Liar Game (Korea): Episodes 1-2 Thoughts

As you might know from my previous review of the Japanese Liar Game series, I'm an intense fan of the original series, which is probably in my top 5 all-time dramas list. I've read the manga as well, but my first exposure was the dorama, and honestly it's about as close to perfect as a TV show can get. I'm not talking just the story, which is itself clever and balanced with suspense and human complexity, but also just the entire atmosphere of watching - something dark, charged, almost hypnotically appealing in exactly the right beats. Not to mention, I could watch Matsuda Shota's Akiyama just sit around and still feel satisfied, as he was the perfect mix of brilliantly understated acting from a gorgeous actor playing a terrifically written character.

Rave aside, I went in knowing it'd be highly unlikely for the Korean version to be able to top this, though I'd hoped for it to at least match up in creating a unique viewing experience. My thoughts so far are that while the Kdrama is completely watchable, there's also some major flaws and discrepancies from the original content that keep me from feeling convinced of the drama's world, and thus from feeling in love with the show. Not to say that Liar Game in itself is a very believable plot, but at least the J-drama managed to create what felt like a complete and rich context, and to consequently make you believe that such a premise could potentially exist. This version, however, is just a bit sloppy and overcomplicated, which leaves me disappointed.

My first question for the show is why would you purposely complicate such a wondrously simple and effective premise with the TV game show gimmick? Seriously, WHY? It feels so wrenched in and unnatural, and frankly takes away a lot of the character motivations that are meant to drive the underlying Liar Game.

For those not familiar with the original, Liar Game is held by an underground organization that mysteriously selects and pits players against each other, not for the amusement of public audiences, but for some unknown fundamental exploration of the human psyche by its rich donors. Because of the high secrecy of the entire organization, the game is able to exert a level of pressure and fear on its players that serves as a convincing motivation for why individuals would behave as they do on the game. Not to mention, the games are usually designed to result in a net zero for the Liar Game Organization - e.g., for round 1, one player will win 500K but the other player will face a 500K loss to fund the first player's winnings, which gives them each the incentive to try as hard as possible to win and avoid life-destructive debt status.

Here, by making this into a public game with essentially zero loss potential for the players, the entire premise is defanged. It now makes no sense why our heroine Nam Da Jung (Nao in the original) would be so desperate and teary at the prospect of losing to her former teacher. Nao is someone of undeniable selflessness and complete forgiveness of others, so when the game is now only about winning money and not losing money, there's no explanation of her behavior that is consistent with her character. Yeah, sure she might want to use the money to get her dad back, but it's also not like she'd be any worse off if she didn't win the money.

Basically, I don't get what's driving her to seek out a former convict teammate. Unless there's some other hidden penalty in the not-well-explained long contract, I got the sense that the only true loser is the TV station (which again makes zero sense in that this show would be impossible to fund and support). And just to add, who wouldn't have given the old teacher money when you throw in a gangster beat-down and threat of organ selling in front of his son and wife?

You can also see the show try to squish in random scenes on why the TV station is facing this dilemma and how Liar Game plays into their masterplan. But it's pretty ham-handed, because at the end of the day you're a profit-and-loss driven, highly public business entity, and there is no reason in a rational world for why you would choose to fund and support a game that's both morally ambiguous and a HUGE financial drain (since now you're shouldering all the losses and wins). I'm even less a fan of Shin Sung-Rok's very unnecessary character Kang Do Young, who's the stereotypical drama rich guy with "mysterious" ambitions.

Delving into the characters themselves, I'm left confused by what the show is trying to make of them. As mentioned, Da Jung's motivations here are completely mixed up, and in fact the show seems unsure of whether it's trying to make her a normal person or to preserve her inhuman goodness. On the one hand, I think the producers recognized the criticism of the original character as almost stupidly good (I personally didn't mind), but on the other there's the fact that her unnatural innocence is what attracted Akiyama to work with her and is what makes them such a force together. If you instead transform her into more of an every girl, she might be more relatable, but you also undermine the complementarity of their partnership as well as the whole point of Nao to the plot, which is that her honesty manages to break the tenets of the game. Aside from the characterization issues, I'm satisfied with Kim So Eun in the role. She has the right look and despite a tendency to play things too cutesy, she's convincing so far.

