South Korea

Review: Disney+’s Philippine-set K-Drama “Big Bet” Gambles on a Complex Rags-to-Riches Story

Korean crime drama "Big Bet" sees "Oldboy" star Choi Min-sik return to the small screen after 26 years, as a casino tycoon in the Philippines.

By , 29 Jan 23 00:58 GMT
Courtesy of Disney+.

South Korean content is taking the world by storm and, in recent years, Netflix’s offerings have topped the charts. Now, Disney+ wants a piece of the action with its ambitious Philippine-set crime drama Big Bet. Director Kang Yoo-sung of The Outlaws helms the show, while legendary South Korean actor Choi Min-sik headlines in his first small-screen role since 1997.

Choi stars as Cha Moo-sik, an underdog born into poverty during the 1970s in rural South Korea. The series chronicles Moo-sik’s era-spanning life, and ascension as a casino tycoon in the Philippines. It’s lucky Big Bet has Choi Min-sik playing its protagonist, because otherwise the show might turn viewers off through certain risks with narrative structure and a disappointing depiction of the Philippines.

A Gamble on the Narrative

Courtesy of Disney+.

Big Bet opens in media res at the height of Moo-sik’s gambling empire—but then sees it come crashing down when the kingpin is suddenly arrested as a murder suspect. From there, the narrative flashes back to Moo-sik’s harsh upbringing, and his eventual rise in the Philippines.

This choice in chronology initially makes sense, as it allows viewers to empathize with Moo-sik’s impoverished background. After all, an underdog’s rise is worth rooting for—and Big Bet holds nothing back in displaying the abusive father, starvation, arrests, and bullying that Moo-sik must endure.

However, these flashbacks pace back and forth between different moments in Moo-sik’s past, and make his timeline confusing to piece together. The series also fails to show critical moments in Moo-sik’s development, such as how he became the owner of a popular English academy before somehow deciding to venture into illegal gambling. Furthermore, Moo-sik’s backstory stretches to almost four episodes—many viewers may begin to wonder when the story will jump back to the present day.

Even when the series finally ends up in the present, various sub-plots keep popping up. Squid Game actor Heo Sung-tae emerges as a rival to Moo-sik, while Moo-sik roves around trying to get various businessmen to gamble more. This parade of secondary characters adds little to the overall story. For a series about a gambling tycoon, you’d expect Big Bet to contain some kind of Tazza: The High Rollers-like thrill—but all you get are glimpses of rich people losing money left and right, and Moo-sik dealing with them. There’s no high-stakes game to keep viewers at the edge of their seats, at least until charismatic police officer Oh Seung-hoon (Son Suk-ku) belatedly shows up and adds some excitement to the series by implicating Moo-sik in recent murders.

Missing the Jackpot with Philippine Representation

Courtesy of Disney+.

Besides Moo-sik’s backstory, a majority of Big Bet is set in the Philippines. The country has the second-largest Korean diaspora community in Southeast Asia, and is a popular choice for South Koreans to learn English at a more affordable price. The Philippine government also actively promotes the country as a retirement choice for South Koreans. From the perspective of storyline relevance, it’s also not surprising that Big Bet chose the Philippines as a setting, given that the country’s casino industry is predicted to earn US$10 billion by 2027.

However, South Korean dramas set in Southeast Asia, Africa, or South America haven’t had a good track record when it comes to their representations of said locales. For example, Netflix’s Narcos-Saints had the Suriname government consider taking legal action over the country’s negative depiction in the series, while Shooting Stars saw backlash after portraying Africa as one country.

Big Bet doesn’t escape from these issues. While the series mostly takes place indoors in the Philippines, it still uses a warm or yellow palette—a classic Hollywood and K-entertainment technique that perpetuates negative stereotypes around poverty, pollution, and lawlessness.

The series doesn’t shy away from highlighting negative differences between South Korea and the Philippines either. Prostitution, illegal gun sales, and violent crime run rampant. Arrest warrants take weeks to get issued, frustrating police officer Seung-hoon, who’s accustomed to more efficient treatment in South Korea.

Additionally, Filipino politicians (the most prominent of which are played by local veteran actors Bembol Roco and Ronnie Lazaro) and policemen are portrayed as either naive to Moo-sik’s antics or corrupt. The series mentions several times—often with Filipino actors—that “Mr. Cha has the politicians and police wrapped around his figure,” and emphasizes how money can buy almost anything in the Philippines. While corruption remains rampant in the Philippines, Big Bet’s depictions reinforce the status quo instead of even bothering to advocate positive change.

The series also completely neglects to depict any positive aspects of Filipino culture. Big Bet’s characters only eat at Korean restaurants, and rave about Korean food. Even after living in the Philippines for a decade, Moo-sik also speaks no Tagalog; the only Korean character who speaks any passable Tagalog is gangster-turned-casino agent Sang-gu (Hong Ki-joon). Even when Big Bet pays lip service to Filipino culture, it may feel awkward to Filipinos. For instance, the show depicts politicians wearing barong (the national dress for Filipino men) to Moo-sik’s parties, when in reality politicians usually only wear barong at state-level events. All this feels like a huge missed opportunity to help viewers better understand the Philippines.

Less Glitz, More Performance

Courtesy of Disney+.

Despite a messy narrative ramp-up and lackluster depiction of the Philippines, Big Bet manages to achieve some redemption with its cast, thanks largely to Choi Min-sik’s superb performance. At 60 years old, the actor plays Moo-sik from his thirties to the present day. While this might seem like an odd casting choice, Choi’s mannerism, subtle changes in tone, and magnetic onscreen presence make this passable.

Unlike Netflix’s Korean content, Big Bet also avoids dramatic sets and sequences. The series avoids slow motion shots, and excessive product placements. It’s difficult to tell that Big Bet had a whopping one billion Philippine Peso (US$18 million) budget—besides Moo-sik’s casino and hotel, there aren’t any extravagant or noteworthy locations. Moo-sik himself also lives a fairly humble lifestyle, meaning no flashy cars and branded clothing appear as props and costumes. All this lack of pomp puts even greater focus on Choi’s performance as Moo-sik, and perhaps reflects Disney+’s attempt to distinguish its style from Netflix’s when it comes to K-dramas.

Given this, the first half of Big Bet still offers some hope for those wondering whether to watch the show’s upcoming second season. While the series takes a big gamble with its back-and-forth exposition and could depict the Philippines with more nuance, Choi’s masterclass performance helps viewers invest enough in Cha Moo-sik’s complex backstory to want a resolution. We can only hope that the second season reveals its cards in a manner that leads to a storytelling jackpot.

•  •  •

Big Bet (Korean: 카지노)—South Korea. Dialog in Korean, English, Tagalog. Directed by Kang Yoon-sung and Nam Ki-hoon. First released December 21, 2022. Starring Choi Min-sik, Son Suk-ku, Lee Dong-hwi, Kim Hong-fa, and Hong Ki-joon.

Big Bet is available for streaming on Disney+ in selected territories and Hulu in the United States.

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