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!