‘Bargain’: inside the craziest K-drama of the year

Blood and guts splatter the screen in this dark-as-hell thriller series that's being compared to 'Squid Game'

Everything is not as it seems in Bargain. One of 2023’s darkest Korean dramas – and the one that seems most poised to be the next Squid Game – begins with a simple, if unscrupulous transaction. High school student Joo-young (played by Jun Jong-seo) meets middle-aged man Hyung-soo (Jin Sun-kyu) in a motel room where she plans to sell him her virginity for $1000. But, as the minutes tick by, layers of lies and deception are unravelled until Hyung-soo is strapped to a board, blindfolded and gagged, while a gaggle of onlookers bid over his organs. The auction withstands fights and underhandedness, but can’t stand up against an almighty earthquake that causes the building to collapse on itself.

“All the characters in the series are rogues and villains,” director Jeon Woo-sung tells NME over Zoom from Seoul. “I wanted to make the earthquake a punishment for them and I wanted to show how they’d react to this kind of natural disaster.”

“All the characters are rogues and villains”
Writer-director Jeon Woo-sung

Bargain is an expansion of the 2015 short film of the same name, which was directed by Lee Chung-hyun and won awards at South Korea’s Mise-en-scène Short Film Festival and Busan International Short Film Festival (among others) in 2016. Jeon was also involved in that more concise piece, helping Lee construct what would become the foundations of this new series. “When we were developing the film, we never thought we could make it into a longer series,” he smiles. “We thought it was complete as it was.” It wasn’t until a studio approached Jeon to build on what he and Lee had created that he first considered there might be more to say.

The studio was right – Bargain is a thrilling watch that thrusts you into an unpredictable and unmissable tale of desperation, morality and the darkest side of humanity. Earlier this year, it became the first Korean drama to win something at the annual Canneseries festival and, as it arrives on global screens, seems destined for even more acclaim yet.

That response isn’t one Jeon was necessarily expecting prior to it airing in Korea last year. “Before it was released, I thought there would be both haters and lovers of this series – I thought maybe 40 per cent of the audience would love it,” he laughs. At first, it seemed like he might be right – ahead of its premiere at the Busan International Film Festival, he received “a lot of [negative] opinions and comments” about the show. After viewers had been immersed in its darkness, though, things changed dramatically. Here, Jeon takes us into the twisted world of Bargain.

Customers bid for the right to Hyung-soo’s organs. CREDIT: Paramount

Bargain is full of complex baddies

When you first tune in, you’ll notice there’s not a single character you’re really rooting for in Bargain. Everyone is a villain – lying, cheating and tricking their way through immoral activities, seemingly just so they can get ahead in life. With the groundwork done by the short film version of the story, Jeon says that’s how he had to start things off – but it wasn’t how he wanted to leave things.

“I wanted to make [the characters] resonate with the audience more while still being villains,” he says. That decision was behind adding a third main character to the plot, with Keuk-ryul – a man desperately trying to buy a kidney to save his sick father – joining Joo-young and Hyung-soo in their fight to escape the ruined motel after the earthquake. “Some people might think that he’s not as bad as the others because he actually had to get an organ for his father but, still, he is a villain as well.”

The director’s vision for Hyung-soo also saw his story change from the short film, in which he has a slightly different fate. “In this longer version, I actually wanted to make him look cute so that the audience would love him and bear with him until the end,” he laughs. “I put some background story for Joo-young in as well to help the audience understand her better. I wanted to make these villains more interesting and for the audience to feel a little bit compassionate towards them as well.”

The ruined motel has deeper meaning. CREDIT: Paramount

The motel building is a symbol of capitalism

Bargain is centred around the action in a motel building in Gapyeong, a small town an hour outside of Seoul. It’s where Joo-young and Hyung-soo meet for their grim transaction, where a gathering of people battle to spend hundreds of thousands for illegally harvested organs and where, crucially, everyone gets trapped when the earthquake hits. The motel isn’t just a motel, though, but a symbol of the system that runs our world.

