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Like ‘Squid Game,’ ‘Bargain’ trades on the life-is-cheap edge of South Korean drama

Jeon Jong-Seo and Jin Sun-kyu in
TVING Co/Paramount+
Jeon Jong-Seo and Jin Sun-kyu in "Bargain," a South Korean drama premiering on Paramount+.

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — The unexpected success of “Squid Game” gave a green light to bringing more South Korean dramas to the US, with Paramount establishing a partnership with Seoul-based CJ ENM to do so. The latest fruit of that relationship, “Bargain,” isn’t as compulsively watchable as “Squid Game” but echoes it in one key respect, darkly reflecting a society where life is cheap, and the class divide can be fatal.

In that sense, both shows have something in common with other high-profile South Korean productions, among them the Oscar-winning film “Parasite,” in which a family of struggling grifters preyed upon and manipulated a wealthy one.

As NPR reported when “Squid Game” took off, this strain of drama had its roots in an economic crisis South Korea experienced in the late 1990s that devastated its middle class. If there’s a common theme to all of these, it’s desperation and the lengths to which one will go to survive, even if that comes at the expense of others.

Like “Squid Game” – which Netflix will soon exploit further with a game show inspired by the series – “Bargain” takes that question to unsettling extremes, with an extra twist of distastefulness for good measure. The story begins in a hotel room, where Hyung-soo (Jin Sun-kyu) has come to meet Joo-young (Jun Jong-seo, delivering a standout performance) for an arranged paid sexual encounter. Having gone to a remote location, Hyung-soo peppers the young woman with questions about her age and virginity.

He’s right to be suspicious, but it’s in the wrong ways, since Joo-young is part of an elaborate ring that lures men to the hotel, then drugs them and auctions off their organs. Yet before Hyung-soo can be reduced to eyes, kidneys and other vital organs, what appears to be a devastating earthquake strikes, seriously damaging the facility and throwing everything into chaos, as those trapped inside must suddenly forge alliances – some quite unexpected and awkward – in hopes of getting out.

As if that weren’t enough (and frankly, it is, since the story gradually begins to fly off the rails after the strong start), much of the action unfolds in the form of long, continuous tracking shots, fueling the sensation of anarchy and confusion. Along the way, crumbs dribble out about how various characters wound up in this predicament, with the disclaimer Joo-young has already shown herself to be an accomplished liar in terms of taking her at her word.

Adapted from a 2015 short film, “Bargain” begins to take too many strange and unnecessary detours, but it’s still oddly compelling and grimly humorous. At the very least, you’re unlikely to see much that’s like it, in ways both good and bad.

One of the blessings of streaming has been expanded shelf space for programming produced all over the globe, acquired as much for financial reasons – it’s generally less expensive than homegrown fare – as an effort to broaden cultural horizons. Yet as “Squid Game” demonstrated, there’s increasingly an audience that won’t be scared away by subtitles, as they once might have been, if the story delivers.

“Bargain” isn’t perfect, but it is interesting and wildly unpredictable, while further highlighting the intriguing work coming out of South Korea. For those who got caught up in “Squid Game,” the six-episode commitment isn’t a bad bargain.

“Bargain” premieres October 5 on Paramount+.

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