“Liar Game” opens with a policeman in a speeding car warning someone on the phone to be careful, that they’re not after an ordinary guy. In a lecture hall, a professor, Ha Woo Jin (Lee Sang Yoon) writes the words ‘Never trust anyone’ on the board. He plays a game with his students where he asks uncomfortable questions and then picks out the liars with his powers of observation. He tells them this is their last lesson, and puts his hands behind his head just as the police burst in. As the police advance on him, he announces that he’s killed someone.
One year later, Nam Da Jung (Kim So Eun) crosses the street only to be accosted by a lost old lady. She’s in a hurry, but can’t resist helping the old lady. After carrying her bag all over Seoul, the old lady leaves to go to the washroom and doesn’t return. Da Jung waits for an hour, then gets a call from her friend, who tells her to check the contents of the bag. She does, and finds G-Dragon hiding under the old lady’s clothes. Just kidding! It’s a big stack of money.
At the jvN broadcasting station, a guy wearing a steampunk mask explains that people always wear masks, except when confronted with big piles of money. Confronted with a big pile of money, he throws his own mask off to reveal the host of the “Liar Game” reality show, Kang Do Young (Shin Sung Rok).
Now at home, Da Jung dumps the pile of money on her bed (I guess no one explained to her how unsanitary money is). She counts it to discover she has 500 million won, then wonders why the old lady left it with her. She looks at her unpaid bills, but reminds herself to find the owner. First, she decides to take a nap on top of the pile, promising to send the money to the police station first thing.
The next morning, Da Jung is woken by a loan shark, Jo Dal Goo (Jo Jae Yun) who she regularly has breakfast with. She hurriedly stuffs the money back in the suitcase, but is incapable of putting it all away before Dal Goo figures out that something’s up, and comes in to the apartment using her spare key. Da Jung pretends he’s interrupted her changing clothes and throws a fit, but somehow ends up cooking him ramyun anyway. When she asks how Dal Goo figured out where the spare key was (under a flower pot, shockingly enough), he tells her about a man he met in prison who told him to try looking at things from a different perspective, that humans are easy to figure out. Dal Goo points out that Da Jung is particularly easy to understand, then asks about the bag in her room.
In a panic, Da Jung tells a series of unconvincing truths, which Dal Goo seems to accept. When he goes out on to the veranda for more kim chi, she packs up the rest of the money and runs out of the house, with him in hot pursuit. Da Jung takes a cab to the closest police station, and they end up struggling over the money bag in the station parking lot, with Dal Goo encouraging her to keep it. Da Jung refuses, on the basis that she can’t put someone else in her own terrible situation, but she’s stopped from going into the station by a phone ringing in the money bag. Like every K-drama, life stops for a ringing phone, and they answer. The distorted voice on the line asks Da Jung if she wants to keep the money, and the Dal Goo answers in the affirmative for her.
Before anything else can happen, “Liar Game” host, Do Young comes up, dressed as a cop, and asks if the loan shark is bothering her. Da Jung lies to save Dal Goo, and thus is welcomed into joining “Liar Game”. At Do Young’s signal, they’re suddenly surrounded by cameras.
Meanwhile, in a police station, Woo Jin sits in a prison uniform, analyzing a guy in hand cuffs. Within a few minutes, he figures out that the detainee has kidnapped and hidden a little girl, and the detainee confesses in tears. The two detectives look on in approval at his handiwork.
A disbelieving Da Jung is interviewed on the “Liar Game” stage by Do Young, who praises her selflessness in helping the grandma and not once thinking of keeping the money. He informs her that this is only the beginning of the game, and that they’ll be playing for a grand prize of $10 million. Da Jung is not confident in her ability to play, but he tells her to wait and see the results of the internet voting on the contestants.
During the break, she approaches the producer, Lee Yoon Joo (Cha Soo Yeon), and mentions that she really took the money home because she wanted to keep it for a moment, and asks her not to broadcast her segment (so why mention it?). Da Jung declines to play “Liar Game”, and Yoon Joo contemptuously accuses her of being afraid, and “cosplaying a nice person”. Da Jung comes back with something about circumstances having been kinder to Yoon Joo, but I stopped listening after that cosplay thing… good line, Yoon Joo!
Back at her job in a coffee shop, Da Jung is distracted by the siren song of lots of money. She’s brought back to earth by the arrival of her kindly former high school teacher. We get a flashback to Da Jung’s poverty stricken past, during which he saved her from an accusation of theft. In the present, they talk about their miserable debt situations, and he informs her that they’re first-round opponents in “Liar Game”. He encourages her to go on the show by agreeing to lose to her, so they can split the prize money.
