Stranger (Secret Forest) – Series Review

Originally published in the Korean Quarterly.

I watch a lot of mysteries, from the “cozies” to police procedurals, but with long experience comes great expectations.

To win and keep my interest, a series must meet a select criterion, beginning with a credible but complex plot. It cannot be so simple that the viewer has it all figured out within the first half of the tale; the plot needs a MacGuffin (or two). It has to keep me in suspense, trying to figure out what is going to happen next. Even the best story can be sunk by poor acting, so it’s essential that the drama’s world is populated by characters you care about, with plausible villains to overcome, and each role brought to life by talented actors. A series that lives up to even half these demands is a rare find, but one that ticks every box, and in superlative fashion is to be savored, watched, and re-watched. In 2017, tvN struck gold in Stranger (Secret Forest).

While there are many reasons why this was last year’s finest drama amongst the many screened by this reviewer, the primary reason for was the remarkable performance of the ensemble cast’s lead actor, Cho Seung-woo. He created a character so intriguing and original that it’s still hard to accept that the series is over and there are no new episodes in which Prosecutor Hwang Shi-mok displays his dedication and brilliance.

As an intellectually gifted but troubled child, Hwang Shi-mok underwent a surgical procedure to correct a condition that made him hyper-sensitive to noise, and as a result, he’s unable to feel normal emotions. Without the distractions of emotion, he’s dedicated himself to the studies that led to a prosecutorial career, dealing with facts and reason. He has a reputation amongst his peers as being both inflexible and incorruptible (which doesn’t mean that he’s well-liked).

Normally, this type of condition imposed on a lead character seems manipulative and unrealistic, but after doing a little fact-checking, it seems that there is a medical basis for Hwang Shi-mok’s behavior. As portrayed by Cho, his calm, pure, and unemotional gaze as he evaluates any stimulus or fact presented makes him more interesting somehow. He’s not playing an autistic savant, his performance is not showy, just quietly effective. His expressionless, dogged pursuit of the right thing without any awareness of the social niceties is exceptional. It must have been incredibly difficult to communicate without the smiles and frowns of normal interactions. Imagine having to portray a character so complex and keep him so compelling to watch. Yet Cho Seung-woo manages to humanize him, even when Hwang Shi-mok seems inhuman.

The drama begins with Hwang Shi-mok calling upon a person of interest at his place of residence, only to discover him lying in a pool of blood, the victim of a homicide, and the plot is off to the races. This is not the time to allow yourself to get distracted; the pace is fast, and several incidences take place within the first episode, and as well, a number of the major players are introduced and revealed to have some interest in the death of CEO Park.

The first of these is police detective Han Yeo-jin, responding to the call from Hwang Shi-mok reporting the crime. Uncertain of his identity at the crime scene, he’s first a person of suspicion, but after an impatient clarification on his part, she joins in his pursuit of the suspected killer. This is the first step in their unexpected partnership.

Brought to life by actress Bae Doona, Han Yeo-jin is the perfect complement to Hwang Shi-mok. Bae’s Detective Han is just as dogged and intelligent in the pursuit of the facts in any case as Hwang Shi-mok, but unlike him is compassionate and aware of social niceties. She has her own personality quirks. For example, she sketches things (not very well) she’s seen that resonate with her at crime scenes as a memory aid, including some memorable ones of this new prosecutor she’s met.

But as fascinating as the interactions are between these two, this is an ensemble piece and the other characters are integral to the plot. One of the smarmiest of the group is served up by Lee Joon-hyuk; Prosecutor Seo Dong-jae. He’s one of the many ciphers for Hwang Shi-mok to untangle; is he a murderer, complicit in the wider conspiracy, or just incorrigibly corrupt? Wily and deeply untrusting and untrustworthy, Seo Dong-jae demonstrates the range of Lee’s talent.

They’re overseen at the Seoul Western District Public Prosecutors office by Lee Chang-joon, played brilliantly by Yoo Jae-myung. At times you’re left to wonder if this is an honest and decent man trying to succeed, if only to satisfy his rich and powerful father-in-law, or if he’s playing some other very deep game. Is Hwang Shi-mok a reminder to Lee Chang-joon of his past-or-present conscience and ethics? Yoo’s performance is sympathetic and detailed. As a close colleague of Cho Seung-woo’s, the two interact in their respective roles authentically and effortlessly.

