Liar Game from tvN is totally different from the Japanese drama, and I think it’s a good thing. It’s made a few pivotal changes to the characters and the story, while still keeping the bare bones of the story the same: the innocent girl is sucked into a game of deception and greed, and her first target is her former school teacher.
The drama starts out quite differently from the original. We are first introduced to Ha Woo Jin (Lee Sang Yoon), a psychology professor who is like a mix of Sherlock and Dr. Cal Lightman (from the American show Lie to Me). He tells his students to never trust anyone, as lies are told more easily than truths. To test this, he asks his students a series of questions and dares them to tell the truth. Of course, some don’t admit to cheating on tests or having a crush on a classmate so easily, so Woo Jin reads their faces and counts off who’s lying to him.
He leaves his students with their final lesson by proving his point: everyone lies, so never trust anyone. And then he turns his back to the door and raises his hand over his head as the police come barging in to arrest him for murder.
A year later we meet Nam Da Jung (Kim So Eun), a kind-hearted girl with lots of part-time jobs to pay off her father’s debt. Her father has run away, so she’s left alone at home to deal with a loan shark who comes by every day to mooch food off of her and bug her about the money. One day she’s rushing off to somewhere but takes pity on an old woman carrying a heavy luggage who’s in need of directions. At first Da Jung apologizes and hurries off, but guilt sets in and she decides to help the old woman to her destination. Already this is a different version of Kanzaki Nao, as I don’t think Nao would have brushed off an old woman in need of help right away.
Da Jung helps the old woman reach a park that’s really far away while carrying her bag. The old woman asks her to wait as she goes to the bathroom, and Da Jung innocently ends up waiting almost six hours for her to come back. When a friend tells her to just leave the bag at the police station, Da Jung checks the contents for any valuables. Under some clothes is a lot of money. Da Jung freaks out and lugs the bag home, suddenly scared at what this could mean.
We then meet Kang Do Young (Shin Sung Rok), a skilled financial analyst who is now the host of a reality show ‘Liar Game’ for JVN network. Turns out that he came up with the idea of this reality show and recommended that JVN do this to revive its business. Not everyone trusts his idea though, but his show does end up doing really well in its first broadcast. His idea is to get 40 contestants and watch them manipulate each other to win the ultimate grand prize of 10 million dollars after several rounds. Da Jung is just one of his targets.
Da Jung tries to hide the money from the loan shark, Jo Dal Goo (Jo Jae Yeon) but he catches her dragging it out of her house and running to the police station. He stops her from entering and they fight about the money. You can tell the loan shark isn’t completely cruel as he wants her to use the money to pay off her debt and also improve her standard of living. (He also doesn’t push her to repay the debt as hard as his colleague would prefer.) She suddenly gets a call from Liar Game – if she wants the $500K that’s in her hands right now, then she should press 1. Dal Goo presses it for her, and suddenly Do Young appears dressed as a police officer. Cameras come up to her and they begin recording as Do Young welcomes her formally as a contestant to Liar Game.
We encounter Woo Jin again, this time in jail. Though a prisoner he is frequently enlisted by the detectives to help them size up their suspects and see if they’re lying or not. In this instance, he figures out quite quickly that despite the fact that the suspect before him cleared the lie detector test, he really is guilty of kidnapping. While in his cell, he also watches Liar Game because his cellmates are all interested in watching it, and is introduced to Da Jung this way. Do Young masterfully paints Da Jung as an angel, someone who isn’t greedy as the rest of the world when faced with $500,000.
Her image of being an innocent and pure girl also wins her the hearts of viewers all over. She was one of 50 people who were selected for the show, and one of 40 who were voted by the audience to continue through the game. If she plays the first round, which is to deceive her opponent and win $500,000 by any means possible, she will be able to advance through and win the ultimate prize of 10 million dollars. At first Da Jung doesn’t feel confident that she can continue playing this game, but at the sound of $10 million she begins to rethink her instinct to leave the game. Do Young does assure her that she could back out of the game before the first round officially begins, but also opens it up to the public to vote: Should Da Jung leave the game or continue playing?
Da Jung does want to leave the game, but one of the producers of the show, Lee Yoon Joo (Cha Soo Yeon), taunts her with the money. She gets paid to appear on the show too, so shouldn’t Da Jung participate and try to win the prize money? Then she wouldn’t have to go further into debt. Da Jung is insulted that this woman thinks she’s so high and mighty when really they were all just dealt different cards in life. But the chance to clear her debt is still a tempting offer.
