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 hoobae definitely 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!

#bae-doona, #cho-seung-woo, #forest-of-secrets, #jo-seung-woo, #lee-joon-hyuk, #lee-kyu-hyung, #lee-soo-yun, #netflix, #seo-dong-won, #shin-hye-sun, #stranger-secret-forest, #tvn, #yoo-jae-myung

Matrimonial Chaos – Series Review

Now that it’s almost December, I think it’s safe to crown my winner as my favorite drama of 2018, and yes, it’s Matrimonial Chaos (aka The Best Divorce). This kind of drama appeals to me most, so it may not suit the tastes of others, but if you too appreciate relationship-driven stories where most situations and conversations are grounded in realities that are familiar to anyone who has had adult romances (with all their inherent ups and downs), then this series will win you over as well.

The story revolves around divorces and separations and reconciliations and new beginnings, but not always in expected ways. It’s each of those little twists and turns – pivots – that enliven the drama. It’s a remake of a Japanese drama, Saikou no Rikon, so I don’t know how much is unique to this production and how much echoes the original version’s plot, but I applaud the efforts of either (or both) writer.

Annoying Suk-mo (Cha Tae-hyun), dreamer Hwi-roo (Bae Doona), reserved Yoo-young (Lee El), and impulsive Jang-hyun (Son Suk-goo)… it’s easy to try and describe each of the four main characters by some of their more pronounced personality traits, but that shortchanges the actors and the writer because there is so much more to the “chaos.” In fact, by the end of the story, it’s easy to see how many traits each of the four share.

Suk-mo, a security guard, and Hwi-roo, a substitute gym teacher, are the first couple introduced. They’ve been married for 3 years and have entered the phase where each is feeling a bit unappreciated for the things they bring to the marriage. They’ve lost sight of the things that brought them together, and it seems that the nagging Suk-mo is the least content. They’ve retreated to their private moments to work on their respective dreams (he wants to be a musician, she a children’s storybook writer), instead of sharing these ambitions. They have an interesting support network, of sorts, in his step-grandmother Mi-sook, played by the lovely Moon Sook, who runs a cafe and is on a curling team with Hwi-roo, and Ma-roo (played by Kim Hye-joon), Hwi-roo’s younger sister, who works in the cafe.

They notice a man (Jang-hyun) in their neighborhood who appears to have at least one relationship going on (evoking envy in Hwi-roo, who misses the passionate days of her relationship with Suk-mo). It comes as a burdensome revelation to Suk-mo that he is the husband of Yoo-young, not the recipient of those witnessed heady embraces and coincidentally Suk-mo’s college love. He’s a product designer and art instructor and she runs a small clothing atelier where she designs and constructs women’s clothing.

To get further into the details, and without any significant spoilers, I’ll continue after the jump.

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#bae-doona, #cha-tae-hyun, #kim-hye-joon, #lee-el, #matrimonial-chaos, #moon-sook, #saikou-no-rikon, #son-suk-goo, #the-best-divorce

I didn’t think Matrimonial Chaos could get better…

… but it did!

#bae-doona, #lee-jong-hyuk, #matrimonial-chaos

Sampling New Dramas – Matrimonial Chaos

In order to not completely break my heart in a hurry over Argon, I took a look at some of the titles available on Kocowa (might as well, now that I’m paying for it) and chose Matrimonial Chaos, with Bae Doona and Cha Tae-hyun. It’s currently on-air, so don’t rush to pick it up just yet, but on the strength of the first 6 hours worth of episodes (12), I’d say go ahead and put it on your watch list.

This type of story is completely my cup of tea; you have realistic couples with realistic relationship issues, a nice mix of contemporary issues, and a pleasing supporting cast.