The murder is the first of several to come, and the solution to it and those that follow are part of a broader web of intrigue that touches on a number of social and political issues that will resonate with those familiar with South Korea today. It involves murder, corruption, prostitution as part of deal-making, and more and it’s all carefully woven together. Praise is due to tvN for taking a chance on a rookie author Lee Soo-yun; Stranger (Secret Forest)was an ambitious undertaking. It was also pre-produced and licensed to Netflix for global distribution.

 

As the evidence in the first and subsequent crimes grow and are revealed to be politically sensitive, a joint task force between the police and prosecutors. Hwang Shi-mok is joined by Yoon Se-won, a rising young prosecutor, played by Lee Kyu-hyung, one of Han Yeo-jin’s colleagues, and Kim Jung Bon, a childhood acquaintance of Hwang Shi-mok’s, currently unsuccessful in his career, portrayed by Seo Dong-won. With her own agenda, junior prosecutor Young Eun-soo, played by Shin Hye-sun, keeps tabs on the investigation.

What leaves the greatest impression, though, in every episode and shared scene, is the professional relationship between our two central characters — one who has no understanding of empathy and the other who is highly empathetic, but they get along and trust each other so well. You would think that she would find him an impossible, uncaring jerk, and he would find her baffling (except that it’s possible that he doesn’t have the ability to evaluate someone that way) or care how someone is or isn’t. When the special investigation team is formed, Yeo-jin learns that Shi-mok had identified key details about the team members that would lead him to be cautious of them. She asks if she was investigated too and he just looks at her and tells her that there would be no need for that. Their mutual trust is a moment of shared pleasure — he even has a hint of a rare smile as he leaves the room.

One of the things a drama lover will appreciate most about this story is that people who are in positions that require intelligence and insight actually possess those skills, instead of being so stupid that you wonder that they know how to walk and breathe at the same time. They also have a pretty shrewd understanding of human nature and a double dose of cunning. But rather than give away any plot details, let’s keep the focus on our two heroes.

It’s impossible not to love Bae Doona’s characterization of Han Yeo-jin. Her part could just as easily have been played by a guy, and it’s refreshing that the relationship she has with Hwang Shi-mok is not a traditional one. They share principles and focus. In an interview, she said that when she first got the script she didn’t see much of a role there for her, but it grew into something special. As the script was further developed she could see how challenging it would be to approach a role this way. Every scene she’s in with Cho Seung-woo is a master class in character development and psychology.

It’s easy to picture her having discussions with the writer and director to do little things like taking pity on the elderly mother of the first victim and inviting her to share her little apartment for a while as ways to show her character’s humanity – things that might not have originally been in the script but add so much.

She’s also not looking for a romance here, she’s looking for a collaborator who is as ethical and intelligent as she is and her teasing him with the use of the word “us” and his small smile is so charming because they make such a good pair.

This could, in the hands of another writer, have become a generic crime-fighting duo romance, with a glamorous lady cop and a manly prosecutor (both wearing designer duds), instead of these two, she in her plain sneakers and pants and he in his office uniform of a white shirt and dark off-the-rack suit.

The drama further upends convention by not creating a “love line” in this story, though it’s interesting to see that they show us that Hwang Shi-mok is an object of fascination as a good-looking man with a fairly important job to several women. Their eyes light up when they seem him – and his hoobaedefinitely wants to impress him, and not just as a good prosecutor. But we can see that his life is fulfilling to him. We’re more than amply compensated; we can enjoy watching data and analytical processing run through his brain through his eyes in that subtle, ‘not giving anything away’ fashion. He reacts to the pure pleasure of working with another person who understands the things that motivate him in his daily work, and it’s a beautiful thing to see Cho Seung-won bring Hwang Shi-mok to life.

What also makes it work is that Han Yeo-jin is the kind of person she is; empathetic and equally analytical. She lives alone, why is that? Is it because she too feels that relationships aren’t her thing? Their partnership and their friendship are platonic, but on a very pure level because there is trust.

That’s a pretty remarkable thing, this trusting partnership because this drama does a fine job of making you distrust just about everyone else, and with good reason. Many people have their own agendas in this story and trust is a relative thing when you need to get your piece of the pie or keep your neck out of the noose.

Without giving away any more of the plot details (which are rich and complicated and couldn’t be adequately summarized here anyway), this is a must-see drama for anyone who loves quality acting ensembles, movie-quality direction, and a plot that keeps you guessing every step of the way. And if you’re a mystery lover like me, you will want to keep Stranger (Secret Forest) on your viewing list for repeat viewing – once will not be enough!

