I was intrigued by Avenue X’s praise (and legitimate quibbles) with Love In Between but the things that caught my attention in her review were ‘beautiful lighting’ and ‘live-recorded audio’ and ‘likable ensemble of leads.’ These are indeed reasons to watch this drama, and there are more, so without too much in the way of spoilers (always marked), here’s to my first fully completed drama of the new year!
First off, in terms of atmospheric lighting and general set pieces, this drama delivers the most beautiful, warm, candle-lit (and seriously, did someone in production have the candle concession and/or know about my pet peeve of historical dramas with night scenes lit for electrified day?) sequences that one could ever hope for in a relatively lower budget drama. Maybe they were using candles to reduce their electricity consumption, or perhaps to hide any imperfections on set, but one cannot complain about the end results. The natural shadows and mood created by this illumination just makes every yearning glance that much more poignant.
Just look at this beautiful room and candle-glow; you can just imagine the character of Wen Si Yuan straining to read by the dim light (no matter his levels of qi circulating around his eyeballs). The set piece for this room too is really that much more lovely in candlelight, though it’s satisfyingly detailed enough to enjoy in daytime scenes as well. In fact, although this is a much less Big Production drama than The Longest Day in Chang’an, they share much in the way of beautiful and thoughtful set lighting, and that is high praise because The Longest Day in Chang’an is one of the most stunning I’ve seen… ever.
The other thing that this drama does successfully is deliver on not one, not two, but three romances (not to mention two buddies and one failed suitor). Zuo Qing Ci and Su Yun Luo are the primary young lovers; he is the brilliant, medically trained (but, in a nod to Nirvana In Fire, seriously ill and fur-colored cape-wearing) young master with A Past. She is the young master thief with excellent neigong searching for ingredients to free her master from another type of poison. They’re young, they keep saving each other’s lives, and they’re in love, but they have Important Things to Do that are impediments. They part but cannot keep apart, so there is some lovely yearning time for this couple.
Couple number two is one of an older (30s?) mysterious leader of one of the Jianghu sects (he runs a NIF-like Lanya Hall/business managing information and more), Wen Si Yuan, and the oldest female disciple of the most important of the sects, 18-ish? Shen Man Qing. The flies in their ointment are her arranged marriage commitment to another sect’s (weasel) heir and his Secret Past (and his awareness that he is a little old for her).
Couple number three is the youngest one, a couple of cute kids who meet in times of conflict and whose families are on opposite sides (though not them, nope, not them). They’re Man Qing’s younger martial brother and the heir to their sect, Zheng Yang Palace, Yin Chang Ge.
Now one might think that having so many couples in a drama might bog it down a bit, but it’s really one of the more enjoyable things in this drama. When the story focuses on their joint and/or separate journeys the plot moves along briskly and the mostly very youthful cast more than delivers the emotional goods. I particularly enjoyed Zhang Yao’s lanky, intelligent Zuo Qing Ci; he must have been 21/22 during the filming, but for his relative youth he holds his own with more experienced actors. Nope, for me the show bogs down a bit with what one might call ‘an excess of plot.’ Here are the major arcs: Zuo Qing Ci’s birthright and connection to imperial palace intrigues (a plot to usurp the throne), Su Yun Luo’s and Wen Si Yuan’s connection to a power grab in the sects, and corresponding plots and attacks between sects driven by Zheng Yang Palace (home of Man Qing and Chang Ge). There’s also the little business of an invading army nibbling away at the border of the empire. Whew! Not gonna lie, I took advantage of the WeTV feature to play scenes at 1.5, even 2x speed during some of the more repetitive plotting sequences by the bad guys. (And what a nice feature that is! All streaming apps should off this feature; I can read fast, don’t even need to skip ahead!)
One thing is amusing: while most of the villains of the piece wear the typical black of their kind, take a look at this group shot (above) and their white/pastel robes. Now one might think that they’d be of the more noble and righteous character archetypes, but one would be (minor spoiler but acceptable because come on, look at their smug faces) wrong.
Master and Servant
I also enjoyed the lovely relationships between Zuo Qing Ci and his servant/medical assistant/friend Bai Mo. Poor Bai Mo! Saddled with carrying this medicine kit cum instant market stall backpack most of his scenes, like some sort of porter, but truthfully, he’s charming and adds both humor and concern, reminding us that his master/friend is gravely, GRAVELY ill. Zhi Yun Peng (who was coincidentally a minor supporting character in The Longest Day in Chang’an) as Zhu Yan is initially a little less fleshed out as a character, but he swears an oath of friendship with Chang Ge that bolsters his position with the group to being more than the one with a hopeless (jealous) crush on Su Yun Luo.
