The year is 2025. Economics are booming and the potential to get rich has become markedly higher. Not only that, North and South Korea have combined their currencies, resulting in a mass immigration of North Koreans into South Korea. Although it sounds like the start of freedom and boundless opportunity, it’s actually just a scheme to make the rich even richer.
Netflix’s “Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area” is another installment of the infamous “Money Heist” series. The six-episode release follows the same formula as the original but takes creative liberty in making a statement about Korean class structures. The series features an incredible cast with “Squid Game’s” villain Park Hae-soo, “Lost’s” Yunjin Kim, “Oldboy’s” Yoo Ji-tae and Jeon Jong-seo. This combination of actors results in a gripping viewing experience.
The show’s fantasy of North and South Korea joining into one might seem far-fetched, but it’s the perfect setting to expose how extreme spectrums between rich and poor can create the ugliest outcomes.
“Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area” unfolds with the story of Tokyo (Jeon Jong-seo), one of the main protagonists in the heist group. She’s a North Korean immigrant who is struggling to make ends meet. Her vulnerability to the growing gap between rich and poor lands her in the hands of crooked loan sharks. In a rage, she kills the loan sharks and breaks away. However, her crime lands her on the most wanted list and she has nowhere else to go. Tokyo assumes that death is her only option when she’s approached by Professor (Yoo Ji-tae). Professor presents the idea of a money heist that will grant her everlasting freedom. The rest of the money heist attendees are framed as similarly hopeless criminals with no other options.
Since they can take no chances of their identities being leaked, Professor encourages them to never admit their real names to one another. Instead, they choose random city names: Denver (Kim Ji-hoon), an illegal street fighter; Rio (Lee Hyun-woo), a hacker from a rich family; Moscow (Lee Won-jong), Denver’s father and recently released prisoner; Nairobi (Jang Yoon-ju), a counterfeit artist; Berlin (Park Hae-soo), a former North Korean prisoner that survived a mass execution; Oslo (Lee Gyu-ho) and Helsinki (Kim Ji-hoon), former gang members.
Professor crafts a genius plan that will prepare them for every possibility the government will throw at them. They set their sights on robbing the Mint building that serves as the federal bank for the North and South Korean currency. The remainder of the show focuses on the heist crew staging the robbery and forcing everyone left in the building to be their hostages.
There’s added drama between Professor and the Special Negotiations officer, Raquel Murillo (Yunjin Kim), whom Professor takes advantage of by dating. While Raquel was originally a pawn for the Professor to manipulate so as to have easy access to the government’s plans, the Professor ends up falling in love with her.
Tensions continue to rise as Berlin, the leader of the heist members, becomes more unhinged and prefers to exert violence to instill fear in the hostages. Despite Professor’s preference for no violence toward the hostages, chaos inevitably erupts as the hostages’ attempt plans to communicate with the police.
At the start of episode two, Tokyo quotes that “labor is sacred” and required of certain individuals. Each episode trickles in more background information that broadcasts how flawed the class system in Korea is. Korean films and TV shows are infamous for critiquing class divisions with popular media like “Squid Game” and “Parasite.” In a similar fashion, “Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area” inserts social commentary through diverse characters that cover a range of social classes.
On one side, there’s Berlin’s upbringing in North Korea. He was among the ultra-poor who had been forced into labor camps that destroyed their bodies and pushed them to commit inhumane acts for the sake of survival. Then there’s Rio who grew up with ample financial security and options to expand it, as long as he abided by the chosen path of his parents.
The middle class like Tokyo, Denver, Moscow, Nairobi, Oslo and Helsinki, exist out of equal desperation to survive and get as close to financial freedom as they can. What the robbery exposes is that regardless of what spectrum the person originally falls on, excessive power or powerlessness can create monsters.
This was shown when the Mint Director, Arturo Romain (Park Myung-hoon) begged for his mistress, Mi-Seon (Lee Joo-bin), to sneak out and get his watch from his office so he could send a signal to the police. Yet when the watch slipped out of Mi-Seon’s pants, Arturo Romain pretended he had nothing to do with it and pleaded for his own life. This ultimately led to Berlin sentencing Mi-Seon to be executed.
At the peak of the dysfunction between the heist members, their true nature comes to the surface. Initially, each heist member began to emulate the people who once abused and exploited them. They adopted careless attitudes and exerted force without thinking about how it would affect the hostages. Before they enacted the plan, each member was hungry for freedom, which would render the hostages as boulders in their way.
When the power was flipped, the rich hostages were no different than poor workers, as they were at the mercy of the heist crew. This division didn’t just slice between the heist crew and hostages, it occurred within the two groups. Hostages started to distrust one another, and heist members took sides, establishing the same division the North and South had to begin with.
In spite of Tokyo, Nairobi, Rio, and Denver having no feelings toward the hostages, Mi-Seon’s assumed execution sparks their empathy. Denver refuses to hurt her, and Tokyo takes charge to ensure Mi-Seon survives. Although they committed crimes, their empathy is a shock to the hostages, as well as themselves. Enacting violence to another innocent person isn’t just ludicrous, but it also goes completely against their original plan to have financial freedom.
“Money Heist: Korea” isn’t about criminals finding their way to money. It goes beyond this and sheds light on the underbelly of capitalism that uplifts the rich and exploits the poor. It shows that regardless of what side a person is on, extreme wealth or poverty creates excessive greed. For the rich, it’s greed to sustain money, and for the poor, it’s greed to never be poor again.
“Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area” is available to stream on Netflix.
By Adia Carter