Review: Time between Dog and Wolf

This review originally appeared in the Korean Quarterly.

Imagine the lowering sun at day’s end, painting the sky a mixture of red and violet, and evening approaching. Over the hill in the distance you see a shape, but in the strange, fading twilight you cannot tell if it is the friendly dog you have raised or a wolf… This is a described by the French as “l’heure entre chien et loup,” or, the “time between dog and wolf,” a time when uncertainty reigns and you cannot tell trusted confidante from foe. “Time between Dog and Wolf” is also the title of a 2007 MBC series starring Lee Jun Ki. (Original title: 개와 늑대의 시간 or Kae-wa neuk-dae-ui sikan) Few drama titles set the scene for what is to come as aptly this does.

On the surface this is a straight action-oriented drama with a little romance thrown in for good measure, but to dismiss “Time between Dog and Wolf” as a lightweight but thrilling piece of entertainment is to do it a disservice.

Pastedgraphic-3

The story begins with an explosive car chase and shootout at the wharves in Incheon. Lee Jun Ki’s character aggressively maneuvers through shipping containers and dock traffic to protect the frightened and confused woman beside him (Nam Sang Mi). He diverts the pursuers and orders her from the car, then sets off to lead the attackers away from her, only to be hit by gunfire and his car plunge into the harbor. A carved wooden elephant floats nearby as his apparently lifeless body sinks deeper and deeper. The shaken woman collapses into the arms of an NIS agent she recognizes, telling Kang Min Ki (Jung Kyung Ho) in a dazed murmur that she’s seen Soo Hyun.

Have we seen the setup for the dramatic finale of the story, such as was done with “Damo?” What’s going on here? Immediately you sit up and realize that this is not going to be your typical drama. The production looks and feels expensive, the cast is young and attractive, and the story begins with a Hollywood-style action sequence. Your next thought is, “This is going to be good!” And you’re right. Sit back, but forget about relaxing – that’s for other dramas. This one is going to grab you and hold you.

A Shattered Idyll

After the exhilarating pace of the opening sequence, the story shifts to lush and tropical Bangkok, Thailand and a time some ten years earlier. Here is where we meet the central characters to the story: young Lee Soo Hyun (Park Gun Tae plays the role as a boy, Lee Jun Ki as an adult) who lives with his widowed mother (Kim Jung Nan), an intelligence agent, Ari (Jung Min Ah plays the young Ari, Nam Sang Mi as an adult), and her father, Mao (Choi Jae Sung). Soo Hyun and Ari meet by chance and become friends, spending an idyllic time together playing in temples and parks.

The happiness of that friendship is soon cut short. Ari informs him that she will soon leave Bangkok and the friends vow to see each other again someday. Soo Hyun gives her a carved wooden elephant he’s made for her, with the promise to complete it when they next meet. Little do either know that their lives are more closely bound than they could ever imagine: Soo Hyun’s mother is on the trail of the Cheongbang drug cartel and Ari’s father, Mao, is a key member of the cartel. In a stunning sequence of events, Soo Hyun witnesses his mother’s assassination at the hands of a masked assailant, the only recognizable feature being the intricate tattoos on the man’s wrist. The casting of young Park Gun Tae as Soo Hyun was an inspired choice. Not only does he suggest a younger Lee Jun Ki, but also he is able to bring great emotional depth to the frightening events portrayed in this scene. The traumatized boy is taken in by Kang Joong Ho (played by Lee Ki Young), an NIS agent and brought home to Korea.

Finding a Home and a Purpose

A close colleague to both the boy’s mother and father, another agent killed in action years earlier, he adopts Soo Hyun and considers him a son and brother to his own boy, Kang Min Ki, raising them to be strong and intelligent young men (with a healthy sibling rivalry). Both enter the NIS, following in the footsteps of their fathers, and are assigned different roles in the agency that will lead them to a confrontation with the Cheongbang, looking to expand operations into Korea.

Pastedgraphic-5

During the first few months of their work in the agency, Min Ki meets a young woman, Soo Ji Woo, who is working as an art dealer and is smitten. He arranges to meet her but has to break their date and sends Soo Hyun in his place. The two don’t connect until he chances to see the name “Ari” in Thai script on her date book and this triggers his memory of his former playmate. The friendship blossoms again, but he holds her at an emotional distance because he’s focused on work, and more specifically, the work of avenging the death of his mother. Refreshingly, Min Ki is not the stereotypical jealous brother, full of envy and resentment that the woman he loves only has eyes for another. Instead, although he’s seen as lazy and a bit of a goof-off, he’s also intelligent and good at his job. He encourages Soo Hyun to take the relationship seriously and does his best to be a supportive brother.

