich are perched precariously at the top, doing anything in their ample power to ignore and then repress the strivers at the bottom.
It’s also an easily segmented environment that lends itself to episodic storytelling. The installment in the cellar — home to a fish-filled pool, gnarly corpse-dismemberment tools and dingy, chipped tiling on the walls and floors — is like something out of a Saw movie, with the director staging torture and an escape attempt in the most dazzling of the show’s one-shot feats. One later episode includes action in a very cramped hotel room; another becomes something out of Reservoir Dogs, with lots of high-intensity shouting and, well, bargaining as characters try to figure out who they can trust and what they’ll have to do in order to survive.
The series’ production design is, by necessity, a malleable marvel, full of twisty hallways and strategically placed crevasses and chasms for characters to navigate or spot approaching terrors through. Just because few of the endless shots are actually longer than five or 10 minutes without a cut doesn’t mean that there isn’t a ton of very intricate choreography at play.
I mentioned characters a couple of times there, and I probably should have put “characters” in quotation marks. Bargain is mostly Hyung-Soo and Joo-Young bickering and ascending, with occasional appearances by the Good Son, who shows up exclusively to demand that Hyung-Soo live up to his responsibilities, organ-wise, however involuntary that donation was. He’s there for a strange sort of earnest comedy as well as part of a running joke in which all of these people, victims of circumstance, demand that other people take responsibility for things — medical equity, infrastructure improvements, decency — that ideally should be the mandate of state and religious institutions. Chang provides one sort of dark laughs and Jin provides both high drama and a broader sort of comedy, since his character is stuck dealing with the apocalypse in red boxer-briefs and shiny galoshes for much of the series. It’s left to Jun to play the most fully realized character in a show in which hardly anybody else even has a name, making Joo-Young both victim and capable perpetrator depending on the moment.
Don’t spend much time trying to ponder the realism of the interactions between any of the main characters. Don’t spend much time contemplating the practical geography of the hotel. And definitely don’t spend much time trying to make sense of the business plan governing this prostitution/trafficking ring. This is not a show that thrives on common sense or nuance, which caused some diminishing of my interest as the series charged toward a conclusion that felt perfunctory more than cumulative.
Still, as an intense piece of directorial ingenuity and a pitch-black satire of the dehumanized state of contemporary culture, Bargain is fully worthy of what ought to be initial curiosity and then burgeoning buzz.