“The building is a metaphor for capitalism,” Jeon explains. “To be more specific, I actually wanted to use it as a metaphor of the so-called ‘evil’ capitalism in Korean society. There’s the patriarchy and other factors [affecting] Korea.”

That the director had already been given the concept of the motel collapsing by the studio that approached him to develop Bargain into a series lent itself well to the allegory. “It was already decided that the building would be destroyed, so I thought I [could use that to reflect] that, overall, capitalism is [also] on the verge.”

Squid Game
Who will escape the hotel in the end? CREDIT: Paramount

Reminded of Squid Game? There’s a reason for that

In 2021, Squid Game accelerated the already rapidly growing interest in K-dramas around the world with its dystopian, blood-soaked take on traditional Korean children’s games, killing off down-on-their-luck contestants vying for a life-changing jackpot. While Bargain’s concept is very different – you certainly won’t find any gigantic dolls in this series – it does bear some similarities. Think the vicious way in which the characters show little regard for the lives around them, the gore at the heart of the show and, of course, shared critiques on our capitalist world.

Put those comparisons to Jeon and he will chuckle. “It’s really interesting for me to see people talking about Squid Game and comparing it to Bargain,” he says. “I actually didn’t think of it while we were developing this series.”

That might be the case, but he doesn’t deny that the similarities are there – an occurrence he thinks has come about thanks to some common concerns in the minds of those in the Korean film and TV industry right now. “I think all Korean filmmakers are thinking about capitalism and how, in Korean society, no one actually backs you up and you have to survive by yourself,” he says. “I think that’s the perspective all the filmmakers have in their minds and that’s why there’s that similarity. And, of course, we had to put this story and this perspective into an entertaining genre, which was tough to do.”

Keuk Ryul attempts to buy a new kidney for his dying father. CREDIT: Paramount

It was inspired by films like Birdman and 1917

One of the many unique things about Bargain is the way it was filmed – in one continuous shot. That technique makes all the gripping action feel even more claustrophobic and alive, not giving the viewers or the characters a moment’s escape from the crumbling rubble of the motel. The decision to use that approach came from Jeon, who had seen award-winning Hollywood blockbusters 1917 and Birdman.

1917 was filmed outside so it was pretty dynamic and it was really hard for me to [match] up to that,” he laments. As for Birdman, he notes that the short film’s director Lee Chung-hyun was also inspired by the “pioneering film” and describes the new series as being “somewhere between” the two movies.

Although the style of filming adds to the darkness of the drama, Jeon found ways to counter-balance that bleakness – namely by injecting shots of “black humour” into the script throughout. “I thought the audience might feel uneasy watching this [story] because toppled-down buildings are so dark and there are so many small and confined spaces,” he explains. “That’s why I decided to put some black humour in and I was confident that it wouldn’t disturb the whole storyline, but make our audience feel refreshed.”

The first scene in ‘Bargain’ episdoe one. CREDIT: Paramount

Season two could be on the way

It’s only in the last few years that K-dramas have started to run across multiple seasons, previously being limited to just one-off series. Bargain could be the next programme out of Korea to get a second instalment – although nothing is definite just yet.

“If you finish watching the show, you’ll see there are some [clues] that implie the possibility of a second season,” Jeon smiles. “I’m currently talking with producers [about things like] if we develop a second season, how are we going to make it? We haven’t decided anything yet, but we are talking about many things.”

While the director notes this current lack of resolution makes it hard for him to share any concrete news on what to expect from any further episodes, he does divulge one of his hopes for the storyline in the future. “I personally think that in the second season, our characters would go outside [of the motel] and the series would [become] more dynamic,” he says.

Getting Bargain to the point of being a binge-watchable first season that leaves you wanting more of its ruthless drama wasn’t always easy for Jeon, especially compared to his experience working on the short film. “It’s really important for us to put cliffhangers in every part of the series in order to hook people in,” he acknowledges. “It was challenging for me to put narrative arcs in each part, but I tried my best.”

‘Bargain’ is available to stream on Paramount+ from October 5

More Stories: