Stranger 2: Series Review

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?

The team is back!

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.

Ah, Si-mok, we’ve missed you

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.

Yeo-jin getting the runaround (again)

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!

Choi Bit, a tough new boss for Han Yeo-jin

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.

Woo Tae-ha, bully and…?

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.

What would ‘Stranger’ be without Seo Dong-jae?

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.

New settings, new issues, new lies

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?”

The widow takes on new challenges

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!

#bae-doona, #cho-seung-woo, #choi-moo-sung, #jeon-hye-jin, #kim-hak-seon, #lee-joon-hyuk, #stranger-secret-forest, #stranger-2, #yoon-se-ah

Down memory lane..

So exciting to see that they just had a reunion of our beloved Coffee Prince gang and I was all set to watch it but then I thought…wait..it’s time to see it again before I do that..so I started up again and am enjoying it just as much..love these guys..it’s a bit sad to know that one young man is gone but honestly..seeing these future leading men at the beginning is so interesting..seeing a younger version of My Mister with his sexy voice..btw..the man has one of the sexiest walks as well..just saying..and of course Gong Yoo and Kim Jae Wook…sigh…how can anyone doubt that these guys were going to be around for a long time?? And..looking not much older??

These kinds of dramas are the ones responsible for our kdrama obsession…that’s for sure!!

Remembering Yuko

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…

#in-memoriam, #takeuchi-yuko

Remembering Ben

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.

#ben-spade, #foro-de-telenovelas, #in-memoriam, #phorum

Oh My Baby

I can never pass up a Jang Nara drama of course!

As you might know this is a familiar story of a 40 something woman who is fighting the biological clock and decides that she really wants a child.

I did enjoy it at the end of the day. I thought it was quite balanced in that it touched upon various issues relating to..not only this specific issue..but also to related issues. It was almost as if the writer said..ok..we will have one character representing a working mother..one character representing a divorced mother..one character representing a single mother..etc..this enabled us to get different points of view and also served as a lesson to say that NOTHING is perfect..that choices have to be made..that we must all live by our choices. THe three men did a great job I thought..one a childhood friend..one an irritating one and the last a young, purehearted guy who honestly seems much too good to be true.

Probably one of the strongest relationship in the drama was between Jang Nara and her mom..lovely moments between them. I was also super excited to see that Go Joon was one of the potential fathers. I had never even heard of him before until I saw him as a very minor secondary character in Save Me – noticed him right away..but had no idea he was in this drama!! Let me just say that Mr. Voice has a very serious contender..lol..his low voice is awesome..as is the rest of him of course….

Thumbs up!!

Save me….Please!!

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I was really charmed by Woo Do-Hwan and I wanted to see more of him. Many people have mentioned Save Me as one of his earlier dramas so when I accidentally came across it I decided to check it out. My heart sank when I saw that the lead was Taecyon..as you know he is not one of my favourites..though he might be a sweet boy he’s a terrible actor in my view and I just can’t understand why he keeps getting such plum roles..but nevermind..I decided to overlook it. One other thing that made me hesitate was that I saw that it was about a cult and all it’s  activities in the small town..didn’t relish watching such obvious manipulation but I do really like the actor who plays the cult leader. First thing to stand out was that they gave him totally white hair and it just visually shocks the eyes and gives you warning that this isn’t an ordinary villain. He says and does all the “right” things but you can just see (unless you have already joined his cult) that there is something dark behind those eyes…

Back to our main characters..the group of highschool friends who like to hang out..who obviously care about each other but who carry different baggage as well.. Do-Hwan’s father being the town drunk..Taecyon’s father being the governor..each with their own pressures but basically good guys..

Then we meet the main family…consisting of the parents and a teenage son and daughter.down on their luck..scammed out of their savings and left without even a home or job..they come under the radar of the cult and little by little..in the most innocent of ways..especially after the suicide of the son who is bullied..the family falls apart and are at their most vulnerable..perfect victims to unscrupulous villains.

But..it’s not only about the obvious villains..it’s about others who aren’t above putting ambition and their own well being above justice and aren’t afraid to corrupt anyone who will help them do it.

I’ve only watched three episodes but I’m not sure I will continue..it’s toooooo creepy for me right now..and it’s unbearably sad and I know there is more to come before..hopefully..things get better…It’s not the first time of course that we see the rich man getting  away with murder but it’s especially hard to see it here!!

 

Everything is good about The Bad Kids

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.

#dollar-rong, #iqiyi, #lu-fang-shen, #qin-hao, #shi-peng-yuan, #the-bad-kids, #wang-jing-chun, #wang-sheng-di, #zhu-chao-yang

Sad news out of Japan today…

I’m sorry that my first post in a while is prompted by very sad news, but it has been reported that Haruma Miura, at just 30 years of age, has been found dead of an apparent suicide.

There will be many who are as shocked as I was upon hearing this news, but we can never know what someone else is going through to lead to this drastic step. My only hope is that someday all communities will embrace counseling and the treatment of mental health issues fully, and without shame.

I will treasure his work and think of him as that delightful High School Samurai, and I wish that his loved ones are supported in their grief.

#haruma-miura, #miura-haruma

Mystic Pop Up Bar

Had no intention of watching this but I needed some reprieve from the disappointment of the King and this one was short and sweet at only 12 episodes.

Enjoying it so far – half way through..I love the main characters..each one is doing a great job of keeping me entertained..you have your sweet innocent young man who is cursed with the fact that whenever he touches someone they immediately need to share their thoughts..then you’ve got the two supernatural beings..she is able to go into people’s dreams  and fix their problems (he does all the grunt work) but she is being punished and must fulfill a quota of clients – that’s where our young man comes in..he brings them in and she fixes them..sounds like a yawner but each case is interesting and as they work with each other they become closer too. Think a condensed version of Hotel de Luna without Iu’s wardrobe..lol..

#choi-won-young, #hwang-jung-eum, #mystic-pop-up-bar, #yook-sung-jae

King: Eternal Monarch – half way through…

Sigh….so disappointed so far… I can totally see why the ratings were so low.

I’m up to episode 7 right now and the one and only highlight is the eye candy that our King provides..he’s never looked better in my eyes..but that’s not enough to last through 16 episodes!! I like the main actress but they have no wow factor during their scenes at all..I think it’s suffering from very bad writing..the love story just has no real substance and definitely no progression..the plotline is convoluted and hard to follow (at least for me)..and to tell you the truth I don’t  care about following it at all. It’s not the first time that I gave up on trying to understand the twists and turns but I was always compensated by the rest of the positives but I can’t say the same for this one. There are quite likeable secondary characters (like Woo Do hwan in a duo role for instance) but I keep nodding off while watching this…not a good sign..I hope that it improves..fingers crossed!!

#kim-go-eun, #king-the-eternal-monarch, #lee-min-ho, #woo-do-whan