You already know Money Heist, or you wouldn’t be here reading about its latest Korean adaptation. The hit series, also known as La Casa de Papel, streamed on Netflix to much fanfare, and gained quite the cult following way before Part 5 wrapped up in December last year. Thank goodness then that there’s something new to look forward to this weekend, in order to fill the empty Berlin-less void in our lives: enter, Money Heist: Korea — Joint Economic Area.
“This will go down as a revolution in the history of crime,” says the show’s tagline, but first of all, insight from the cast and crew at a recent press conference that they’re well aware this one’s a Korean take on the original — and importantly, not an exact copy. The storyline unfolds at a fictitious setting that sees the Korean peninsula “on the verge of unification”, where a band of, perhaps opportunistic, robbers in Hahoe masks use the chaos to plan a heist within the Unified Korea Mint.
Same, same, but different? That’s for you to decide, though Yoo Ji-Tae, who plays the Professor, has this to say: “It is a show with a great fandom, but a great story will be told well in any situation and in any country. Korean content is now so beloved by so many people all around the world, probably because the content creators have such clever ideas and smart approaches, and that was done on this show as well; our own charms and sense of humour were infused into the show.”
With that, consider what’s ahead a quick summary of the key pointers you ought to know about Money Heist: Korea — Joint Economic Area.
1. How is the new series and adaptation specific to Korea, either to the country or its people?
Basically, the setting. The series focuses on a fictional time where Korea is on the “cusp of unification”, that is, a time in the future where both South and North Korea are looking to become one singular country.
“I was a big fan of the original series, and wanted to do a remake for it,” said writer Ryu Yong-jae. “From a writer’s point of view, it was fascinating that such a flourish of characters can still take control over the audience without losing the tension. Coincidently, a producer suggested a remake around then, so I just took it as a destiny.”
“I saw the possibility to take further layers of suspicion, conflict, and harmony between the South and the North to work, so I took the offer and started planning,” he continued.
For Director Kim Hong-sun, he, similarly, found the characters from the original La Casa de Papel intriguing as well, “each with their own personalities and charms”. “I knew that the characters would be intriguing whenever and wherever they would be placed in. I thought if we translate the background and characters, we can birth something novel.”
“Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area takes the original Spanish composition, but has an accurate Korean-ised sensibility. The episodes that occur in between are similar to the original, but how they initiate and end are different, and the characters are more Korean-ised,” he added.
2. What is the ‘Joint Economic Area’ and why is this important in the show?
Both the director and writer of the series referred to the Joint Economic Area as a fictional space that the showrunners dreamt up, set, perhaps somewhere in the future or in their imaginations.
Following the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945, and soon to be unified in 2026, the two Koreas have set up a virtual ‘Joint Economic Area’ that guarantees free travel and economic activity in the demilitarised zone. “We assumed that there is an island the size of Yeouido in the Demilitarized Zone in Gaesong, Paju, and Munsan to build a city on it,” said director Kim.
It’s also where we’ll find the Unified Korea Mint (UKM), which is where the government is printing out a common currency. How much to be exact? 4 trillion won, or a whopping 4.2 billion in Singapore dollars.
3. What are some key plot points to note, and what do the showrunners hope to convey?
Now, this one’s not a spoiler, especially if you’ve watched the original Spanish series. Similar to it, the show starts off with our motley gang, led by the Professor, who occupy the Mint in order to print money.
But that’s where the two shows diverge — here, we’re looking at “the chaos just before the unification”. Added writer Ryu: “What if a currency reform takes place by common currency, and its Mint stands on the military demarcation line where the JSA used to be? What if the robbers of the two Koreas team up to rob the place, and the police of the two Koreas join forces to stop them?”
From Director Kim, we had a better sense of the overall vision he wanted to convey through the adaptation — and this one’s something that holds much meaning for him. “It had to be convincing, feel realistic. That was the part I put the most effort in,” he started.
“I thought deeply about it, maybe the inter-Korean relationship can be put into a future setting, a fictitious city created for the show. The North and South Korea situation is something I want to depict, and if this happens, how would it happen? I wanted to infuse a sense of hope as well.”
4. What is the significance of the Hahoe mask?
This might be the first difference we all noticed for the series, which swaps out the Dali robber mask, to something more culturally appropriate: a Korean trademark, the Hahoe mask.
Park Hae-soo, who plays Berlin, and also known for playing the smart Cho Sang-woo in Squid Game, had this to say: “This is a mask that’s sending a message. In Korea, the Hahoe mask has some significance to it; it embodies criticism of the powerful, while there’s a sense of humour in it as well. When the mask was first brought to me, I was able to feel the sense of overwhelming power when it was worn by everyone in the cast.”
Smiling, but perhaps more sinister or even duplicitous than one would think, the mask’s multi-layered meaning was also picked up on by Lee Kyu-ho, who plays Oslo. “It felt like a delicate masterpiece of all human feelings: joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure.”
5. Are there any new characters, or character changes to know about?
From the cast interviews, it seems like most of the Korean characters retain the charms of the original. Yoo Ji-tae, who plays the Professor, noted his character as a “pure genius strategist”, and a man of conviction as he vows not to hurt or injure people even while committing a crime. The role of the female negotiator from the police force, now called Seon Woojin, is played by actress Kim Yunjin, who described her as a “top professional making fast decisions with a superb brain”.
Still, writer Ryu is set on making the characters make sense in this new Korean setting. “New characters were added in that process, and over conversation with the cast members, the characters were reinvented to feel more Korean,” he said. “I wanted the story to be the gang’s desperate findings for survival.”
He noted that the new Berlin, in particular, differed from Pedro Alonso’s version, both in background and motivations. “We wanted our Berlin to be someone who have joined the gang with no reason to live but end up finding one. I also wanted suspicion, conflict, trust and cooperation to unfold within the team, since there’s an inter-Korean setting.”
For more context on the character’s demeanour, Park Hae-soo shared that Berlin “is a man of control” and morally grey, like the original, and looks like a distinguished gentleman who “speaks with a Pyongyang accent, the standard North Korean”. He’s also en escaped prisoner of North Korea’s Gaechon concentration camp, while bearing a striking contrast of character that made Berlin so intriguing in the original. Said Park: “While he treats people harshly, his language is kind and makes him look like a gentleman.”
The story also sees Denver and Nairobi as a known bank robber and counterfeit fraudster, respectively, while Tokyo is a disillusioned North Korean escapee who once dreamed of living the ‘Korean dream’, “only to taste the bitterness of capitalism”. Could this, like many other acclaimed Korean movies and dramas, be a sharp commentary on Korean society and capitalism? You’ll just have to watch and find out.
MONEY HEIST: KOREA – JOINT ECONOMIC AREA, OUT ON NETFLIX FROM FRIDAY, 24 june 2022.