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

Finished Forest of Secrets!

There’s soooo much to love in this drama. It was really a great experience. I fell in love all over again with our star and have a new appreciation of our heroine. I think she was just perfect in this role – I’m curious as to how she would tackle a romantic role though — I have NO doubts whatsoever about him (lol), though the only two dramas that I’ve seen him in haven’t had romance!!

For me there was no weak link or fast forward material at all – how often can we say that?? And what I really liked was that the characters were so well written and so real and they stayed true to character till the end. The writers never went off track. The good, the bad, the ugly of life… it showed that there is no magic solution but that you just have to keep on trying to get rid of the bad guys. And the show asks us, who are the real monsters?

It reminded me sooo strongly of Punch though. Watching that drama was an unforgettable experience. It had just the same tight writing, plot twists, amazing characters, human emotion and frailty and weakness galore.  The acting was superb. There were no real heroes and lots of villains and I felt so exhausted as the writers led the audience by the nose along the twisted path! I wouldn’t have missed it for the world though.

These are the kinds of dramas that will stay with us and make us happy to be fans of the genre.

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

Forest of Secrets – Up to Ep 13

Oh NOOOOOOOO…not Eun Soo..

 

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

Forest of Secrets – up to Ep 9

Whom do I trust?????? Who is real??? I think I know but honestly these writers are having so much fun with us in peeling the onion skin oh so slowly and throinw little tidbits to consider (just in case you think you have it figured out.) I’ve come to consider every line of dialogue and look for hidden meanings.

Spoilers follow after the jump.

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#bae-doona, #cho-seung-woo, #forest-of-secrets, #jo-seung-woo, #secret-forest

Forest of Secrets – first few thoughts…

What can I say..my mind is spinning trying in vain to keep facts and names and faces straight, but there’s one face that I have no problem with, our hero!

Robin..I can understand your reaction to him. I’m just loving him to pieces!!

First of all, on a superficial note, there’s something about his face that I find so beautiful and aside from the physical. I also love how expressive his face can be, even though he is not able to feel emotion at all and it is supposed to be just the opposite. There’s just something in his gaze when I look at him that tells me that this isn’t just a robot talking. Yes, there is curiosity and intelligence and a passion to get at the truth as well as insensitivity, but there is also humanity that I see there. Kudos to this actor for bring that out. His previous role gave him no opportunity to be subtle and thankfully he’s making up for that here.

I love to see his mind constantly thinking and there is a certain amount of comfort in watching him go through scenes and scenarios that would have made “normal” characters cringe in humiliation or embarassment.

I love our lady cop too. She’s just so “normal” in many ways but can step up and wear her cop hat in an instant when she has to. She’s forthright and honest and soooo wants to do the right thing. She can be like a dog with a bone but she can also empathize and give chances to those who need them. They have a really interesting relationship, which is just at it’s beginning so far, but these are two good guys I can get behind.

I also find the side characters interesting. I’m a sucker for the bad guy with a hint of something to keep him from being totally black (and boring) and I think we have one — or two here as well — even better as far as I’m concerned.

I must admit though that I can only watch an episode at a time (right now)..only because there is so much to digest..which is fine with me..more episodes to look forward to for longer!

#bae-doona, #cho-seung-woo, #forest-of-secrets, #jo-seung-woo, #secret-forest

No doubts, Secret Forest will be the year’s best drama

Of course, that’s just my opinion, but I think that this will be a tough one to beat.

Without giving away any 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.

I fell hard for Jo Seung-Woo’s character – Prosecutor Hwang Shi-mok – within the first few seconds of him being onscreen. His expressionless, dogged pursuit of the right thing without any awareness of the social niceties is brilliantly portrayed by Jo Seung-woo. When you think about it, it’s incredibly difficult to communicate without the smiles and frowns of normal interactions; imagine having to portray a character like that and keep him so compelling to watch! And he manages to humanize him, even when Hwang Shi-mok seems somewhat inhuman. Amazing performance!

Bae Doona is the perfect counterpoint playing the honest and intrepid police detective Han Yeo-jin, because she manages to have kept her integrity and compassion in a tough environment. She brings the warmth to the equation, and it works.

The plot involves murder, corruption, prostitution as part of deal-making, and more and it’s all carefully woven together. Watching Hwang Shi-mok dig thru the ‘murk’ with the help of Han Yeo-jin, even when it seems for every 2 steps forward there’s 1 step backwards.

I mentioned the ensemble cast? It’s equally up to the task of the storytelling. Remember the guy who was the noble prosecutor in City Hunter and how much we liked him? It’s fun to watch him here as the shifty and conniving prosecutor Seo Dong-jae!

I hope you watch it too, now that it’s finished, so that we can discuss it!

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

Stranger (Secret Forest) progress report

Okay, I’m not going to include any spoilers of note, but I have to say that the characters Hwang Shi-mok and Han Yeo-jin (Jo Seung-woo and Bae Doona respectively) are probably going to be my favorites of 2017, and there’s still half the year (and drama) to go!

I feel like this one is my reward for sticking with Man X Man; the acting and plotting is top drawer here. I should be kicking myself for watching it as it airs (and don’t get me wrong, there are times that I do), but I kind of like the anticipation as I wait to see what clever, twisty thing is going to happen next. In a way, if I were inhaling it, I might not have time to sit back and reflect on the story. In some ways it reminds me of Heard it through the Grapevine – not that the plot is at all similar, but tonally it evokes the same feels. They are both populated by highly intelligent lead characters, have characters that have genuinely good hearts, and the stories include that perfect combination of tension and levity. I couldn’t inhale Grapevine at the time either.

I won’t reveal any of the details, but Hwang Shi-mok is really a delightful, fresh character. Due to a condition (this is a character description well-publicized) he’s unable to experience most human emotions and this is used brilliantly in the show. His ally, Han Yeo-jin is decent and human, and doesn’t judge him for this lack. Her camaraderie with him so far is so gratifying on so many levels.

Is it Monday yet?

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