Hot on the heels of Kathryn Porter’s incandescent “No One Asked for Extra Long Episodes of TV, and We Shouldn’t Keep Letting Them Happen,” here’s Netflix’s Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area, which, with its plot-packed first season comprising just six episodes averaging 69.5 minutes apiece, somehow manages to both way too long and way too short all at the same time.
Based on Álex Pina’s Madrid-set La Casa de Papel (aka Money Heist), the cumbersomely titled Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area is the first of what are sure to be many international La Casa de Papel remakes. Taking the “heist-as-economic-protest” premise of the original and reimagining it for an explicitly Korean context, Joint Economic Area has several genuinely good things going for it: a compelling cast; an interesting (if far-fetched) cultural twist on the heist; the inclusion of BTS. But while I’d love to focus solely on what these elements add to Pina’s original premise, the dimensions of the vessel they’ve been delivered in are so constrained by the very worst of Netflix’s most creatively demoralizing bad habits that it’s hard to focus on anything else.
Which brings me back to the “No One Asked for Extra Long Episodes of TV, and We Shouldn’t Keep Letting Them Happen” of it all. Too unwieldy to maintain any kind of meaningful narrative rhythm—not least in the context of a densely plotted heist story!—each 70(ish)-minute episode of Joint Economic Area stretches the viewer’s patience past the point of breaking. At the same time, a six-episode format is just too limited to effectively build any of the tension or interpersonal relationships that were so key to Casa’s success, instead breathlessly rushing that same viewer through the twists, reveals, and heel/hero turns that La Casa de Papel took its time to unfurl.
The weaknesses of the JEA approach are even clearer when put mathematically. With its Part 1 story stretched across 10 episodes that each ran an average of 47.1 minutes long, La Casa de Papel was able to give itself a total of 471 minutes to lay out a tensely plotted, well-balanced story. By contrast, in restraining that same story to just 6 episodes, not even the extra-long episodic run time is enough of a counterbalance to make up for the squeeze: Between their two bizarre formatting decisions, the writers behind Joint Economic Area only gave themselves 417 minutes to try to do the same.
To their credit, when it came to trimming enough fat off the Casa de Papel plot that Joint Economic Area mirrors with almost maddening exactitude (I’ll get to that in a minute), writers Ryu Yong-jae, Kim Hwan-chae, and Choe Sung-jun at least chose to excise the original’s most toxic storylines—e.g., Berlin’s sociopathic hostage-rape-as-relationship arc, and Ángel’s extramarital romantic fixation on Raquel—proving, in the process, how completely unnecessary either was to the Spanish series. But where Joint Economic Area tangibly benefits from these two cuts (and even, in the case of the alternative character the writers invent in place of a direct analogue to Ángel, where it significantly improves upon the original), it suffers in the oppressive rush forced on everything else.
From the standpoint of someone who just wants TV to embrace (or even just understand!!) the things that make TV a uniquely effective artform, this is an enormous bummer. But at the same time, is it likely that any warning one grumpy critic might give about the (too-long) length of Joint Economic Area’s episodes or the (too-short) length of its season will keep the Korean language market holdouts Netflix is clearly targeting this project to from finally springing for their own Netflix subscription? Almost certainly not!
To that end—and for all the Money Heist fans out there who are also going to be in for any and all Money Heist content, no matter what—let’s go ahead and end with a quick rundown of what, specifically, Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area is doing with Pina’s IP, and how it lands despite its unsolvable pacing problem.
So: In making the jump from one economically stratified country to another, Joint Economic Area reimagines Pina’s original scenario through a distinctly speculative fiction lens, placing the action in a near alternate future (2025) in which BTS is still touring, but North and South Korea have finally agreed to reunification—moving, in the process, the Professor’s meticulously planned “money” heist from a storied “Royal” mint run by an entrenched, elite government instead to the untested, centrally located new mint of a government so recently formed it’s still suffering severe growing pains.
On its face, this is a smart approach. Not only does the clash between South Korea’s aggressively capitalist 21st century culture and North Korea’s equally aggressive communist one make for compelling, believable tension—both between the members of the heist team and between those of the negotiation task force—but it also gives the writers the opportunity to be dead clear, from the very start, about the sociopolitical and ideological motivations behind the Professor’s plan. (A distinct weakness in La Casa de Papel, which waited until the end of the first season to even hint at the idea there might be more to the Professor’s agenda than pulling off an ethically pristine heist, and then waited until the last few minutes of the second season to articulate with any kind of specificity what that “more” was.)
In Joint Economic Area’s version of things, this makes Tokyo (Jeon Jong-seo) not an impulsive party girl burning the candle at all ends, but rather an ex-North Korean soldier who, having found herself violently disenchanted by the South’s false promises of neoliberal capitalism, is recruited by the Professor (a suitably charming but may not so convincingly nebbish Yoo Ji-Tae) after she’s gone on a murderous vigilante rampage against the predatory loan sharks taking advantage of North Korean women like her. When the Professor gives her something much more tangible to fight for—taking from the haves to give to the have-nots who had no say in how reunification rolled out but are suffering all the same—she understands its value implicitly; when she picks her code name, she does so with articulate, culturally resonant aggression, choosing the clearest signal she can to let the world know that “[they’re] gonna do something bad.” This is great! Clear characterization, clean motivation.