All in all, this was a fairly satisfying way to start the new drama-viewing year. Will it be a favorite drama of the year? Probably not, but there’s a lot to like and it hit the spot, and I’ll look forward to seeing more work from the young cast in the future — and hopefully more works filmed with glorious candlelight!
2020 was, for me, the Year of Xiao Zhan. He captivated me in The Untamed (and yes, I watched both the Netflix version and the special edition version — more Xiao Zhan/Wang Yibo scenes), made me catch my breath with his cliffhanger role in Joy of Life, broke my heart with the traumatic negativity and cyber harassment to which he was subjected, and tickled my fancies with each musical appearance and small sighting on Weibo or Douyin (Tiktok), so there was no question that when The Wolf was released in one surprising all-in-one upload (rather than weekly installments) that I was going to watch it. Sure, it was his first major role, he’d expressed concerns about how nervous he was to have people see him as such a novice and judge him for his inexperience, but baby, he had nothing to worry about!
Oh, and note: I’m going to avoid specific spoilers in this review, but there will be some comments that indicate a direction or two in the plot that are minor hints of outcomes. Feel free to read on without risk of having things ruined egregiously 🙂
That’s not to say that this is a perfect drama, a perfect drama, even a pretty good drama because, to be frank, it’s got some rocky moments. It’s also important to note that technically, Xiao Zhan is not the lead male character — Darren Wang is the titular Wolf — but for a number of reasons, for all intents and purposes, you could argue that he is the male protagonist, the one who truly walks away as a survivor, just as he has at the end of this horrible year.
The story is a hybrid fantasy, star-crossed lovers mish-mash that was not helped by the scissors of censorship; originally the Wolf in question was intended to be more of a werewolf (per early trailers), along with his loyal pack, er, team of the “Night Fiends” (members of a sort of a crack paramilitary squad), but with the cuts came a loss of character depth and plot for Darren Wang’s part of the story. He’s now just a human raised by wolves (but with the benefit of being hyper in-tune with nature and being shockingly strong and vulnerable to a certain herb that brings out the beast in him). He meets the lovely, strong, brave, and often naive daughter of an important member of the court, head of an important army supporting the king of Yang. She’s played by Li Qin (you may remember her from Joy of Life, or Xiao Zhan’s movie Jade Dynasty). They frolic and live a happy life exploring the mountains of her hometown, until things go wrong and suddenly they don’t. Misunderstandings and tragedy happen and the big, bad Emperor of Yang is at fault. Said big, bad Emperor of Yang is played by a familiar face, Ding Yongdai, who was the big, bad emperor in Nirvana In Fire. In fact, there is a lot of his performance that feels like he was just channeling that previous (better) performance.
He’s captured wolf-boy (yes, that’s how he’s called by his sweetie), tamed him, made him a tool of war, and even adopted him, making him Prince Bo. But this is never an easy task; just as in all court scenarios, there are ambitious other princes/misunderstandings/tragedies/suspicions/etc. and Prince Bo is often called upon by his adoptive father and Ruler to do his dirty work. This dirty work involves an engagement to his former playmate Ma Zhaixing (Li Qin) in order to keep the army loyal to her under control even though he now hates her/loves her. I did say big, bad Emperor was involved in cooking up some misunderstandings and tragedies, right? Well, he did a number on Ma Zhaixing, but because he’s put the blame on a neighboring kingdom, the Jin, she’s unaware of the truth and labors along under various misconceptions. “Why does he look just like Wolf Boy? Why does he hate me one minute and is nice to me another?”
Into this mix comes a rough-and-tumble brash bounty hunter, Ji Chong (Xiao Zhan), who is captivated by Li Qin and works hard to be her friend and supporter. He’s the one who stands behind her when Prince Bo is treating her badly, and is a clever and resourceful ally. And he’s easily the best-looking of the men in her circle, in spite of the fact that the shooting conditions where rough, causing Xiao Zhan eye problems and skin issues (but we love the stubble the director encouraged him to grow). The minute Ji Chong enters the story things pick up, in part because he’s not part of what must have been the werewolf part of the original plot and therefore his storyline is not as choppy, but mainly because he just brings a freshness and visual honesty to his performance that is lacking in his love rival’s. The open, observant gaze of Xiao Zhan’s Ji Chong is so much more realistic and appealing than the often shifty, squinty, surly gaze of Darren Wang’s Prince Bo. Ji Chong’s emotions and intelligence is right at the surface level; when he’s feeling something, you know what it is and it’s not overplayed. When he’s not speaking in a scene, he’s acting his role as the listener too and frankly, it’s no wonder that when Ma Zhaixing is delivering a speech the camera is often on Ji Chong capturing his reactions! I wonder just how much they changed the story to give him more screen time when they saw how much the camera loved him…
Another person who is just loved by the camera (in spite of the absolutely atrocious hair and costumes given her character — and let me add that the costumes in general for this show look like they were constructed from the scrap yardage bins at the local fabric shop, opting for shiny and/or frayed and/or netting whenever possible) is Xin Zhilei, playing Yao Ji, a sort of hybrid priestess/healer/maybe ex-werewolf? and rival/frenemy to Prince Bo. She was the lovely Haiting Duo Duo in Joy of Life and she has a luminous quality to her performance. I think she outshone Li Qin on a number of occasions; for all her beauty, Li Qin often looks fragile and brittle, but as that’s not out of keeping given what traumas her character endures, it’s not a negative against her looks, but at times her performance is as brittle as she looks. Being a dubbed drama, it’s hard to know how much of this is the way lines are delivered on set versus in dubbing, but it’s clear that she does not have the fluidity of Xiao Zhan’s delivery, nor of more seasoned actors, such as the one who plays the King of the Jin.
Is this drama worth 49 episodes? IMO, if Xiao Zhan were not in it and he did not deliver the performance that he did even as a rookie, I would have to say “no, no it’s not.” There are some good moments, but very few very good moments, and a lot of meh or even borderline laughable moments, but definitely not enough to put this drama in the must-see category. (Of course if you’re a Darren Wang or Li Qin fan, have at it!) I spent a lot of the non-Ji Chong scenes with my finger on the fast-forward button — watch a minute to get the plot advancing gist of the scene and zip to the next — and I’m not in the least bit sorry!
Call it a coincidence, but it’s a strange thing to start The Queen’s Gambit at pretty much the same time as Hikaru No Go, but the result is that I’m now seeing game patterns everywhere! Eh, not really, but two simultaneous game-playing dramas is a lot, but in a very good way. Chess versus Go (or Weiqi in Chinese), it’s amazing how the directors could manage to create dramatic tension in scenes involving placing pieces on squares on a board, but hats off to both productions!
This review is about Hikaru No Go, so I’ll leave comments on the other drama to others’ opinions (though I liked it), so without further a-do… And, this is a generally spoiler-free review, with no major plot points revealed unless marked as a spoiler!
This series (available with English captions on the iQIYI app as well as on their YouTube channel) is adapted with the author’s permission from a very popular Japanese manga and anime series. I’m not familiar with either, but have seen generally favorable comments re: the adaptation to give it a more Chinese setting and feel (other than some jingoistic ‘wasn’t the handover of Hong Kong back to China wonderful’ scenes at the start of the drama to give it a time/place setting which may seem heavy-handed to some viewers). In particular, the praise is given and due to the cast of the live-action adaptation, particularly in the roles of the accidental prodigy Shi Guang (Hu Xianxu) and the spiritual (literally) weiqi mentor Chu Ying (Zhang Chao). The cast of secondary and supporting characters also satisfies in all aspects, notably Shi Guang’s friends Hong He, played by Zhao Haohong, Gu Yu (Ji Li), Shen Yi Lang (Sun Can), and Shi Guang’s rival Yu Liang (Hao Fushen).
The story introduces us to car-obsessed 9-year-old Shi Guang, raised in a single-parent home, which leaves him plenty of unsupervised time to goof off, play around, and live a normal boy life. Mucking around in his grandfather’s attic, looking for something he might be able to sell to finance his model car addiction, he comes across an old weiqi board and, through the mysteries of fate, triggers the resurrection of an ancient master of Go, Chu Ying. Equal parts freaked out and intrigued, Shi Guang comes to accept the appearance of this ghostly persona and learns about his new seemingly companion. Chu Ying is in this interim afterlife because his quest for the perfect Go move was unfulfilled and he’s looking for the person he can mentor to find it — in this current lifetime it appears to be Shi Guang. Shi Guang sees this as a chance to win money from his grandfather (who likes weiqi), and agrees to let Chu Ying guide him through some games. They search for an opponent and come across a club, part of the holdings of the current champion Go master Yu Xiaoyang (played by Jiang Baichaun), the father of Yu Liang. Raised to be a super-Go nerd/future champion, young Yu Liang is playing in the club and, thinking that it would be best to play a peer, Shi Guang challenges him to a match. The unhappy outcome devastates both boys in ways that haunt them, but results in Shi Guang fleeing the responsibility to help Chu Ying. It takes a bullying incident in high school to reunite the two, and set the stage for the future/present (albeit still the past) growth of Shi Guang in the study of Go.
