Bargain marks another step forward for Korean television, the likes of which has already skyrocketed in the past few years thanks to Squid Game and Netflix’s endless other K-offerings (while certainly not monolithic, “K-Drama” is its own genre category on the streamer). Like other zeitgeisty shows, Bargain is bloody and brutal with a sick sense of satire, involving a series of twists and turns that threaten to unravel at times, but it also brings some exciting techniques to the table.
The story, which escalates over the course of six sub-40 minute episodes, revolves around a remote, seedy hotel. A man named Noh who may or may not have connections to the police (Jin Sun-Kyu) enters the room, expecting a fun time with Joo Young (Jeon Jong-Seo). Instead, Noh is looped into a massive underground organ trafficking scheme, his body put on the auction block for the highest bidder (or most desperate, as is the case of Chang Ryul’s character, the Good Son). But right as the first kidney is about to be sold, an earthquake rocks and ruins the building. Corpses litter the ground, a frantic criminal clean-up begins, and chaos erupts.
Bargain’s underworld soon becomes its primary setting, as this main trio falls or gets shoved down a massive hole that sends them plummeting straight into the hotel’s chop shop basement. From there, it’s a bit like a video game: they must find a way to ascend each floor and reach the top, facing off against whatever big bads a given level holds. There are murderous meat grinders, murderous patrons, murderous usurpers determined to find the mysterious boss’ stash of cash… you get the picture.
The plot has the potential to get repetitive (and it does in the latter half of the six episodes), but the show’s expert camerawork keeps it from getting stagnant. As in films like Birdman or 1917, Bargain employs techniques that make the series look as though it were all one take. There’s no clear and obvious cutting during the first episode, when Noh and Joo Young’s tete-a-tete escalates just enough to let the viewer know something is decidedly off. Joo Young takes the audience on a tour through the winding hotel, popping open secret doors and revealing hidden secrets. The camera deftly follows her, carefully revealing the series’ many mysteries without bogging the proceedings down.
The feat only becomes more impressive once the action starts to kick in. Fight scenes are timed perfectly with falling rubble; characters hiding in the background make one move and become the most important figure on screen; several different sets are painstakingly traversed in real time to keep things moving. To do that across six episodes—amounting to about three and a half hours—is no small success.
However, the story doesn’t reach the same heights as the visuals. Without giving anything away, Bargain is the kind of show that wants to thrive off twists (wants being the operative word). But after a while, the shocking reveals and snowballing lies begin to bleed into each other, making both the plot and the characters difficult to follow. There isn’t much growth or change, just constant betrayals and re-teamings, and there are only so many times one character can almost murder another one before it gets old. The show certainly throws a lot at the audience to raise the stakes—a secret $7 million! newly minted bounty hunters! GPS trackers!—but it’s more confusing than anything. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach doesn’t work for the miniseries, especially in its odd and unnecessary final twist that proceeds into the credits.
Bargain has plenty to say about the state of society, critiquing everything from class to religion, but its messaging doesn’t fully deliver. The series is at its best when steeped in tense action, but it falters elsewhere.
All six episodes of Bargain are available to stream now.