TYPE OF REVIEW : FIRST IMPRESSION/GOOD OL’ REVIEW
No spoilers. Click here for Hindsight Review of Season 2.
Disney+’s Big Bet (카지노/Casino) is a fun and intriguing ride. Split into two eight-episode seasons, this first group of episodes introduces us to its anti-hero protagonist Cha Mu Sik played masterfully by the legend Choi Min Sik. The series is a fascinating character study of a man who from humble beginnings in rural Korea becomes an influential kingpin in the Philippine casino world.
The series opens with Choi Min Sik getting arrested in the Philippines on suspicion of murder. After being perp walked and thrown in front of the media, Min Sik recounts his long journey to this point in his life. And that starts with his childhood in rural Korea. With his gangster father in and out of jail, Min Sik grows up only with his hardworking mother. And through those hardships, he is able to steel himself into a belief that he will do what he must in order to get ahead and live a life without those same difficulties.
As an adult, Min Sik manages to run an underground gambling bar in Korea. But after a crackdown, he flees to the Philippines and is able to quickly establish power and influence through a gambling racket that eventually leads him to owning his own casino. But while he enjoys the monetary wealth and wealth of connections with local Filipino officials, authorities and the Korean community in the Philippines, Min Sik must deal with the very nature of his business. That includes the opportunities for cheating and betrayal. Two things he is not too opposed to doing himself. And of course, that will also bring about many enemies.
Those factors come into play when the comfortable life he has established for himself becomes ever more complicated and hostile. The end of these first season episodes have him confronting his most difficult test yet, not the least of which being accused of murder.
Season two looks to explain exactly how he is thrust into the spotlight as a murder suspect while also having him weed out the people responsible for the chipping away at his power and influence. On the other side of the coin is Oh Seung Hoon (Son Suk Ku), a detective from Korea who is dispatched to the Philippines to initially handle local cases involving Koreans. But eventually gets sucked into the complicated world that Min Sik had lorded over for years.
Big Bet is an interesting mix of different pieces. The series’ exotic Philippine location provides a vivid backdrop for familiar tales of violence and corruption. But the series is at its strongest when focusing on who Cha Mu Sik is as a character. These first eight episodes paint a complete portrait of his life up to this point. And Choi Min Sik really delivers a tour de force performance. Lee Kyu Hyung and Song Min Jae portray younger versions of Mu Sik and they definitely help to endear the character to the audience even as the grown-up Mu Sik does things not so endearing. The flashback scenes of Mu Sik growing up in 1970s and 1980s Korea have some of the series’ most memorable moments so far.
Even then, Choi Min Sik really gives the series a welcome bit of gravitas as he leads a large ensemble cast. He is able to take Mu Sik and give him plenty of humanity even when you come to question some of his choices.
Aside from the character-driven focus on Mu Sik, the series dabbles in gangster and even some crime-noir themes at points. The role of detective Oh Seung Hoon grows as the series reaches the first season finale with him investigating a growing number of suspicious killings of Korean nationals in the Philippines. And with more than enough threads connecting them to the circle around Mu Sik.
Because of these familiar crime and corruption angles, there’s sometimes a bit of tonal whiplash. The series is mostly lighthearted and fun when focusing on Mu Sik, his life and his ragtag group of partners and casino agents. But the series takes on some more serious and darker turns when it dips into the mob-like underworld lingering in the shadows. Especially when things become more deadly, literally, within Mu Sik’s operation.
But as the first group of episodes, it is still an engaging set-up for whatever the second season of episodes will hold. Choi Min Sik’s performance really helps elevate what is already a solid story. The lush landscapes of the Philippines add a bit of exotic flair to proceedings. And though things may take a while to come together, you are left wanting more by the end of this first season. And more is what the audience will get in just a short while.