As mentioned, there is a lot of time devoted to the placement of black and white stones on the Go board in this series, and yes, that could be boring, but somehow the characters and settings do keep it lively. The friendship between Chu Ying and Shi Guang is as real as the more ‘normal/earthly’ ones with Hong He or others in his school circles, or the uneasy rivalry/almost yearning for friendship thing he has with Yu Liang. That’s a tribute to the young actors, especially Hu Xianxu. They’ve chosen to have Shi Guang converse directly to/with Chu Ying as if he’s physically in his presence most of the time, but on occasion it’s an internal conversation taking place in his mind — one might ask if all conversations really happen in the mind, or if Chu Ying is a manifested presence most of the time and this just lets us “see” him too because most of the time no one looks twice at Shi Guang when he’s doing something like talking to Chu Ying as he’s walking down the street — either way it doesn’t really matter as much as the bond they demonstrate in the story.
What I found very interesting (and a little bit shocking) was that Shi Guang was allowed to leave school to enter the Go Academy (and it made me think back to Im Siwan’s character in Misaeng, who was on a similar path), rather than get a diploma. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket! This is such a high burden proposition, especially as Shi Guang moves from taking direction on where to place the stones to taking responsibility for his games himself (though still being mentored by Chu Ying outside of official games). The professional and emotional risks are high as this is now his chosen career and he still is trying to help Chu Ying find his special Go move (and, one could say, find meaning to his life and move on in the afterlife). The miracles of online Go play have a special role in this drama (though a huge part of me snickered to think that online games and connectivity — especially connectivity! — could have been anything like that reliable back in the mid-part of the first decade of this century… right?)
In addition to the successful casting of the characters and the generally thoughtful adaptation of the story, the look and feel of the drama is also of a high quality. It’s fair to say that some of the best looking contemporary pieces in Chinese dramas this year have aired on iQIYI, which is why I’ll be keeping this streaming service next year too. There are a few scenes in the last few episodes leading up to the series’ dramatic final scenes in the two story arcs (Shi Guang and Yu Liang’s relationship as rivals and Chu Ying’s mission) that drag a little, but I don’t begrudge the series these brief lapses when we get touching characters like the loyal Hong He making his own life choices. The rewards are many in Hikaru No Go, and it’s one of my favorites in 2020.
This post was inspired by a Twitter conversation; the poster had just started Crash Landing On You (first k-drama experience) and no IRL friends were watching and able to dish. The next question was, what can I watch next?
The limitation is Netflix (for now), but I thought, let’s go through what’s on offer on the site and discuss what I think is a solid choice, and why… so let’s go!
From this batch, there are some clear winners and interesting choices, beginning with It’s Okay to Not Be Okay and Crash Landing On You. Both feature attractive leads (though with K-dramas, it’s safe to assume this will always/mostly be true), strong ensemble casts (ditto for this being a truism in K-dramas), and interesting and fresh stories. Okay touches thoughtfully on mental illness (a rarity in Asian topics) while the couple learns the truths behind their connection to each other. Crash flirts playfully with a NK/SK romantic entente and has fun too with life on the other side of the border. Boys Over Flowers is one to watch for its archetypal formula (hey, it’s been adapted at least 5 other times that I know of!) It’s not the best version (I prefer the Japanese and Taiwanese iterations), but it put Lee Min-ho on the map and its even more of a Cinderella tale than the cute Cinderella and Her Four Knights (which has an appealing ensemble of swains for the leading lady). Romance Is a Bonus Book isn’t perfect, but it’s a pleasure to have two leads with acting talent pine in a book-world setting.
If we’re going to talk about books, Rookie HistorianGoo Hae Ryung is a contemporary twist on the historical genre, with a sassy, smart, career-minded heroine and a sensitive author prince. Strongest Deliveryman is a little guys against the big, with a likable cast and it makes for easy watching (unlike The Winter the Wind Blows with a charismatic cast wasted in an unpleasant story). Hospital Playlist is from the same team as the “Reply” dramas and offers up a smart, ‘you feel like you know these people’ ensemble storyline. There are others in this group worth a look, but later, okay?
This grouping features some titles that started really well but lost their way at the end; I have my eye on The Uncanny Counter because I read good things about it daily, but for my money, the winner in this group is BecauseThis Is My First Life. The old ‘contract roommates’ trope is done right with this smart cast. I may also be one of the few who likes Cheese In The Trap, but the casting worked for me and I appreciated the difficulties of navigating university and love lives.