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Drama Review: More than a Rumor, “Grapevine” Is A Winner

Originally published in the “Korean Quarterly.”

What if Romeo and Juliet or any other star-crossed lovers took charge of their destiny? Forget vials of poison in the crypt and tragic endings, if they were as intelligent and motivated as the protagonists of the dark comedy “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” they might just have ruled the world!

From the punchy opening chords of the electric keyboard from “Heard a Rumor,” by Jang Kiha and Faces, used as the opening title song, to the scenes of the elegant and expansive Han household being run like clockwork, viewers should immediately be aware that they are not entering into the typical family drama. The atmosphere is one of money, but also of care and attention. The visuals of this drama are one of the most impressive, with a quality usually scene only in the cinema, and that’s particularly appropriate as the drama stars actors who have made their names in the cinema and use their talents wisely and well.

Cast of Heard It Through the Grapevine

Ah Sung Go may be a young actress, but she has an impressive film resume to her name, including the recent “Snowpiercer.” As Seo Bom, the radical Juliet of the drama, she deftly portrays a character that is practical, but with the ability to dream big, passionate, but with an ability to plan. And she is a fighter, ready to take on any challenge. She will need to be, because the drama opens to introduce her as a fully pregnant, unwed teenage mother and (by necessity) a high school dropout, living with her family in their cramped and worn house in a working class part of Seoul. Continue reading

Drama Review: Not Your Average Next Door Neighbors

This review was written for the Korean Quarterly.

A young woman observes the neighbor across the way far too intently. A small dog may come to harm. A wedding ring goes missing. No, that last sentence is just a joke, this is not a remake of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” it’s the romantic mishaps of the a group of young neighbors in manga-inspired “Flower Boy Next Door!”

The third installment in the Flower Boy series (“Flower Boy Ramen Shop” and “Shut Up Flower Boy Band” preceded it) proves that the Korean cable network TvN has a successful franchise on their hands with the flower boy conceit. Take a cast of attractive young men, add a central heroine to the mix, and spin a romantic tale. The one thing that the three dramas have done very well is to deliver well-cast stories that illustrate an understanding of human behavior. They’ve all succeeded exceedingly well in portraying some very genuine and touching emotions. The writers have captured the humor and the angst, as well as the vulnerabilities and egos of their characters. Furthermore, beyond the great casting work in selecting memorable lead performers, they have created supporting roles that mesh as successful ensembles.

Let’s meet the neighbors in question.

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Review: Arang Fights Heaven and Hell for a Good Cause (and Saves the Universe)

This review was written for Korean Quarterly and appears in the 1st quarter 2014 issue.

Here is some advice before viewing the fantasy period drama, “Arang and the Magistrate”: let the story unfold like any good ghost story told before a crackling fire on a dark and stormy night, but pay attention! There are hundreds of little plot details that are laid out in each episode. In fact, this drama unfolds like a complex mystery novel, or perhaps a better analogy would be painting a picture. You begin with an initial sketch and the composition is interesting, it tells a story, but as the layers and layers of paint are added the image becomes richer and more nuanced. As each incremental piece of the tale is revealed, you become more and more engaged in it, wanting to know why someone is a particular way and what will happen next… and then bam! You get the answers, and they shock you!

In an opening that is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” in which the reader is told that it’s important to believe that Jacob Marley is dead (or else you won’t believe in the miraculous tale that unfolds), the drama begins with a similar explanation. There is something odd about things these days; the barriers between the living and the dead have altered and now ghosts roam freely amongst the living. Oh, and ghosts have the advantage of being able to see humans but not the other way around. Except for one person, that is: a young man by the name of Eun-oh.

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Drama Drama Review: Cinderella Meets Her Prince (But There’s a Catch)

This review was written for and appeared in the Korean Quarterly.

In “Rooftop Prince,” the SBS network entered another drama into the 2012 time-travel sweepstakes* and came up with two-thirds of a cracking good story.

Our first introduction to the drama’s protagonist takes place one traumatic evening in 18th-century Joseon; Crown Prince Yi Gak, played by Micky Yoochun (who also goes by Yoo-chun Park), awakens to find himself alone in his bed, no sign of his princess. The alarm is raised and soon grim news is brought, news that sends him racing through the palace. Shockingly, a body is floating in the pond and it is that of his princess.

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