Money, lies and not a likeable soul can be found in dystopian series 'Bargain'

Tving original series “Bargain” is a dystopian tale revolving around a man, portrayed by Jin Seon-kyu, who is tricked into a human trafficking organization and is about to have his body parts auctioned off — when a sudden earthquake saves his l

A middle-aged man meets a girl at a motel and begins to negotiate the price of taking the girl’s virginity. After the bartering leads to his success, the man goes into the bathroom for a shower, only to be kidnapped and stripped naked down to his underwear: Then the real bargaining begins. The girl was part of a massive human trafficking ring, but he turned out to be the real prey, lured into a secluded motel like a moth to a flame.

Such goes the story of the 14-minute short film “Bargain” (2015), directed by Lee Chung-hyun, which instantly caught the attention of a myriad of viewers and led the director to receive multiple awards at various short-film festivals. He was then contacted by local production studio Yong Film to make his feature debut with Netflix film “The Call” (2020), starring Jeon Jong-seo and Park Shin-hye.

The twist and turn of events in his 2015 film, however, seemed too good to waste: What would happen to the kidnapped man? Did he deserve to meet his end? Would there be other victims?

The 15-minute film was thus expanded into a six-episode Tving original drama series with the same title which was released three episodes per week starting Oct. 28. After the release all six episodes, Tving reported that the series brought an influx of paid users to the local streaming service and increased the number of user visitors among the platforms’ content for two consecutive weeks.

Jeon Jong-seo portrays a girl who tricks Jin's character into entering the secluded motel room in "Bargain." After the earthquake, she manipulates him and another man, portrayed by Chang Ryul, through series of lies, to get what she wants. [TVING]

The Tving series adds yet another shocking twist to the story. As bidders are bartering for the captured man’s kidney, a massive earthquake hits and sweeps everything into chaos. One of the unique aspects of the series was that it took on the challenge of one-take filming, the same as was done for the short film. A fusion of dystopian tale and Picaresque fiction, viewers are left contemplating the moral dilemma over which character they should be rooting for to escape the ruins.

Following the strategic partnership struck between the local service provider and global streaming platform Paramount+ earlier this year, the two companies will partner up to co-produce, license and distribute the content.

“Bargain” is the second project to be co-financed by Tving and Paramount, after director Lee Joon-ik’s sci-fi fantasy series “Yonder” (2022), and is scheduled to be released worldwide through Paramount+ by 2023.

The Korea JoongAng Daily gathered insight from director Jeon Woo-sung and actors Jin Seon-kyu and Jeon Jong-seo regarding a few key factors about the series through separate online interviews conducted last week.

Running around half naked

Jin, who rose to prominence through films such as “The Outlaws” (2017) and “Extreme Job” (2019), starred in this series as the middle-aged man named Hyung-soo caught by a human trafficking ring.

After he, like rest of the crowd, gets jumbled around in a massive earthquake, the man lands at the bottom of the building only in his underwear — and he scrambles around the building trying to escape and donning whatever piece of clothing he can get his hands on, which isn’t much.

Director Jeon Woo-sung [TVING]

“As I wrote the script, I didn’t think he would have the luxury to think of wearing clothes,” director Jeon said. “As the narrative pans out, Jin collects rubber boots and semi-transparent raincoats from parts of the building, and I wanted his weird fashion to become the signature look of his character.”

According to Jin, the fact that he had to run around in his underwear did not make him any more hesitant to take on the role.

“I didn’t feel pressure [to keep my body in shape], and I thought within the narrative, it was entertaining to see the character stripped down to almost nakedness. Director Jeon and I both wanted his fashion to become his signature look so that the viewers would not be grossed out or offended by it, like the character Franky from [Japanese manga and animation] ‘One Piece.’

“I believe I tried out 10 to 15 different underwear styles to get the right look, which is how I ended up with the blackish red one that you see in the series,” Jin added.