Oh My Ghost is a winner on 2 counts: not only does it feature one of my favorite leading men in a fun story, but one of my favorite actresses in a very amusing and touching turn as the virgin ghost in question. Kim Seul-gi makes every drama better. Hello My Twenties is a solid ensemble cast going through pretty normal romantic and not-so-romantic issues, but the young women who share the house get thru things together. Mr. Sunshine is not a sunshine-y story, but its setting in one of Korea’s troubled points in history and a top-notch cast make it work a look. Just a reminder: Korean dramas do not always believe in HEAs for everyone. Which leads me to the strongest title in this grouping: My Mister. When the cast was announced I was in a quandary: I adore the male lead and like the work the female lead has done, but I really, really did not want them in a romance. The good news is that this is a love story, in many ways, but not a conventional one where they are concerned. We’ve written a lot about this drama on this site (which is searchable), so I won’t go on too much about it, but suffice to say, this is deep, dark, complex, thoughtful, and lovely (not to mention at times heartbreaking).
When the Camellia Blooms is one of the few chances to enjoy the work of Gong Hyo-jin on Netflix, but she’s always won me over and this ‘found family’ drama is charming. I don’t know if it’s everyone’s cup of tea, but The School Nurse Files is an almost recommended one for its quirky but incomplete story. Save Me is Dark, so definitely not for all, but if you’re into stories of cult-like religion, try it!
Seriously, I don’t know why you haven’t watched Stranger (there are now 2 seasons) yet — what are you waiting for? This is complex, Korean politicking and corruption and murder mystery-ing at its finest, and lead actors Cho Seung-woo and Bae Doona are incomparable together. This is another I’ve written about in detail, so search here for more. I am also very fond of the history-driven, winning ensemble casts of the ‘Reply’ dramas: Reply 1994 and Reply 1988. The mixture of ‘who ends up with whom’ and the period details formula works in all 3 settings. (And btw, note the Xs on some of these non-K-dramas, some are even dreadful!)
Misaeng, this remains one of my favorite K-dramas of all time, for its perfect casting (Im Siwan and those Bambi eyes…) and the slice-of-life setting in the workaholic business world in Korea today (aka Hell Joseon). Much more info is available about it on this site. Also, I didn’t highlight Hymn Of Death because it’s on the war/bad things happen spectrum, but it is well done if you’re curious, and it’s short. [An aside, when searching for Korean dramas on Netflix you’ll see recommendations for other titles, often Chinese. I enjoyed the Love O2O drama and movie adaptations, even though I’m not into gaming.]
I hope you’re still reading, because there are some real winners in this grouping! Another Miss Oh has a couple with Chemistry in its leads, and it feels very contemporary in its telling of a couple who think they’re doomed because of misunderstandings. She’s also very good in (not pictured) Let’s Eat 2 (aka outstanding Korean food porn disguised as a romance, like the first Let’s Eat). Reply 1997 is the first of the ‘Reply’ series (in spite of the year) and is a fun start to the formula, touching on the early days of Korean music fandoms. Finally, don’t sleep on the writer-with-a-haunting problem in Chicago Typewriter with its excellent cast and a house all of us envy.
Some really good dramas are really great bromances and Prison Playbook is that (as is the yellow boxed Chinese drama The Untamed). An unconventional setting and an unforgettable cast are always a winning combination in my playbook. The other I’ll recommend is Dear My Friends for its focus on the difficulties of making life and love work and dealing with older relatives and friends as they age. This is a great introduction to some of the best mature actors in Korean television if you’re new(ish) to the genre. Every single actor in this drama has a long resume of great works.
That’s all for this post! There are many titles available that I did not discuss — some because it’s kinder to say nothing at all (and hey, some people may like them) and in some cases I’ve not yet seen them and/or they’re not my cup of tea. But there are so many choices that are very much worth your time — I hope that you have a lot of fun exploring them and discovering what tickles your fancy!
There might not seem to be many things to celebrate this year, but I know that, in spite of the challenges we face, I do have things to be grateful for, and to anticipate.
I’m grateful that I still have the resources to create a holiday meal, though I’m aware that I am fortunate in this regard; many do not. I’m grateful that I have interests that keep me mentally engaged and positive, even when there are some days that blur one into the next. I’m grateful that I have the inner resources to find things that bring me joy and stimulate my brain, and that I’m never bored (and <i>that</i> is saying something!)
One thing I’m particularly grateful for is having stumbled on <b>The Untamed</b> and the world of MDZS and its authoress, and the talents of its young cast. This was the year I discovered just how many talented people are out there writing fan-fiction, and holy-moley, there are some amazing fics out there inspired by this work! I’ve read some that I would hold up to many heavily-touted and praised published works (and if you’re looking for recommendations, hit me up).