After the recording she bumps into her old high school teacher, Hyun Jung Bum. She is reminded of his kindness back in school when he would help pay for her school trip because her parents could not afford it for her. Teacher Hyun informs her that he’s also participating in the game, and that he accumulated quite a bit of debt while supporting his family overseas. He also found out that they’d be going up against each other, which is good because at least they know each other. He suggests that the two of them join forces: he’ll give her the money and lose on purpose, and then she can split the winnings between them exactly in half. Even with $250K they would be able to pay off their sizable debts. But if Da Jung forfeits, both lose out.
Kang Do Young meets with the press about Liar Game, and one of the reporters, Goo Ja Young (Choi Yoon So), is skeptical of Kang’s motives. Though he created the show to help JVN’s lackluster ratings, she feels that he might just want JVN to fail and go out of business. She sees through his ploy of using money for ratings, which is absolutely true. Money makes the world go round, and he proves his point by offering $500K worth in advertising on whichever reporter’s article gets the most hits. It can say anything it wants, as long as it gets the most hits. Of course, immediately all the reporters in the room start typing away, competing with each other to get the money.
Finally the first episode with all the contestants together begins, and Do Young dramatically asks the crowd if Da Jung will show up. Did she really forfeit when she was one of the highest voted contestants on the show? The deadline counts down, and just before the timer runs out Da Jung rushes onstage. It turns out this was all staged though: after much thinking she went to Yoon Joo and said that she would participate. However since most of the public thinks that she’s not going to participate, they decided to play with the audience and make it seem like she made her decision at the very last minute.
On top of that, with Do Young’s prodding, she speaks to the camera and the people that the only reason she decided to participate was so that her father could come home and live with her after saddling her with his debt. Da Jung had thought this speech was unnecessary, but Yoon Joo told her that they need to attract viewers – and it works.
Do Young proceeds to explain the rules: Everyone gets a case of $500,000 and are given seven days to win their opponent’s money. However much they steal is their prize, so they can win up to $500,000 if successful. They were all provided with smartphones that will give them constant updates on their progress in the game, and the cameras are on 24/7 watching their every move. If anyone forfeits while playing the game, he/she will have to return a portion of their prize money. In addition, each contestant is given a unique serial number on their case, so the serial number has to be right for their win to be valid.
As soon as they get their money, Da Jung contacts Teacher Hyun. They plan to go to the bank to leave their money at the safe as soon as the cameras stop rolling on them. For now they head home. Dal Goo is actually excited to help her. He doesn’t want to grab the money for himself but wants her to actually win. He suggests she use an expert to help her win her teacher’s money, someone he knew in prison. (Hint: His initials are HWJ.) But Da Jung doesn’t want to do it his way. She decides to trust Teacher Hyun, as it is the simplest way for her to ensure a win.
Finally at dawn Teacher Hyun drives up to Da Jung’s place and they sneak off to a bank where they can keep their money a safe deposit box. He gives her the key to the box, because she’s supposed to win for them, and then they part ways with Da Jung feeling reassured that everything will work out well. She even decides to go buy an expensive sweater for her father as she anticipates his return.
But then she suddenly gets a text from Liar Game. Her current progress in the game is “Da Jung $0, Teacher Hyun $1 million.” She doesn’t understand – how did he get all the money!? The cameras turn on, suddenly present and in front of her, and the audience gets a live update on how Da Jung reacts to her teacher’s betrayal.
She hurries to the bank and discovers that even with the key she cannot access the safe without the official person on the account present: Teacher Hyun, who has locked himself in his home and ignores all of her pleas outside his gate. All over Korea people watch Da Jung cry at his gate, and the ratings shoot up like crazy.
Dal Goo is still by her side though. While she locks herself up in her home in despair, he’s outside yelling at her to follow his suggestion. They need to talk to his friend Ha Woo Jin, who’s being released the next day.
Somehow on her way she hurts her ankle and sits by the road leading to the prison. Woo Jin passes her and recognizes her from the TV, so he extends a hand out to help her up.
From the get go, this drama is really unique from the original. It’s a remake in the sense that they’ve taken the original source content and presented it differently, giving it a fresh new look for a new audience. I appreciate that while it is relatively the same story (deceiving people for money) and starts out with the same round 1 game (one vs. one with Da Jung against her teacher), this Korean version has given it a different spin that makes it a uniquely Korean drama.