Similarly clean and clear in Joint Economic Area’s cultural translation is the composition of the task force, which is necessarily split evenly both in rank-and-file grunt work and at the level of leadership between North and South Korean officers—a fact which in turn means that its preferred strategic approach is also split. On the South Korean side, you have negotiation specialist Seon Woojin (Lost’s Yunjin Kim), an almost perfect analogue of Itziar Ituño’s Raquel Murillo down to her abusive ex-husband, her dangerously senile mother, and her tendency to pull her hair int a ponytail before getting down to business trying to rescue hostages. On the North Korean side, though, you have Special Agent Cha Moohyuk (Kim Seung-o, who incidentally resembles Álvaro Morte’s Professor far more than Yoo does), a man who has neither a shared background with nor emotional sympathy for Seon, and whose preference at every turn is for swift and sharp brute force, regardless of any potential casualties. This is interesting! The conflict between their two approaches is clear, as is the need for it not to boil over. It also sets up a compelling arc of the two softening to one another as the series goes on—not in a romantic sense, mind, but rather in the “oh, seeing the other side as human is what reunification means” one.
But unfortunately, this is where any thoughtful cross-cultural translation of the original’s cast ends. Pretty much across the board—with, perhaps, the small exception of Berlin (Park Hae-soo), who is stripped of his retch-inducing lasciviousness and given instead a brutal labor camp backstory early enough on that the audience can develop some real sympathy for him—the rest of the Professor’s chosen crew are all 1:1 reflections of their Spanish counterparts. From Denver (Kim Ji-hoon) to Moscow (Won-jong Lee) to Rio (Hyun-Woo Lee) to Nairobi (Yoon-ju Jang) to Helsinki (Ji-Hoon Kim) to Oslo (Kyu-Ho Lee), they are styled the same, act the same, and are given the same mannerisms—down, and I am not kidding, to Denver’s iconic laugh. This despite the fact that those styles and mannerisms were informed by the Spanish culture the characters originated in, and despite the fact that Joint Economic Area director Hong-sun Kim so deftly manages to make Korea a character in a deeper (or at least, globally clearer) way than Spain was in Casa de Papel. It’s maddening!
Now, I will readily admit that much of this particular criticism might be personal. I mean, I do understand, intellectually, that Joint Economic Area is a remake. Not a reboot. Not a reimagining. Not a sequel. A remake. As such, it’s populated with the same characters, and following the same story beats. But I can’t help but be disappointed by the fact that, when given the opportunity to take an endlessly adaptable premise (what world government, after all, isn’t letting their economic elites screw over the Average Joe?) Joint Economic Area instead chose to run the exact same heist, with the exact same characters; a fact that’s especially galling given the strength of the few things they did choose to change. And I’m not just talking about the central characters’ backgrounds or chosen code names! (Although I am convinced that a crew of Korean thieves, even with the exact same personalities as the original set, would gravitate to an entirely different set of international cities than Casa de Papel’s group of Spanish ones did.)
So the writers had enough breadth of imagination to unify North and South Korea, but not, apparently, to find a way for more than two members of the heist team to be women? Better yet, why not set Joint Economic Area and Casa de Papel in the same world and just make up an entirely new crew, with an entirely new set of motivations and an entirely new intricate plan, all to rob a mint that, following Madrid, would almost certainly be expecting them? I mean, given that the point La Casa de Papel went to such pains to underscore when launching that crew’s follow-up heist was that the Professor’s first plan was so ideologically effective that it had caused a global upswell of popular anti-capitalist fervor, expanding that movement in a tangible way to other countries just makes sense. Plus, what people want out of a heist show is to be surprised. What a lost opportunity, not to build on that!
Of course, the trouble is, if you establish that any follow-up Money Heist exists in the same universe as the original Money Heist, then you’re stuck connecting them all, which in turn would mean that the genius required for each subsequent team to make their way into their respective national mint to would only ever grow exponentially. (See: The MCU.) But at this point I’m just shouting at clouds, so c’mon, Netflix! Give the people (me) what they (I) want!
But obviously, with netting new subscriptions the company’s only actionable goal these days, Netflix won’t be doing anything as satisfyingly creative as all that. And in any case, Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area isn’t even for us (in the English-speaking markets). It’s for Korea. And I mean that literally—its embargo was set to KST first, then PST second.
So I guess for now I’ll just be over here, shouting at clouds. And whenever Part 2 eventually premieres, I’m sure I’ll be begrudgingly queuing it up with the rest of the world’s Money Heist stans. It is a global phenomenon, after all.
Part 1 of Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area is streaming now on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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