And above all, I’m grateful for you, my friends, who share your enthusiasms and interests (and disappointments, because let’s be frank, not everything will be a winner), even when I’ve been less active on this site this year. I’m making a very late new year’s resolution (or very early one) to do better — scout’s honor!
Here’s hoping that we all have many things more to be thankful for today, and all the days to come.
This review was written for the next issue of the Korean Quarterly. It contains no spoilers regarding the outcomes of the story.
For fans of “Stranger” (aka “Secret Forest”), it’s been a long 3-year wait to continue exploring the intricate mind of Prosecutor Hwang Si-mok, but 2020 has rewarded their devotion with season two in the series. Just what changes have occurred in the interim, and what has changed in his life, and that of his unlikely friend, police detective Han Yeo-jin? And one might also ask, can the second series live up to the incredible achievements of the first?
It’s worth mentioning that while it is not essential to have watched the first series before beginning “Stranger 2” to have a sufficient working understanding of the nature of various characters and who they are as individuals as they are sketched out within the first episode or two, however, to get a fuller portrait of who some of the key players are in this season, or who are referenced within it due to their relationship to secondary plot points in the new season carried forwards from the first, it is recommended that the viewer begins with season one (or re-watches it) before continuing with season 2 for a fuller picture.
“Stranger 2” begins approximately 2 years after the events concluding the first series, which saw Prosecutor Hwang Si-mok (once again played brilliantly by Seung-woo Cho) exiled to a remote prosecutorial district, nominally following a relocation policy schedule to avoid prosecutors get too close to cases (avoiding potential corruption or collusion risks). This assignment is over and he is on his way to a new one when he inadvertently becomes involved in what appears to be an accidental drowning by two young men after heavy drinking, but may also have occurred because of protective barriers negligently removed by another couple. Having traveled the stretch of coastal road the same evening, the circumstances of the case raise questions in Hwang Si-mok’s mind and, never being one to accept the facile answer, he looks into it further to resolve the discrepancies he intuits. It had happened in his district, when he’d been there, and he cannot leave the puzzle behind as he sets off for his new district.
Coincidentally, the case comes before Police Detective Han Yeo-jin (Doona Bae reprising her role), now taking part in a high-level task force looking into ways to improve the visibility of the police, and negotiate the right to have greater investigative control in cases (as opposed to the current investigative power balance held by the prosecutorial services). She too embarrassed police higher-ups with her successful teamwork with Hwang Si-mok in the first series, so while this assignment appears to be a plum reward, there’s a feeling that it’s a bit of “window dressing.” Her new task force leader, Choi Bit (played by Hye-jin Jeon), is the first female intelligence chief of the National Police Agency and bringing in a female detective adds to the gender balance on the team. Han Yeo-jin is asked to review cases where prosecutorial investigations could come in for criticism, supporting the police argument. She is troubled by the easy dismissal of charges against the negligent couple, in light of the fact that 2 people have died, and begins her own examinations.
Little do Hwang Si-mok and Han Yeo-jin know, but their mutual concerns will lead them to cross paths once again, and as potential adversaries!
Each in their own way, their investigative actions alarm their respective leaders. Choi Bit, prior to her new position as Intelligence Chief, was police chief for the district in question where the drowning case occurred, and in questioning aspects of that case, another even more curious case comes to light; the apparent suicide of a police detective, which was also conveniently buried as a suicide, but may have been more insidious — a police-on-police murder. This is not the kind of investigation that looks good for the task force or for improving the public’s opinion of the police in general.
Hwang Si-mok’s questions have him looking into the role of the prosecution team that lead to charges being so quickly dropped against the well-connected man who’d been negligent. A former judge, Oh Joo-sun (played by Hak-seon Kim) now established as a lawyer, looking to capitalize on his reputation and connections, has cut some deals to make the charges go away. This investigation may result in the prosecution looking bad, and with the current agitation to have investigative powers relinquished to the police, the higher powers want to sidetrack Hwang Si-mok so he is re-allocated temporarily to the Prosecutorial side of the joint task force, reporting to Woo Tae-ha (Moo-sung Choi) and his new assignment temporarily deferred. They figure his dogmatic and rule-oriented persona is just what they need on the task force; he’s not connected, unimportant, and if they need a political sacrifice if the negotiations break down or fail, he’s perfect for being a fall guy.
