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Meet the new crew: ‘Money Heist’ shifts to Korea

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 25, 2022 5:00 am

SEOUL, South Korea — Let’s face it, Korea is a perfect backdrop for a remake of Money Heist. The 2017 Spanish series on Netflix had everything: red jumpsuits, masks, romance, sex, betrayal and human emotions revolving around the biggest heist ever, orchestrated by a brilliant professor with a plan.

One way to amp it up even more: set it in 2025, on the North-South Korean border, where the two divided factions are about to become a reunited economic force. Then unfold a mind-boggling heist at a fictitious Unified Korea Mint — a huge money-printing facility located right on the border.

What could possibly go wrong?

Cast members of Money Heist Korea: Joint Economic Area Yoo Ji-tae, Kim Yunjin, Park Hae-soo, Jun Jong-seo, Lee Won-jong, Park Myung-hoon, Kim Seung-o, Kim Ji-hun, Jang Yoon-ju, Lee Joobeen, Lee Hyun-woo, Kim Ji-hoon and Lee Kyu-ho gather at Intercontinental Seoul COEX stage.

The result is Money Heist Korea: Joint Economic Area, a high-stakes remake that goes even further — adding a Korean backdrop and introducing all kinds of new layers, including the cultural Hahoe mask replacing the Dali mask from the Spanish version.

We met the cast members of the twisty tale of desperate no-hopers, drawn by a charismatic “Professor” into playing out the ultimate heist, on a stage in Seoul’s Intercontinental COEX: a perfect setting for a media “immersion event” that was big by even Netflix standards. Cast members Yoo Ji-tae (“Professor”), Kim Yunjin (police negotiator Seon Woojin), Park Hae-soo (“Berlin”), Jun Jong-seo (“Tokyo”), Lee Won-jong (“Moscow”), Park Myung-hoon (Cho Youngmin), Kim Seung-o (Cha Moohyuk), Kim Ji-hun (“Denver”), Jang Yoon-ju (“Nairobi”), Lee Joobeen (Yun Misun), Lee Hyun-woo (“Rio”), Kim Ji-hoon (“Helsinki”), Lee Kyu-ho (“Oslo”), plus director Kim Hong-sun and writer Ryu Yong-jae took the stage to answer questions, clown around, and engage in an influencer “meet and greet” where they picked red ball “fan wishes” from a plastic box — fun challenges, like answering “Who Would Be Arrested First in a Heist?” and reciting chosen phrases in Tagalog, Indonesian and Malaysian, and even playing “Make a Mask Face” for the cameras.

Who wants to take home 4 trillion won? Counterfeit bills rain down at Money Heist event.

This was a very immersive event for both Netflix and for South Korea, a place where fan interaction isn’t always this up-close and personal. Media influencers got to hang and do selfies onstage with the cast after the Q&A as a shower of fake “4 trillion won” bills rained down from above. (“Money banknotes are falling from the sky!” announced event moderator Park Kyung-lim. “Please put them into your bags! Please stand up and enjoy the shower of banknotes!”) It continued with a visit to the “Activation Zone” set up along the banks of the Han River where a massive LED screen and a huge red-jumpsuited robber were a perfect backdrop for selfies and costumed TikTokers staging their own heist reenactments. Then there was a red carpet walk-and-talk from the cast at LOTTE Cinema World Tower just before the 600-seat screening unfolded, where we learned that Ji-hun (“Denver”) and Yoon-ju (master con artist “Nairobi,” dressed in a slinky gown) are actually the show’s biggest thieves — stealing the stage with fashion struts. But what really came across is that this crew of disparate Korean actors from different backgrounds and different generations make a great team in the new Money Heist — and onstage, as well.

Park Hae-soo explains the North South divide as Yoo Ti-jae and Kim Yunjin look on.

Catch a K-Wave

Director Kim Hong-sun acknowledged that Squid Game has paved the way for this ambitious remake. “Because of the big success of Squid Game, I think, we are here. Thanks to that success on Netflix, the (Korean) followers have an easier path forward. And I hope that viewers worldwide will find Money Heist: Korea runs neck and neck with Squid Game.

It’s true the K-wave has opened doors here for local productions hitting global audiences. Kim Yunjin, whom many will remember as Sun on the TV series Lost, was drawn back to her native country to find work, and found the K-content invigorating. “Sitting here today feels like a dream to me. Nowadays, K-content is drawing a lot of attention worldwide. We can film everything in Korean, with Korean actors, directors and writers — and it can be streamed worldwide. So it is an amazing feeling to be a part of this journey. I hope it continues so more actors and creators can be introduced to the world stage.”

Lee Hyun-woo, Jang Yoon-ju and Kim Seung-o make faces for fans.

