Sex, money and body parts: Korean drama Bargain has it all

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Bargain, Paramount+, full series from October 5

We’re 18 minutes into this edgy Korean action drama before we get to the opening titles, 20 minutes in before we have the first clear sense that nothing is as it seems, and 23 minutes before the real situation reveals itself.

And that, the first twist of many, is this: the sleazy bloke (Jin Seon-Kyu) who imagined he had checked into a room in a remote hotel to pay for sex with an 18-year-old virgin (Jeon Jong-Seo) has in fact been lured there to have his organs harvested by a crime syndicate.

Jeon Jong-Seo as Park Joo Young, a schoolgirl (or is she?) turned sex worker (maybe) with a line in organ harvesting (definitely) in Bargain.Credit: Paramount+

And then, at the 36-minute mark, as the first of six episodes ends, the ground shifts yet again, as the building is wracked by an earthquake, a hole opens in the floor, and various characters plunge to whatever new and twisted fate awaits them.

Remarkably, all this happens without a single visible edit. Each episode follows the same single-take model, though on closer inspection I’d wager there are some sly cuts lurking in the shadows.

Bargain is smart, savvy, adrenaline-pumping filmmaking and it’s utterly enthralling. It has some of the narrative structure of a computer game, as the characters navigate their way through a maze of collapsed concrete, and sometimes get bumped back down a few levels by falling (or being pushed) through that gaping hole in the floor, dropping to – and, if they’re lucky, emerging from – a pool of water in the basement.

It has that peculiarly South Korean concern with how people behave when pushed to the limit in a society that seems to favour only personal advancement, whatever the cost. It is utterly nihilistic, with just the occasional glimpse of hope and human decency to make you think some good may yet emerge from the wreckage.

Adapted from a short film of the same name released in 2015, Bargain expands from the interaction between a man and a schoolgirl as they bargain over sex into something that starts with that premise and runs in myriad directions. No situation is quite as it seems, no character’s explanation of themselves or their motives can be trusted, the power dynamics are continually evolving and shifting.

At its core, the show is about the way people adapt and bargain in order to thrive and, in extreme circumstances, to merely survive. There are echoes of Squid Game and Parasite and Snowpiercer and Burning here; if you’ve seen more film and TV from South Korea than I have, you’ll probably see echoes of many others besides.

Park Hyung-Soo as Hee-Sook stares into the abyss.Credit: Paramount+

But for all that it seems to fit within an emerging body of work from one of the most exciting screen industries on the planet, Bargain is also very much its own thing. It’s fresh, exhilarating, twisted and has lots to say, though not much of it is comforting.

If it is to your liking (because of or despite all that), make sure you stick around after the final credits roll. There’s a coda that brilliantly sets up what lies in store in the second season that seems as inevitable as the fact that theb sleazy bloke at the beginning is going to get screwed in a way he really hadn’t bargained for.

Contact the author at [email protected], follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin, and read more of his work here.

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