I had never thought i’d ever be charmed by a swindler until i watched Liar Game. It’s been 6 years since i last saw Akiyama Shinichi (i didn’t watch any other spin-off post Liar Game: The Final Stage) that i thought he’d be my first and last swindler love… and then Yang Jung-do comes around.
Their beginning is pretty similar too. Both are freshly released from jail when they get entangled with the rather naive leads and agree to help defeat the other’s adversary for a percentage of the total amount. The difference is, Akiyama is approached by Kanzaki Nao whereas it’s Jung-do (Seo In-gook) who proffers the deal to Baek Sung-il (Ma Dong-seok).
Well, i didn’t intend to compare the two but that’s as far as the similarity goes. Cuz thematically it’s closer to Bad Guys, which came from the same screenwriter. There, suspended detective assembles a group of convicts to catch bigger criminals at large. Here, suspended tax officer teams up with a swindler (or five) to extort back taxes from notorious tax fraudsters. Both scenarios call for quite an oddball lineup as both groups consist of independent individuals, but together they make up for quite an invincible team.
The plot moves a lot faster in the crime thriller (due to lower episode count, perhaps?); Squad 38 takes its time to introduce and build its lead characters that it took three episodes to bring everyone in and six to form the titular squad. The number refers to Article 38 covering tax laws in South Korea. After a sequence of Jung-do conning four people simultaneously, switching to different accents, tones, and looks in the process, one would think he’s fine on his own. But scamming high-profile tax evaders isn’t easy — plus, swindle is all about teamwork — that a few sidekicks are necessary additions to the team. For that, he recruits “Burner” ramen-haired Jang Hak-joo (Heo Jae-ho) to provide burner phones, “Keyboard” plus-size Jung Ja-wang (Go Kyu-pil) to create phishing websites, “Gold” pretty girl Jo Mi-joo (Lee Sun-bin) to infiltrate target establishments, and “Wallet” Madam Noh Bang-shil (Song Ok-sook) to fund the required expenditures.
Albeit procedural, i’m thoroughly enjoying how elaborate the action plan is. I thought we’d spend the entire series going after Ma Jin-suk (Oh Dae-hwan), the one tops Department 3’s blacklist headed by resident papa bear. However, like any other crime drama, there’s always a bigger baddie behind the initial baddie marked by the (anti)heroes. The bigger tax fraudster is Bang Pil-gyu (Kim Hong-pa), the second prey who owes approximately eight times as much back taxes as Ma Jin-suk. The game plan is even more complex this time as the team needs to deal with Pil-gyu’s seemingly not-so-bright children first in order to get to the old geezer. I wonder how many episodes it’ll take since i expect him to be a lot harder to fool. And i expect an even more pulsating deception — it was darn gratifying watching Jin-suk at a loss and drop to his knees in a futile attempt to get his precious money back, i can’t wait to see what it’ll feel like when it’s Pil-gyu’s turn.
He won’t be the last guy to be humbled though, because there’s an even more powerful person than him still, also because Jung-do sets to send two more people to prison alongside sketchy Detective Sa Jae-sung (Jung In-ki) for framing his dad. And then there’s the mysterious Chairman Wang whom Jung-do saved, twice, and sort of serves for. Jung-do cons those on the list in early episodes for the grey-haired man, who seems to cover for him as of now, but we’ll have to see if he really is on the protagonists’ side.
So, there’s Jung-do’s personal mission, Sung-il’s professional mission, Chairman Wang’s revenge mission, and i won’t be surprised if the targets overlap.
The subject may be heavy and the process tedious but the execution is neat. I love the editing where they interlap run-through sessions with cuts from the ‘actual’ scenes, and although we can only know if the execution goes as planned when we actually get there, the back and forth provides a great visualization. Tonally, this tax drama is pretty comedic, attributed predominantly to Sung-il’s blunders. I wanted him to do well so badly yet his ineptitude was so cringe-worthy (in a good way) that i had to pause several times during his error-laden conning scenes to collect myself. Haha.
Sleek directing and clever writing aside, Squad 38 is further boosted by the cast’s outstanding performance. I was tuning in for Ma Dong-seok and Seo In-gook and both didn’t disappoint. Baek Sung-il is as adorable and squishy a papa bear as Park Woong-chul. As for Seo In-gook… he was decent in Reply 1997 and Master’s Sun and was good in No Breathing and I Remember You, but i didn’t find him exceptional until this role. He’s really smooth and effortless as a con artist. The other players are fine too, though i’m most impressed by Lee Sun-bin’s chameleon persona. The baddies are the abhorrent kind we all love to hate, including Jung In-ki. I love him in any other project i’ve seen him in, but boy do i detest him so damn much in this one. The least impactful is Soo-young. She isn’t terrible or awkward but her acting is somewhat flat. Eight episodes in and i think she has only one expression and tone. Chun Sung-hee seems to play quite a big role as Sung-il’s subordinate and Jung-do’s ex but her existence is just pointless. She doesn’t add anything to the grand scheme of things beside intercepting the special task force’s ploys. I don’t understand why she harbors hard feelings toward Jung-do either, since she wasn’t scammed, unless it’s for being dumped.
Back to the show! It’s probably one of the rare cases where the end justifies the means. It’s wrong to scam people, but when the victims are remorseless entitled humans believing they’re above everybody else and even the law, i’d say it serves them right to lose the thing they treasure so much. And then some. I wish the team would suck those bank accounts dry. Because at the end of the day, i want Squad 38 to prove this notion wrong: “Law is like a bully. It’s weak for the strong and strong for the weak.” Even if it happens only in dramaland.