Yunjin has the most chemistry with her opposite number, the Professor (played by Ji-tae from Oldboy). It’s a cat-and-mouse game with extra conflicts — and even some similarities. “As a taskforce negotiator, Woojin looks into the robbers’ weaknesses to resolve the situation. But she and the Professor actually have something in common: they do not want to harm anybody. Woojin doesn’t go for armed intervention; she wants to address the situation peacefully.”

The North and South Korea situation was something I wanted to depict in the show. I thought, if we were on the cusp of reunification, what would happen?

Ji-tae says playing this mysterious lead is different for him: “I’ve played villains many times, but this is the first time playing a strategist who at the same time is thinking no one should get hurt. He’s positioned in his own headquarters, looking at the overall situation, directing the whole situation, explaining everything to the crew and the audience as well.”

Netflix screened episodes 1 and 2 for fans and cast at LOTTE Cinema Tower.

One layer the new version adds is the Hahoe mask. It evokes different things for different actors. Park Hae-soo, who plays the cold-hearted Berlin, was reflective about it: “It sends a lot of messages in the show. In Spain, the Dali mask was used to send the message of freedom, and in Korea, the Hahoe mask has a different significance to it: it embodies criticism of the powerful, and it has a sense of humor as well. And when I first wore the mask during shooting, I actually felt this sense of overwhelming power, when the mask was worn by every member of the cast.”

Jun Jong-seo plays young North Korean defector and heist member Tokyo: “I was really intrigued because it is not a plain-looking mask, it has this big smile on it, and at the same time sends a sense of mystery as well. So it has this multi-layered meaning to it.”

Suit up: The Hahoe masks are one local layer to Netflix’s Money Heist: Korea.

Rounding out the Gen-Z side is singer/actor Lee Hyun-woo, playing heist hacker Rio: When you put on the Hahoe, people can’t see your facial expressions, so wearing it I got a little more confident; I could act a little more boldly behind the mask. And together with the red jumpsuit, it gives this kind of uniformity and camaraderie.”

Korean Vibe

Director Hong-sun was dead-set on using the North-South Korea conflict as a backdrop for this remake. It adds another layer of tension: “The North and South Korea situation was something I wanted to depict in the show. I thought about putting it into a near-future time setting, so the ‘Joint Economic Area,’ a fictitious city, was created, and the Unified Korea Mint. I thought, if we were on the cusp of reunification, what would happen? I wanted to infuse that kind of tension, and a sense of hope into the show as well.”

Park Myung-hoon (yup, that guy from the cellar in Parasite) as Cho Youngmin

Hae-soo felt this conflict seep into his character — his heist name, Berlin, even echoes a “divided” city. “I think my character actually embodies the pain and sorrow that the two Koreas are experiencing. That’s how I interpreted Berlin’s character. He was serving in a forced labor camp in North Korea for a long time and he escaped, and within the confined space of the Mint, he is using different methods to control the hostages there — and he is a cold-hearted person.”

As you’d expect, there was a lot of bonding and teaming up on the show.

Lee Won-jong and Kim Ji-hun, who play father-son team Moscow and Denver, felt it most. “The most difficult action scenes were played by my son in the show, Denver, like when he was rescued from the wall during an explosion,” says Won-jong. “And in that moment, I was really holding onto him tightly because I didn’t want him to get hurt. I kind of felt this fatherly love towards Ji-hun naturally.”

Jun Jong-seo brings a Gen-Z vibe as Tokyo.

Ji-hun agreed. “I’ve acted as a son many times, but he was a dad that really cared for me like I was his real son. I could really feel that love. So I could open up to him really fast, and he was a dad that really pulled at my heartstrings.” Won-jong says until now, Ji-hun stills calls him “Dad.”

Chemistry is important for these characters. Our hostess Kyung-lim asked the cast who had the most of it on-set. Park Myung-hoon, who plays the cowardly chief of the Mint (you might recall him from Parasite as the crazy guy in the basement), has no illusions about his character’s loyalties: “I don’t have chemistry with anyone because I’m a selfish opportunist and I sacrifice other people for myself. So I’m a lone wolf. I just want to get out of this place all by myself, so I have chemistry with myself.”

Author Scott Garceau mugs it up at Money Heist: Korea Activation Zone on Han River.

Jang Yoon-ju, who seems to enjoy herself immensely on the show and on the stage, plays the question for laughs — but with a teaser. “In Part 1, my character Nairobi has the best chemistry with money! But I do have chemistry with someone in Part 2, so please stay tuned!” 

Kyung-lim then asked all the cast members to point a finger at the person onstage who is the most similar to his or her character: “Please note, everybody is pointing at Nairobi! And Myung-hoon! The two of you, please stand up. Please feel the vibe!”

We’re feeling it.

* * *

Stay tuned to Netflix as Money Heist Korea: Joint Economic Area drops Part 1 of the first season with six episodes. Part 2 airs this December.