- Second part of gambling crime saga picks up where it left off, with Choi Min-shik’s Korean casino kingpin in the Philippines staring down the barrel of a gun
- He gets out of that tight spot, and many others, as a Korean policeman pursues him, but is he a gangster or just a charming cook? And who will bring him down?
Part two of K-drama series Big Bet begins just where we left it, with Korean expat and casino kingpin Cha Moo-sik (Choi Min-shik) staring up the barrel of Seo Tae-seok’s gun on a hot and humid night while tucked up in bed in his Philippines mansion.
Since we haven’t yet caught up to the sequence that opened the first part of the series last year, in which Moo-sik is arrested by police on murder charges, we know this isn’t the end for the wily underworld entrepreneur.
We may not feel tension, but there is a sense of excitement. “How does he get out of this jam?” we wonder, as we wait to find out.
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Moo-sik ends up disarming Tae-seok (Heo Sung-tae), pistol-whipping him with his own weapon and browbeating him into a seething wreck, not that he wasn’t a whistling teapot of rage already.
The first part of Big Bet gave us a lot of Moo-sik flashbacks, yet, despite all the time we have spent with him at various points earlier in his life, the provenance of his many skills has never been satisfactorily explained. We’re expected to accept most of his abilities on faith alone.
With Oldboy veteran Choi in the role, most of the time we can go along with it. Choi carries the weight of a lifetime’s experience in his ever searching eyes, and he carries himself with the practised nonchalance of a boxer who sees life’s punches coming.
Big Bet: Choi Min-sik, Son Suk-ku carry meandering crime drama
But great actors alone do not make for a great performance. A role is first built on the page and actors fill in the gaps. With Moo-sik the gaps are more like chasms, and even an actor of such rich talents as Choi struggles to bridge them.
Big Bet‘s scripts have made it clear that Moo-sik is able to read people and that he understands the value of loyalty in his line of work.
One of the most effective parts of the show has been the side story involving Korean businessman Mr Jung (Choi Hong-il), who comes to the Philippines on business, is befriended by Moo-sik and steadily drained of his money and dignity as Moo-sik cleverly turns him into a gambling degenerate who keeps returning.
Mr Jung’s ever-present smile grows more desperate and horrifying with each successive trip as he begs Moo-sik for increasingly large sums that he always loses. These recurring sequences, which don’t connect to any of the main narratives, are the best examples of character work in the show.
Moo-sik is utterly charming as he seduces his mark, but, as he steadily destroys him while tricking him with his moralism and fake concern for his family back home, we can see him for the monster that he is.
Moo-sik the manipulator rings out loud and clear, but Moo-sik the mobster is a much harder sell. He may operate in a criminal world now and he scammed people in his youth, but he’s a crooked businessman first and foremost rather than a full-fledged gangster.
Stories like Breaking Bad do a fantastic job of depicting how an ordinary person can slide into a life of crime. In Big Bet – which, like Breaking Bad, also chronicles its main character’s switch from teacher to criminal – Moo-sik suddenly becomes a fearsome gangster who can beat hard-as-nails lifelong thugs to a pulp.
Moo-sik survives Tae-seok’s attack, but lets him go. Tae-seok, as well as other enemies, stage more attacks before long, but once again there’s no tension, and seeing how Moo-sik will save himself becomes less exciting each time we witness it.
The main story in part two of Big Bet concerns Korean police officer Oh Seung-hoon (Son Suk-ku), who has been sent to a corner of the Philippines to keep an eye on the illegal activities of the Korean expats there.
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Seung-hoon appeared halfway through part one and, now that he has learned the lay of the land, he is trying to take down Moo-sik by connecting him to the murders of two of his casino employees, who stole a fortune from Chairwoman Ko (Lee Hye-young), a high roller at the casino.
Moo-sik’s connections make it hard for Seung-hoon to conduct his investigations, beginning in the local police precinct where he is stationed. He quickly discovers that officers there are influenced by bribes and favours.
Son remains one of the highlights of the show, not because his character offers anything particularly original but because he seems the actor most comfortable in the international setting.
While we wait for Seung-hoon to navigate the corrupt morass of Caliz, the fictional location of the action, Moo-sik goes about his business as the most powerful gambling operator in the land.
He’s already risen to the top, which means dealing with the enemies he’s made along the way, but should we expect the rise-and-fall narrative of typical gangster stories?
Big Bet was designed as a two-season show, so it would be reasonable to expect that he will meet his downfall when the season ends in March. Screen gangsters usually go out in a blaze of glory, but Moo-sik’s calm disposition suggests a different kind of ending.
The smart money is on a denouement involving his right-hand man Jung-pal (Lee Dong-hwi), a character who has been present from the start but lacks definition.
Jung-pal digs himself into a massive hole in these first few episodes. Might his financial desperation exceed his loyalty to Moo-sik?
Big Bet is streaming on Disney+.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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