One take for immersive entertainment

From as short as five minutes to as long as 15 minutes each shot, the series takes on the format of one-take filming, the same as the original short film, to make a more immersive environment so that viewers, and even the actors themselves, can more vividly feel the characters' predicament.

Jin, who speaks almost non-stop in each episode, said that he memorized the script as if he were starring in a theatrical play.

Chang's character is one of the buyers on the scene who is in a desperate need of a kidney to save his bedridden father. [TVING]

“At the longest, we would film for 15 minutes non-stop, and I had many, many lines to speak,” he said. “So if I mess up once during the middle of the scene, then everything would have to be reset for another take. And I would have to see all the staff hauling their cameras back, and I didn’t want to give them any more work than they already had. So I practiced my lines as if I was going to appear on stage. [Due to the one-take filming,] there certainly was a sense of realism on the set, and sometimes the rhythms and my responses would vary once the camera started rolling. During the production process, we would spend almost a day on the set rehearsing, then spend the next day filming.”

According to Jeon Jong-seo who portrayed the girl named Joo-young, the rehearsals were conducted meticulously from where and when certain characters would appear on the scene, all the way down to the lighting and angles.

“Everything had to be planned flawlessly,” Jeon said. “Let’s say the span of filming would last for 15 minutes, and sometime during the 14-minute mark, some sort of mistake is made. Then we can’t use that take anymore. But as we grew used to this schedule, we [the actors] learned to freely move within the planned formation, and the ad-libbed responses that we did were captured by the camera directors. But we basically stayed within the boundaries of our rehearsals.”

Some reviewers commented that watching the series felt like playing on a virtual reality (VR) game set, as the camera quite literally follows the main protagonists for the entire running time. Others said that the protagonists felt like game characters as they climb up each floor to finally reach the top, with each floor equipped with a quest that the protagonists had to resolve.

“The rule of thumb that I adhered to was that the cameras can never leave the sides of the main characters,” director Jeon said. “On each floor, I wanted the characters to face a new situation and resolve them. After resolving their quest, then they would move up to the next floor, and sometimes they would face obstacles which prevent them from going upwards. As the series nears its end, the protagonists would even choose to fall, which was another factor of entertainment. For scenes of the characters exploring the floor, I wanted to give off a feeling that the viewers were on the floor with them, as if they were going through a maze.”

Defining the real evil

The viewers find themselves in a moral dilemma of their own while watching “Bargain,” because each of the clearly flawed characters’ desires and desperation are more clearly outlined when they face the catastrophe.

Jeon Jong-seo succinctly summed up the series as “a black comedy of naked people who are trying to get their hands on as many bills as they can.”

After the earthquake, Chang is constantly fooled by Jin and Jeon as they get him to do what they want for the price of a kidney. [TVING]

“Dystopian genres are interesting because if everything disappears, everyone becomes naked, clinging to their desires and instincts for survival,” Jeon said.

Director Jeon said that his series can essentially be narrowed down to “a story about money and lies.”

“The entire motel building is a metaphor about capitalism,” he said. “As a Picaresque fiction, every character in the story is far from ordinary: They have bad motives, which becomes more evident within the ruins. I wanted the situations the characters face to be similar to what their personal hell would be like.”

Director Jeon intentionally did not dive into the motives or narratives of the characters, as he did not expect the audience would be able to relate to them.

“I did deliberate a lot on how to unravel the plot, because everyone is bad here — there’s no use pointing fingers at which character is more evil,” he said. “So after a heavy discussion with Jin, we decided that Hyung-soo would be a nobody, without explaining anything about his past or motives, a person who is just tackling the predicament that he’s in right now. I can’t ask the audience to relate to the characters, but I did want them to feel as if they were in the situation of the characters.”

The format was also necessary because it had to be a factor that would leave the audience guessing until the very end.

“Because the narrative’s concept was that the characters can only reveal things about themselves if they actually say it, some may feel that the narrative behind each character was lacking. However, that was intentional and essential to how our plot would unravel. For the rest of the characters, I regarded them as non-player characters and did not add explanations for their motives.”