Sex, bullies and kidneys: ‘bargain’ offers to be the next ‘squid game’

In “Bargain,” a new South Korean dystopian series from Paramount+, a man shows up at a hotel far from the city to consummate a deal. He must pay a young woman for sex; The price is high because she claims to be a virgin. But he waits: It turns out she actually works for a criminal organ auction operation, and the guy is about to accidentally give up a kidney.

Then, an earthquake devastates the hotel, starting a desperate fight for survival. And that’s just the first 30 minutes or so.

There’s an almost comical amount of calamity to “Bargain,” the latest offering in Paramount+’s push toward a robust streaming market in South Korea that exploded with the popularity of Netflix’s “Squid Game” in 2021. Like that show, which It showed people in debt. Citizens competing in a series of deadly Darwinian children’s games for the amusement of wealthy lords, “Bargain” is about dystopian extremes. (All six episodes begin airing Thursday.)

But these programs do not generate shock on their own. They use dark fantasies to confront the problems that plague contemporary South Korean society, particularly the economic inequality fostered by runaway capitalism; social isolation in a frenetic technological boom; and a general distrust of government authority.

In a paradox of South Korea’s streaming boom, shows that often dramatize desperate efforts to get a piece of the economic pie are proving to be big business. (Netflix, the world’s largest streaming service, reported that 60 percent of its subscribers worldwide had watched a show or movie in Korean by 2022; the company plans to invest $2.5 billion in South Korean content over the years. next four years).

“We’ve seen a huge demand for international content around the world, and Korean content in particular is a phenomenon in itself,” said Marco Nobili, executive vice president and international general manager of Paramount+, in a video interview. “Globalization has really brought this to light. Without a doubt, Korea was an important market for us.”

Paramount+ entered the scene through a film and television partnership between its parent company, Paramount Global, and South Korean media conglomerate CJ ENM. As part of that deal, Paramount+ and Korean streaming giant TVing, controlled by CJ ENM, committed to co-producing seven original Korean series, of which “Bargain” is the second. The first, “Yonder,” about a man who is reunited with his dead wife, debuted on Paramount+ in April. (Both premiered in South Korea, on television, in October 2022.)

At the same time, Paramount+ has begun building its K-drama library with hit shows from the CJ ENM vaults, including the 2016 procedural “Signal” and a 2017 thriller about a religious cult, “Save Me,” both of which They also arrived in April.

A dark, competitive thread runs through much of this; And just as characters in Korea’s many dystopian offerings must fight to survive, there seems to be a sort of “can you get through this?” contest that occurs between the programs themselves. The premise of “Bargain” is a little more extreme than that of “Squid Game.” Paramount+’s upcoming series “Pyramid Game,” in which a bullied high school girl must become a sniper to survive a brutal game, looks to be another nightmarish blood sport.

For Byun Seungmin, the creator of “Bargain,” the idea of ​​toxic competition is crucial.

“In South Korea, the problem of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer is serious,” Byun said in a video interview last month through an interpreter. “There is a prevailing feeling of defeat: if you are not born with a good education, it is difficult to have a fair chance to achieve something.”

In “Bargain,” you can afford to buy a kidney for your dying father (freshly taken from a captive) or not. Either you run a criminal empire or what’s left of your body is food for the fish. Near the end of the series, as the main female and male characters (played by Jun Jong Seo and Jin Sun Kyu) try to escape the collapsing structure, one tells the other, “If we die here, we die for nothing.” The answer: “People like us always die for nothing.”

“Bargain,” like “The Squid Game,” offers the spectacle of millions in cash literally hanging over those who can get their hands on it. Those images are loaded with meaning, said journalist Elise Hu, whose book “Flawless” is an in-depth examination of South Korea’s burgeoning beauty industry.

“There is this story where body parts are actually fragmented and the organs are sold and then harvested, so that a price can be put on a body,” he said last month in a telephone interview. “It all comes from this moment where South Korea is consuming, where you can buy all the things you want and it’s all money, money, money.”

As Byun said, “The younger generation in Korea now believes that unless the system collapses or a disaster occurs where everyone becomes truly equal, there are no opportunities for the future.”

“Bargain” unfolds in a series of carefully choreographed long takes, in which the camera darts and glides through the rubble, creating the sense that, even in this dog-eat-dog world, everyone’s fate is connected. The shortage of editing made it essential that everyone hit the mark and stayed on the same page.

“It felt like a play, or like I was playing a game of chess or Go,” Jun, the female lead, said through an interpreter. “The series is quite experimental in terms of setting and also structure.”

In recent years, there have been seismic changes and even scandals in South Korean television and film. In 2017, conservative President Park Geun-hye was removed from office and subsequently convicted on charges of bribery, extortion, and abuse of power, including maintaining a government blacklist that denied state funding to thousands of artists deemed hostile to her administration. or insufficiently patriotic. . During Park’s administration, more filmmakers subsequently sought funding and distribution from streaming services, especially Netflix, Hu said.

Now the streaming frontier is wide open and Paramount+ is claiming its right. Nobili, the Paramount+ executive, is particularly excited about the upcoming series “A Bloody Lucky Day,” about a taxi driver and a serial killer, shades of Michael Mann’s hitman-cabbie movie “Collateral.”

In other words, business is promising. But if “Bargain” aims to offer wild entertainment for American audiences (and the promise of big revenue for its American streamer), Byun, its creator, seemed more focused on the culturally specific ways he hopes the series will talk about South Korea. today. He described a country in which birth rates are plummeting and “people tend to avoid communication with others.”

“They express anger about many things, demanding the value of justice,” he continued. The characters in “Bargain,” she added, “reflect the masses of modern South Korea who seem to have lost hope, and even among them there is a rift.”

And yet, where there is a collapse (of a building, of an entertainment industry, of a society), there is also hope for renewal.

“The collapse is not the end but a new beginning,” Byun said. “After going through the collapse, the characters inadvertently have the opportunity to start over in a more primitive era where equality prevails.

“I think this also reflects the psyche of the public, who wants the end of the period they are living in so that a new one can emerge.”

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