Back at the TV station, “Liar Game” is holding a poorly attended press conference, with station director Jang (Choi Jin Ho) looking on skeptically. Do Young explains how he came to host the show, since he was a securities analyst to start with. He proposed the show to the station, having noticed the entertainment value of people confronted with money. The reporters accuse him of using the show to raise the value of the broadcast company in order to sell it off. Do Young brushes them off by saying he’s never lost a game, then offers ₩ 500 million to the media company that can increase their viewership the most. Suddenly, the reporters start typing on their laptops, presumably to increase viewership.
Instead of the resulting media frenzy, Da Jung is more concerned about her runaway dad, who took off due to excessive debt. In the meantime, her loan shark, Dal Goo, returns to his office. Dal Goo’s boss tells him that since Da Jung can’t pay her debt, he should take the opportunity to connect Da Jung with a bar (sex trade, I assume?), and threatens to fire him if he doesn’t. Dal Goo goes back to Da Jung’s house for more ramyun and I sudddenly recognize him as the gum chewing guy in The Suspect. While Dal Goo is stuffing his face, Da Jung asks him the total of her father’s debt. It turns out to be $150,000. After some calculation, Da Jung figures out that by splitting the winnings with her kindly teacher, she can pay off the debt, buy her apartment, and pay her school fees.
This calculation inspires Da Jung to go ahead with “Liar Game”, and she arrives dramatically late at the studio, the last participant to join in. As arranged in advance by the producer, Da Jung tells the story of wanting to be reunited with her father, then follows along as the first round is explained. Each contestant is given a stack of money, and must do their utmost, shy of physical violence,to steal all the money of their opponent. Whatever amount they get from their opponent will be their prize money.
After the filming, Yoon Joo takes her to count the money, and contemptuously points out that Da Jung has not read the rules. Da Jung has no response, but agrees to continue without finishing. Da Jung immediately takes her stack of money to the washroom and calls her old teacher. Later, she reassures Dal Goo that she’s put it away. He offers her the services of his genius prison mate, but she turns him down.
After Dal Goo leaves, Da Jung meets with her former teacher, and they go to deposit their money into a safety deposit box at the bank. Since she’s supposed to be the winner of this round, her teacher hands over the keys to the box to her.
Afterwards, Da Jung flashes back to her father buying her a watch before taking off to make some money. She buys him an expensive shirt in anticipation of his return.
The first day of the broadcast, Woo Jin reads a book while the other inmates watch the show. We all watch as Da Jung realizes she’s been conned by her former teacher, who now has all of her money. Of course, the show was filming the entire thing, and knew that Da Jung and the teacher knew each other. Da Jung goes first to the bank, who won’t let her open the box, and then to the teacher’s house. Rather than listen to her pound desperately at the gate, the not-so-kindly teacher turns up the music to drown her out.
Meanwhile, as Da Jung’s pitiful story catches on, the show’s ratings climb ever higher. Da Jung takes the proactive step of hiding in her apartment and bemoaning her fate, while Dal Goo pounds on her door. He convinces her to go see his prison buddy, the ultimate con man.
The next day, when Woo Jin gets out of prison, Da Jung is there to greet him (with a twisted ankle, no less). The episode ends as he gives her a hand up.
This was a pretty good first episode. As per usual, I’ll reserve my full judgement for when I’ve seen a couple more, but the premise is interesting, and the stage has been set in such a way as to hold my interest. Plus, despite some drawn-out scenes, it moved pretty quickly. As for the actors, Shin Sung Rok is suitably slimy as Do Young; Kim So Eun is suitably wide-eyed as Da Jung; and since the last time I saw Lee Sang Yoon he was flashing his dimples in “Angel Eyes”, I was surprised to find him convincing as dour genius, Ha Woo Jin.
Full disclosure: naive and poor female leads are my personal hobby horse. It’s not so much that I hate them on an individual basis, but more that I’m disheartened by their prevalence. Given that Da Jung’s wide eyed innocence borders on stupidity, she’s a particularly frustrating example, and it’s hard not to join in on the other characters’ annoyance with her (e.g. Dal Goo yelling at her to get off her ass, or Yoon Joo’s contemptuous dismissal). I’m hoping that was the intention of the writer, and that at some point, Da Jung becomes less of a dim weakling. I don’t insist that every female character be strong, but at this point, all I know about Da Jung is that she’s got poor decision-making skills and she’s over-reliant on the men in her life.
It’s cute, but is this overuse of a sad puppy face meant to be relatable? I hope not.
That said, a lame lead character is not a deal-breaker for me as long as the story can hold my interest, and there are enough good characters to keep me going. So far, so good.