Bae Doona (Hwi-roo) and Cha Tae-hyun (Suk-moo)are married couple one: she’s kind of impulsive, but very likable, whereas he’s kind of a blockhead who doesn’t really seem to appreciate his relationships with anyone, let alone his own wife. Lee El (Yoo-young) and Son Suk-goo (Jang-hyun) round out this story’s semi-quadrilateral relationship structure. She is Suk-moo’s college girlfriend, a clothing designer, who seems to be meekly married to serial cheater and artist Jang-hyun. Suk-moo meets his ex again (she’s a customer of the security company he works for) at a point in his life where just about everything in his marriage to Hwi-roo irritates him, and the story begins to upset apple carts everywhere.

I particularly like the woman who plays Suk-moo’s step-grandmother, actress (she and Hwi-roo belong to a curling team!) I think she had a small part in the first season of Age of Youth as the building owner. She’s got an interesting demeanor and role; she’s been divorced, she’s not a blood relative but seems to be the only person Suk-moo loves, she employs Hwi-roo’s younger sister, and seems to create an emotional shelter for anyone who comes into her cafe – even Jang-hyun, the ‘cad’.

Needless to say, Bae Doona is the main draw for me in any piece, and she once again effortlessly creates a relatable character. That Hwi-roo and Yoo-young can become friends even knowing that she’s her husband’s ex-girlfriend is not at all remarkable when you see what kind of open and frank good nature Bae gives her character. Lee El is playing someone so emotionally restrained, almost timid, but elegant – a nice change from the more typical strong and/or sexy types she often delivers – and Yoo-young’s past and present stories give her a nice touch of complexity.

Cha Tae-hyun’s Suk-moo is the husband-type I’d like to give a good kick in the pants because he is too busy counting all his disappointments that he doesn’t appreciate all his gifts. The way they’ve styled his hair too seems like a visual joke; he even looks like the blockhead Suk-moo is! He’s not a complete jerk, though, because he defends women, doesn’t hit on his ex (respects that she is married and he is too), and believes in living a decent/moral life (in a non-preachy way). Hey, any man who cooks dinner for his wife scores points with me! But Son Suk-goo’s Jang-hyun the ‘cad’ is the real puzzle piece in this story. I’m not familiar with the actor (he was in Mother, Suits, and Sense8), but he’s certainly delivering an unusual performance. Jang-hyun seems to almost sleepwalk his way through life, or thru lives, I should say; he goes from one girfriend’s bed to another, to home and to work, and in most every conversation he looks at others through his heavily-lidded eyes like he’s about to drop off. It’s a very low-energy performance, but it’s so curiously effective. I’m definitely interested in seeing how his story plays out.

Here’s the trailer for it:

#bae-doona, #cha-tae-hyun, #lee-el, #matrimonial-chaos, #moon-suk, #son-suk-goo, #wi-ha-joon

Hanging out with a Stranger again

I had bookmarked Stranger on NetFlix, hoping to get Craig to watch it (the fast and dense subtitles for episode 1 did him in, sadly), but I left it there because I am an optimist and hoped I could talk him into trying again. But knowing that you’re watching it, Yolette, I couldn’t pass up the chance to spend some more time with the characters I found so fascinating. And now, 10 episodes later, I’m hooked all over again even though I know “whodunnit” just because I chortle at every little non-reaction from Hwang Shi-mok, or cheer at every badass standup moment from Han Yeo-jin.

When all is said and done, I think I’m going to have to put together a list of my favorite moments (if that’s possible without it being in the multiple teens).

Here’s one several to start (after the jump) from episode 9 or 10:

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#bae-doona, #cho-seung-woo, #jo-seung-woo, #stranger, #stranger-secret-forest

Stranger – Up to Ep. 6

The TV repair guy’s family is now suing hahahahahahaha.  OMG I can’t… Continue reading

#bae-doona, #cho-seung-woo, #jo-seung-woo, #stranger, #stranger-secret-forest

Started watching “Stranger” (Secret Forest)…

… and so far I have no idea who the stranger is and where’s the forest? Continue reading

#bae-doona, #cho-seung-woo, #stranger, #stranger-secret-forest