One of the things that struck me was how they changed the characters. First of all, the man behind the mask is visible to all: Do Young does not hide behind a literal mask, but more likely masks his evil side with the face of a suave financial analyst. By giving him a metaphorical mask they have made him more human and also gives him a chance for character growth. He’s no longer someone who is a distant entity to be feared (which is still scary), but one who is now more familiar to audiences and presents himself as someone to be trusted, even though we and the reporter Ja Young think otherwise. They’ve also made Ha Woo Jin/Akiyama older. Instead of being a psychology student, he’s a teacher. Instead of having taken down a pyramid scheme, he seems to have killed someone or caused someone’s death. Instead of being a mental chess player who can think several steps ahead and outwit his opponents, he is a skilled human lie detector who uses others’ actions to determine his next move. I don’t think it was necessary to show him with the kidnapper at the station because I think he proved his skills well enough in the first scene already. The only time that scene might be relevant is if they show him getting out of tight corners during the game because the police favor him.
And finally, I feel that they’ve really changed Da Jung/Kanzaki Nao. She is less innocent and is presented as more of a simple girl who believes in the value of working hard, but is not above human impulses of greed. She is seen first rejecting to help an old lady, which I feel Kanzaki Nao would not have done. Da Jung is also seen sleeping on a bed of cash, dreaming of how she could use that money; Kanzaki Nao does not do that. Then again, Kanzaki Nao is made immediately aware of Liar Game and its evilness while Da Jung is not. Nevertheless, glimpses of greed and sneakiness show that while Da Jung is capable of goodness, she’s not above manipulating people herself. While she hasn’t done anything yet to trick others, I feel that I will have a harder time believing that she is incapable of such trickery than with Kanzaki Nao.
It is also interesting that for Da Jung they give her her father’s debt to deal with, rather than show herself being in debt because she has to take care of her sickly father. They also make Da Jung’s father a coward who ran away from his own problems rather than someone suffering from cancer. It’s interesting how in Korean dramas most of the time the females are saddled with their father’s debt due to his shortcomings or mistakes; she herself is rarely in debt due to her own shortcomings. (Let’s ignore the times when she’s in debt due to her shopping addiction or such, as those excuses are used for comedic purposes rather than melodramatic purposes to drive the drama’s plot forward.) On the other hand we have Teacher Hyun who is in debt himself after supporting his family overseas.
As for the actors… I think Shin Sung Rok is so fascinating. Just like in My Love From Another Star he was deliciously evil without being overt. He’s a different kind of evil because he’s just so charismatic. What was great was when he first spoke behind the mask because we could not see his expressions and yet knew exactly how dangerous of a guy he could be. Lee Sang Yoon was not bad at being so serious. I actually could believe him as a psychology professor and took him seriously. It wasn’t as weird as I thought it was going to be. However, he didn’t have to do much in this episode just yet so we’ll see if he manages to pull off this kind of character. As for Kim So Eun, I am quite unfamiliar with her so as an actress I can’t give her much of a judgment. I felt she played the character as best as you could play it, but I also felt uncomfortable with how different her character ended up being.
The reality show aspect of the show is the hugest difference between this remake and the original manga and J-drama, and I think it’s done to great effect. It grounds the drama in something we’re all familiar with: variety/reality shows. Instead of the game being something that an old rich man decided to set up because he was sickly and wanted to conduct a social experiment, it’s instead a reality show meant to save a broadcasting station from bankruptcy (which is something that feels more relatable) and to also serve the selfish interests of Do Young. It also adds another level of glamor and pressure on the contestants because the people, whether they like it or not, are going to become celebrities. Every move they make will be recorded for the masses to see, and the show will most surely present them in a biased light in the interest of ratings.
It also adds another layer of deception to the game. Since audience voting appears to be integral to some parts of the game, these contestants must not only trick other contestants, but somehow win the hearts of the public. It is not like they are tricking a private audience and the game master as it was in the J-drama; the rest of the world did not know they were going through this game. However here, everything is broadcast live for all to see. It feels a little meta too as it seems to make a nod to the reality shows on TV today, making a tongue-in-cheek comment that not everything you see is really unscripted.
The Korean show, being an hour long and a bit longer than the Japanese one, fleshes out the characters more and pads out the storyline so it goes relatively slower than the original. It is a solid remake as it can stand alone as a drama without relying on one know the source material. I welcome its freshness and creativity in a world full of remakes, and I hope that this show does not fail me in the future.