Expectations were very high for Money Heist: Korea – Common Economic Area, even before its launch. the original Money theft from Spain (Money Heist) was one of Netflix’s most-watched series and went on to win the International Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 2018. This crossover with the seismic force of Korean content – in the golden age it is currently – surely opens up the scope of what Netflix can achieve with its ever-growing library of popular franchises.

For the most part, Part 1 is an animated adventure, led by a very capable cast. The Unified Korea Mint’s labyrinthine scenography deserves special recognition for its versatility – full of opportunities to reveal the hectic mechanisms of moneymaking or conceal the machinations of those who desire its riches. Viewers of the original Money theft will also recognize the familiar narrative structures that reinforce the Korean remake: the achronological narrative, which both fuels tension and retains information, and the unreliable narrator, Tokyo, continually shifting the sands of the story’s reality.

Earn the blessing of Money theft creator Álex Pina for a Korean remake, Money Heist: Korea – Common Economic Space premiered its first six episodes (Part 1) on June 24. It takes place in the near future, where the current Common Security Area between North Korea and South Korea has been transformed into a Common Economic Area. A bitter zone of division quickly becomes the shining symbol of unification, with the exciting promise of new business opportunities and a shared currency – printed at the Unified Korea Mint.

However, a professor who specializes in researching the economic impact of unification is increasingly disillusioned with the exploitation of low-wage migrant workers and the widening gap between haves and have-nots after unification. He then assembles a ragtag team of eight thieves to carry out a 4 trillion won heist at the Unified Korea Mint.

Each character in the main set feels equally capable of innocence or evil, mercy or violence. Veteran actor Yoo Ji-tae, as a teacher, dances between a virtuous Robinhood charm and a penchant for cold manipulation. LostKim’s Kim Yunjin delicately balances the immense personal conflict that her character, Chief Inspector Seon Woo-jin, faces and a high-stakes crisis negotiation amid the heist. Park Hae-soo (the most recent of squid game fame) plays the fearsome Berlin, who believes in exercising power through fear. Yet in private, his unresolved trauma of surviving North Korea’s infamous Gaecheon concentration camp can quickly turn him into an anxious, cold-sweating figure. Jeon Jong Seo (Burning) plays a North Korean woman, Tokyo, who quietly tries to piece together her dreams after being defrauded and abused as a migrant worker.

Building on the strength of its cast and clean action sequences, Money Heist: Korea seems more sure of its means – to enter the Mint, to take people hostage (but don’t kill anyone!), to print the money, to get out – than of its ends. After setting up such a promising context and a convincing universe, Money Heist: Korea sometimes feels like a prisoner of his own ambition and doesn’t know how to get out of it.

Arguably the most important thing for any story to achieve is to convince the viewer to root for its protagonist(s) – however imperfect they may be. We must grow to see the world from their perspective, feel with them their triumphs and defeats, and defend their victory. However, once the charm of its main set wears off, one wonders: why should I attach myself to this group of thieves who essentially seek personal wealth at the expense of the hard-won reunification of the peninsula? (And not the root for, perhaps, the starving, overworked hostages, who really have nothing to do with any of this?) If we’re going by the endings of previous seasons of the original Money theftthis is perhaps a question that will be answered when part 2 is released (date not yet announced).

Some of the most beloved Netflix Korean original series of recent years – like Kingdom, DPWhere squid game — have demonstrated that his action-packed shows are immensely capable of sharp and incisive social commentary. However, the comment in Money Heist: Korea feels a bit duller. He’s certainly there, but he gets lost amid the noise and buzz of the hostage crisis at the Mint.

Money Heist: Korea.
Picture: Jung Jaegu/Netflix

The strongest and most reasonable motivation is through Tokyo. Seeing its own “Korean dream” crumble after leaving the North Korean army and emigrating to the South, Tokyo insists on the growing economic disparities caused by reunification and the plight of migrant workers. In the first episode, she swears in a low voice, “Welcome to capitalism”. The heist is her opportunity to make a breakthrough – and to repeatedly reclaim what she feels she has lost to the cruelties of such an economic system.

Some of the show’s best sequences actually come in the opening minutes of each episode, where the show opens with a peek at each character’s backstory. It helps sketch out each character’s journey in a more nuanced way, lends gravity to their cause, and lets us understand why they might have joined the Professor’s heist in the first place.

Another critical commentary is made through the masks the heist team wears, which are modeled after Korean hahoe masks. Hahoe masks, in their various shapes, forms and expressions, traditionally represent the social status of its characters. In the original version Money theftSalvador Dali’s mask was used to express resistance in the face of injustice, and the heist was a way to bring financial restoration to those hardest hit by the cruel edges of capitalism.

With the heist team’s adamant sense that what they’re doing is honorable and good, the six never-before-seen episodes that make up Part 2 must answer: Will the ends really justify the means?

First part of Money Heist: Korea – Common Economic Space is streaming now on Netflix.