New boss Woo Tae-ha needs to figure out how to get Hwang Si-mok focused on things he wants him to do, but this is not as easy as it looks because he’s not familiar with Hwang Si-mok’s medical history and his resultant lack of emotional reactions (or his incredible, single-minded focus and intelligence). But in walks someone else from the past with a gift that “seems” to be the perfect distraction for Woo Tae-ha to assign to Hwang Si-mok. Season one viewers will rejoice to see the smarmy and borderline corrupt (is he or isn’t he) Prosecutor Seo Dong-jae (once again played by Joon-hyuk Lee), looking to escape his reassignment to the purdah of juvenile case prosecutions in a district outside of Seoul any way he can. He’s brought three cases to Woo Tae-ha that raise questions of police corruption and/or investigative failures that would be perfect ammunition if they can be proven to quash the Police’s argument for investigative rights. Seo Dong-jae is disappointed in his quest; Woo Tae-ha judges him to be exactly who he is, a side-stepping, on-the-make, politically motivated and ambitious type who is of little interest, but he holds onto two of the cases as a token gesture. He hands one of these over to Hwang Si-mok to investigate; it just happens to be the death of the police detective under questionable circumstances and the bribery case behind it that Han Yeo-jin has uncovered.
Needless to say, the first meeting of the joint task force in which the two sides meet are an unexpected but welcome reunion for Hwang Si-mok and Han Yeo-jin, which is at times awkward as each is called upon to defend the respective arguments for why or why not the standards should change, but that soon evaporates as they find themselves working together once again to investigate the same case, and subsequent parallel cases.
A good portion of the story’s investigations pursue three cases that may or may not be linked — as with the first series, the plot threads are complex and tightly interwoven — and there are liberal sprinklings of ‘red herrings’ to further keep the viewers on their toes. In addition to the initial drowning deaths, investigations will explore suicide or murder, another questionable death, conspiracies to hide answers, and the kidnapping of a favorite character.
In another plot wrinkle, there is another link between Hwang Si-mok, the judge, and his recent past. Oh Joo-sun comes to the attention of the new majority owner of Hanjo Group, the widow Lee Yeon-jae (Se-ah Yoon reprising her role) as someone who may be an effective liaison with/weapon against the Prosecutor’s Office, which continues season one’s efforts to pursue Hanjo for tax and other legal misdoings. Seo Dong-jae also approaches Hanjo Group for apparent personal gain, further complicated matters. Just how deeply involved is Lee Yeon-jae, aided by a new assistant, Director Park (played with a slightly sinister touch by Sung-il Jung) in what is happening? That remains to be seen.
This season benefits from some of the same factors that contributed to the successful and highly-rewarding first series, namely the excellent chemistry of Seung-woo Cho and Doona Bae as the unlikeliest of friends and collaborators. Their onscreen rapport is the keystone of the piece, and they work equally well with the veteran actors of “Stranger” as well as those who joined the cast of “Stranger 2.” Though screen time for returning characters such as Sung-gun Park as the head of the Third Prosecutors Division, and former Homicide squad chief Choi Yoon-soo (Bae-soo Jeon), detectives Jang Geon (Jae-woong Choi) and Park Soon Chang (Ji-ho Song) respectively, is relatively brief, they provide not only a link to the past story, but help ground the story in its setting. The script is once again penned by Soo-yeon Lee — worth noting that this is only her third work and that “Stranger” was her first — manages once again to create a tension-filled plot that has strong ties to actual, recent events in South Korea, making for a plausible and emotional story. There is, however, a different director for this second season, Hyun-suk Park, and with him you will see a different tone to the piece. This is most notable in portions of the first few episodes, with a slightly choppier narrative to aspects of the early investigation processes in particular. More backstory, particularly why Hwang Si-mok is the way he is would make for an easier entry into the story if a viewer has not seen the first series, and make various actions in the story more compelling and logical and the omission of this is one criticism that can be made against a generally very satisfying second season.
The new characters of Woo Tae-ha and Choi Bit expanded the exploration of the roles of power and the potential for corruption, as well as decency and righteousness, within the Prosecution and Police Agencies in South Korea that were so crucial to the first story. In these complicated stories we see just how universal the potential is for authority to be misused and used fairly, and how politicized these agencies are. Those familiar with current affairs in South Korea will find familiar events disguised in the plot, and those who are not will see common themes within their own agencies. The actors themselves are excellent choices because they bring something different to the existing cast and contrast with prior characters. Woo Tae-ha is a canny, political animal, but he also seems to act on an almost instinctual level; as smart as he is, he is also impulsive, and not above throwing his authoritative weight around as it suits him. He’s not above being a manipulative bully when it suits him. Choi Bit is a more subtle character, and it’s easy to see how she would succeed as a woman in a man’s traditional world by being low-key and decisive. By glimpses of her home life (she appears to be a single mother) the viewer is led to see her as a woman who’s sacrificed to get to where she is now. She’s risen to her position when a predecessor falls and the question becomes “what will she do to hold on to her position?”