Moving on to the contentious Korean Akiyama, Cha Woo Jin. Yeah, there's no comparison with Shota. The divide is so large that I can't even fathom what the producers were thinking when they cast Lee Sang Yoon. First of all, it's a huge pet peeve of mine when an actor or actress is cast to play a character that is far different from their real age. Akiyama is 28, while Lee Sang Yoon is 34, and not just that, but he looks his full 34. At the very least you should change the character's age to better fit the actor, but here they went the lazy route and kept all original character attributes the same. It was all I could do to not scoff when Do Young does his interview and points out that Woo Jin's "only 28."

Next, there's the undeniable gulf in charisma between what Woo Jin is meant to be and what Sang Yoon is actually capable of portraying. He's fine when he's playing the expressionless and soft-spoken scenes, but the moment you ask him to reach beyond and imbue some level of emotion he completely loses the character. All of the shouty moments, and even the comeuppance scene at the end of episode 2 reflect that. Sang Yoon's clearly an actor who's more into playing out big moments and obvious emotions, but Akiyama is a character that's all about subtlety - we never know what he's really thinking, even when he's somewhat expressive. The lack of balance here is distracting, and is my main criticism with the choice of actor. And not to mention, I've always seen Akiyama as a pretty-boy (the manga alludes to that, and Shota definitely was), so it takes me aback to see Akiyama here as more of a rugged older man. I could forgive that if the acting were at least convincing, but both are clearly off here.

Finally, Do Young. I'm still wondering what's the point of his character, and why did we need to have him? Yes, we always had a game host, but that host was a backdrop, and never meant to be a central lead. Sorry for being a purist, but this is Akiyama and Nao's journey, not some threesome bundle. Even worse, Do Young is so far a one-dimensional bore of a character. I can see what they were aiming for (the mysterious and suave central mastermind), but it's not working for me, and all I see is the same Shin Sung Rok that walked off the sets of You From Another Star and Trot Lovers to play another quirky villain/ rich man boss.

In fact, I'm not a fan of any of the added characters in this version. The lady host and policeman in the original felt pointless enough, and now we've added the host, the absurdly young PD, the grumpy TV station manager, and the random debt collector ahjusshi. None of them are particularly compelling so far, and are doing nothing but eating away at screentime that would be better spent on the game and on our two leads.

And yes, there is the rather awkwardly inserted, much more forceful romance building here. I'll admit that it doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would, because the two leads have fair chemistry and I've always seen Akiyama and Nao as two sides of the same coin - pretty much as complementary and meant to be as any two fictional characters that have existed. But I take issue with how in-your-face and obvious the scenes have been. While there's always been hints of the potential for more in both the dorama and manga, there's also something almost sacrilegious about how these two never cross the line, tread it though they may. Here, we're two episodes in and we've had two almost-kiss fake-outs, five wrist-grabs, and three "she's mine" declarations complete with shoulder grabs. Really? I blame this sort of thing on both a director and actor (Sang Yoon again) that don't take well to keeping things between the lines rather than overt.

The good news is that at least the rest of the games are more conducive to the TV show setting, because generally they take place in a confined space for a set amount of time. None of this stalkerish camera-crew jostling to deal with. And overall, I am satisfied with how the drama looks (clearly decent budget) even if the soundtrack is an unimpressive knock-off of the original and the pacing is at times bore-inducingly slow. I've given up on finding Sang Yoon an adequate Akiyama, so I'll just focus on watching for the story and hopeful improvements. Overall despite my gripes, I am enjoying the show and hoping it develops its groove in the coming episodes, which involve far more intriguing lie-based puzzles.


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