It’s good to look back on how trends in Korean dramas have changed throughout the years. And whilst some trends persist throughout the years, there’s always those that don’t get touched on as often as they perhaps should. Released in 2014, TVN’s Liar Game is such a drama that wouldn’t necessarily fit in with what’s been popular in recent years. But it’s also one that’s worth revisiting for that exact reason.
Liar Game is not a gentle drama. If you’re going into this one, be prepared for a whole bucket load of tension, tantrums and some complex plotting. Liar Game doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to upping the ante. A thriller, melodrama and puzzle all rolled into one, it can be quite draining to sit through one episode after the other. Still, that’s what I did. For research purposes only of course.
Adapted from the Japanese manga of the same name by Shinobu Kaitani, which also had a Japanese drama series adaption a year or so prior, Liar Game’s core plot centres around a TV show in which contestants can win a life-altering sum of money. There are a series of games that contestants must get through in order to get to this final reward. Each one is based on mind games; people are meant to lie, to cheat, and to scheme their way through.
This is where our female protagonist finds herself out of her depth. Nam Da Jung (Kim So Eun) is honest and rather naive. She’s also in a lot of debt, so when she is chosen to take part in the show through a seemingly random psychological test, she agrees. Instantly, she’s tricked out of the money that she has to protect. She trusts too much, and in a game wherein lying is a participant’s greatest strength, this is one big weakness. She turns to Cha Woo Jin (Lee Sang Yoon) to help her through. Woo Jin is an ex-professor recently released from prison and is also a genius conman. This team-up works on the age-old premise of opposites attract. With his experience and her new way of looking at things, they’re able to tackle each game in a cohesive way. It’s not just a functional relationship, however. Whilst some viewers will be disappointed by a lack of romance, the mentor/student dynamic they have in the beginning eventually feels more like a familial bond a few episodes in. Kim So Eun and Lee Sang Yoon play this balance off each other well, imbuing their respective characters with traits that they sorely need. Da Jung’s naivety avoids becoming irritating as she is coached by Woo Jin and starts growing into her confidence throughout the show. Woo Jin’s cold self-assurance is softened by Da Jung’s innocent views and his protectiveness of her.
This wouldn’t be a thriller of a drama without a villain to stand in the way of the good guys. Liar Game’s villain comes in the form of the games creator, host, and eventual participant Kang Do Young (Shin Sung Rok). If you’ve ever seen You Who Came From the Stars, then you’ll know that Shin Sung Rok can play a great villain. But the way he portrays Do Young as sometimes charming, often unsettling and totally in control is almost poetic. He ranges from subtle to overtly evil in some scenes, whilst in others, he’ll have you questioning his intentions and even loyalties. The drama’s strength comes with the tension this creates. Those watching will feel as though they are getting wrapped up in the same mind games that the cast are.
There’s a certain gratification to witnessing characters wriggling out of what looks like an impossible situation. Each stage of the contest, with a new scenario and set of rules each time, provides that satisfaction for the viewer. Though rooting for the main pair, Liar Games throws enough curveballs that several other characters may cause viewers to cast second guesses. The key participants in the show are all given their own reasons for entering, a whilst it would have been great to see these fleshed out some more, what it does give is enough to prevent them from feeling like cardboard cutouts. When alliances are formed and broken, you care because of this. At the centre is the intriguing trio of Da Jung, Woo Jin and Do Young but the cast that surrounds them make each game all the more interesting. If there’s one criticism of these games, it’s that they are sometimes highly complex and explained very quickly. A few times I found myself pausing to make sense of the rules before the set up began just so I could keep up and the moves that the characters played would feel better to watch. But this did lead to a lot of twists that, whilst sometimes predictable, never caused questioning. The solutions (or would outcomes be a better term?) to each game hardly ever felt flimsy or unthought through. There’s a perk of having pre-existing material to follow for a k-drama in that there is always a plot to follow. Episodes may weave in and out of that plot but if the writer sticks to the source materials core theme, the end product is cohesive.
Liar Game is, overall, one of those dramas that is better to watch than to be spoiled over. If you’re searching for something with enough tension to keep you glued to your screen, or something that varies from the rom-com genre, it’s definitely one to add to your to watch list. For the years that have passed since it’s release, it’s a shame that more people pass up on it. This quick-witted, fast-paced, mind-bending drama will stick with you for a long time after you watched it. And that’s a “winning strategy” in my opinion!