The phenomenal success of “Squid Game” not only captured audiences worldwide but also opened the doors for more South Korean dramas to make their mark in the United States. Paramount recently teamed up with Seoul-based CJ ENM to bring a fresh wave of South Korean content to American screens. Among the latest fruits of this collaboration is “Bargain,” a series that may not match the compulsive watchability of “Squid Game” but shares a common thread: an exploration of a society where life is devalued, and the class divide can turn deadly.
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In this respect, “Bargain” aligns itself with other high-profile South Korean productions, including the Oscar-winning masterpiece “Parasite,” which vividly depicted a family of struggling grifters preying on a wealthy one.
As NPR previously reported when “Squid Game” skyrocketed to popularity, this strain of storytelling has its roots in the economic crisis that rocked South Korea in the late 1990s, significantly affecting its middle class. The common theme across these productions is one of desperation and the extraordinary lengths individuals are willing to go to in order to survive, often at the expense of others.
Similar to “Squid Game,” which Netflix plans to explore further with a game show inspired by the series, “Bargain” takes this theme to unsettling extremes, with an extra dose of discomfort. The series kicks off in a hotel room where Hyung-soo (played by Jin Sun-kyu) has arranged a paid sexual encounter with Joo-young (Jun Jong-seo, delivering an outstanding performance). Suspicion looms as Hyung-soo probes Joo-young about her age and virginity.
However, his suspicions take a sinister turn when it becomes clear that Joo-young is part of an elaborate ring that entices men to the hotel, drugs them, and auctions off their organs. Just when it seems that Hyung-soo might meet a grim fate of organ extraction, a devastating earthquake strikes, causing severe damage to the facility and plunging everyone inside into chaos. Forced to forge unexpected and sometimes awkward alliances, the characters must find a way to escape the dire situation.
But that’s not all. The series takes a daring stylistic approach, featuring much of its action through long, continuous tracking shots. This cinematic technique intensifies the sense of anarchy and confusion within the story. Along the way, we are offered breadcrumbs of information about how various characters found themselves entangled in this horrifying predicament, with Joo-young already demonstrating her skill as a manipulative liar.
Based on a 2015 short film, “Bargain” does take some peculiar and seemingly unnecessary detours as it progresses. However, it retains an oddly compelling and grimly humorous quality. At the very least, it offers a viewing experience unlike many others, both for better and for worse.
One of the remarkable advantages of the streaming era is the expanded shelf space for content from around the globe. These acquisitions are driven by financial considerations, as non-domestic content is often more cost-effective than producing homegrown material. Nevertheless, as “Squid Game” demonstrated, there is a growing audience that is not deterred by subtitles if the storytelling is gripping.
While “Bargain” may not be without its imperfections, it remains an intriguing and unpredictable addition to the world of television programming. It continues to spotlight the captivating and innovative work emerging from South Korea’s entertainment industry.
For those who were enthralled by “Squid Game,” the commitment of six episodes to “Bargain” is certainly worth considering. The series premiered on October 5th, exclusively on Paramount+.