Searching for Justice

So, where in all this does the “time between dog and wolf” come in? Initially, the description of this mysterious time or impression of circumstances comes about because of a painting of the same title; Min Ki does a little research and does his best to impress Ji Woo with his newly acquired art knowledge. But the layers peel off the onion as the story progresses. Lee Soo Hyun comes into contact on assignment with Mao and in a fateful moment, recognizes the telltale tattoos on the man’s arms – those of the man who killed his mother. His actions in that meeting lead him on a fateful path towards disgrace, dismissal from the NIS, and recruitment to work as an undercover, or “black” agent. His mission is to infiltrate the Cheongbang in Thailand. To do so, he must postpone his revenge and insinuate himself into Mao’s life and work operations. He must be seen as the loyal dog, but is in truth the wolf coming to destroy Mao. In Thailand (with no doubt a symbolic nod from the writers), he assumes the name “Kay” (phonetically the same as the word for “dog” in Korean), and works his way into the gang through his skills in muay thai, Thai kickboxing. All the while he is unaware of Mao’s connection to Ji Woo.

Pastedgraphic-4

To provide more details of the story would be to rob it of its impact. Each episode of the story builds on the prior episode at an increasing pace, most ending with an exciting cliffhanger. With the availability of this title on DVD, you won’t have to suffer the agony of waiting to find out what happens next, you can continue on as longer as your eyes hold out, but it must have been sweet torture to watch this live and to be kept in such suspense. There are also a number of excellent performances worth mentioning, such as that of the always-interesting Lee Ki Young who adopts and guides Soo Hyun. Burly and taciturn Choi Jae Sung as Mao strikes the perfect tone as the businesslike but ruthless drug lord who takes in Kay (Soo Hyun) seeing in him a possible successor and treating him like a son. Kim Gab Soo is the shifty and cunning NIS director Jung Hak Soo, a veritable puppetmaster calling the shots, and Suh Dong Won has a memorable turn as Choi Il Do, an ex-NIS agent now operating under the name of the “Roadrunner,” specializing in secrets for sale.

As Ji Woo, Nam Sang Mi does a credible job, though fans of romance will complain that she and her costar do not share enough time onscreen together. However, it’s Lee Jun Ki who really makes this drama succeed. The role of Soo Hyun also allows him to showcase his skills in the martial arts, both in traditional combat defense moves and in the muay thai matches in which Kay competes. And it must be noted that the stylist for this production deserves extra credit, as does the production scheduling team for creating a film plan that allowed for Soo Hyun/Kay to model a wide variety of hairstyles, each one completely suited to the character at that point of the story!

Dog or Wolf?

It’s not just the physical appeal of Lee Jun Ki, which is considerable, but his ability to convincingly portray someone who is living life undercover, always on edge, trying to stay focused on his task and to wait for the perfect moment to avenge his parents. One thing that was particularly satisfying was that he managed to portray all of the aspects of his character so fully. There was the emotionally traumatized young boy, the self-contained man on a mission, the tormented failed agent in deep cover, suffering from amnesia (watch the story for how this comes to pass), and then most intriguingly of all, his portrayal of Soo Hyun with memory recovered and horrified by what had happened and who he’d become in his time as Kay and yet he manages to hold on to residual bits of Kay at the same time. He had become both Kay and Soo Hyun! It is no wonder Mao cannot tell if it is the dog or wolf: it is both.

Pastedgraphic-6

There are a few elements of the drama that are less than completely successful. Some of the technical workings of the agents at the NIS come off flatfooted and unprofessional. (Just a tip: if you’re working undercover, spring for a couple of different vans to mix up the look. If you’re working a concession counter undercover know that it’s not typical to have an earpiece and cord snaking down your shirt and forget about speaking into your shirt cuff radio!) That said these are minor complaints when the overall action and pace of the story are considered. Add to that the thrilling cliffhangers – don’t miss the one where Kay is called to go to this art center and in the basement the phone rings! – and you’ve got a highly entertaining drama.

Ultimately, the key to whether a drama is good or not is whether you find yourself unwilling to say good-bye to the characters and want to know what happens in their world long after “The End” comes up on the screen. That is definitely the case with “Time between Dog and Wolf.” No doubt after watching it you will too find yourself sitting in an imaginary twilight, hoping to see a familiar shape coming over the hill… and picturing what happens next in the continuing story of Lee Soo Hyun, Soo Ji Woo, and Kang Min Ki.

One thought on “Review: Time between Dog and Wolf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.