Se-ah Yoon also has an expanded role as the widow and Hanjo Group power figure; her father and brother (primarily offscreen in this series) are her challengers as much is the Prosecution Services looking to cripple the company with tax charges and seeing her begin to step up into this new role is also a welcome addition to the “Stranger” world. Aided by the rigid and perhaps a little too slavishly devoted Director Park, she will become a force to be reckoned.
And that leaves us on a gratifying note for fans of the series, the writer leaves us and her characters in a similar situation as at the end of the first season — their world continues to be complicated, there are threads still to pick up, and new positions and roles to be explored, with a possible third season (perhaps more) yet ahead to delight and confound us!
More distressing news out of Japan: it was reported yesterday that Takeuchi Yuko (40) was found dead, an apparent suicide.
Her work made us laugh, cry, she was gifted at making us fall in love. However many of her dramas and movies you’ve seen, no doubt each title you’ll think of you’ll say to yourself, “ahh… she was sooo good in that!” It’s almost impossible to pick a favorite, but I’ll leave you with this song…
I received news yesterday that our dear Phorum web guru and friend Ben Spade passed away last Tuesday.
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Ben worked tirelessly to keep our Telenovelas website Phorum site, were we spent many hours and formed many friendships, long after it was easy to do so — browser and platform updates made things break if you looked at it cross eyed! But he faced health issues that had him retiring all too soon.
Over the past few years I’ve thought of him often. He was a joy to know and I hope you’ll understand how much I’ll miss him.
I’ve not posted much recently because I’ve not been watching much recently (and we can blame The Untamed for this because I’ve fallen down the fanfic AU rabbit hole in great part for this), but I have watched some very good dramas lately. Top of the list has to be The Bad Kids, a Chinese drama that is dark, well-written, and definitely for those who loved My Ahjussi and dramas of that type.
In fact, I committed to another streaming service subscription in order to watch it (thank you, IQIYI), and I’m not sorry that I did so. Now if they only had a Roku app…
But I digress. And this is a series that deserves your full attention.
The series starts off with a bang, or should I say a push; just some guy committing a little murder. You could call it a reverse cliffhanger because the background to that and the introduction to the titular bad kids is revealed in slow, incremental pieces, and the tension builds sequentially. Oh, and not only do we have that opening stunner, the ending of each episode is a true cliffhanger. This is a drama where the tension at the end is so tight you do not want to watch it when you’re trying to relax at the end of an evening. Just saying…
I mentioned the acting being superb; it is, and I want to know how they find such talented child actors to play roles like this. You have the highly intelligent bookworm raised by his divorced mother, Chaoyang; his best friend, a runaway from a state run orphanage, Liang; and fellow runaway Pu, who needs to find money to pay for her brother’s leukemia treatment, and together they are involved in one drastic moment after another. These kids will break your heart because they are so much on their own, must be so self-reliant on each other because there is no one else they can fully rely on. Only model student Chaoyang has a parent in his life, but she’s employed at a resort and often stays away in the dorms there as part of her work, whereas Liang’s father is locked up and Pupu is an orphan. Especially in the case of Liang, you see the resilience born of need, the unwarranted self-confidence that he can make his own decisions, and it creates nothing but worry when watching him. The little actress who plays Pupu is a heartbreaker with her luminous eyes and fragile figure, but she’s the glue in this threesome.
Without revealing too much of the plot, the three come across information that leads them into a dangerous course of action. In lesser hands, and in other worlds their decisions would come across as implausible, but because they’ve been thrust into a world in which they must be self-reliant and feel that they have few alternatives, those choices are not far fetched (even if you shout at them across the screen, “don’t do that!”)
The adults in this drama do their fair share too, from the math teacher antagonist Qin Hao, to the two policemen who have the power to change the course of the story (Lu Fang Sheng, who plays Ye Jun might look familiar to those who’ve seen The Longest Day In Chang’An where he played another investigator). And, when you have children who’ve fallen into these desperate situations, you have those adults who have let them down, either intentionally, or due to their own circumstances. Chaoyang’s mother is a case in point; as a divorced single parent it’s clear her life isn’t an easy one, but her actions in raising him and trying to do the right thing contribute, albeit indirectly, to what transpires.
With all this being said, I encourage you to check out The Bad Kids. IQIYI allows for trial free watching for newcomers, so take advantage of that. (Also, they’re bringing out content I’m not seeing on some other sites, so it will be worth keeping an eye on them.) The steamy, almost palpable tropical setting in Ningzhou is the perfect setting for a drama like this one this summer.