2016 – A Year in K-Drama

1. Signal (tvN)

 

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As I have previously said in my review, Signal is probably one the best K-dramas I have ever watched, along with Heard It Through The Grapevine (SBS, 2015). It had my eyes locked on the screen the whole time, nervously waiting for what would happen next.

Though at first Signal might seem like “borrowing” its idea of time travelling from “Frequency” and “Ditto” (along with the signature communication-across-time tool, walkie-talkie), but writer Kim Eun Hee’s deep comprehension of her subjects has made Signal a multifaceted drama which not solely focuses on the suspense of the crime solving but also shows the interrelations between justice and the political system.

Signal based its stories on the infamous South Korean real crime events, such as Hwaseong serial murders (which also inspired Memories of Murder”) and Miryang gang rape. Some of the big incidents served as backgrounds were also based on real events. The silver lining of these cases is that no one was held responsible for the crimes. And by exploring these unsolved cases, Signal also criticises the criminal justice system that targets the poor and favours the wealthy. The criticism sounds so helpless it almost looks like a plea.

Some cases shown deal with enforced or involuntary disappearance. This is the crime that violates human rights the most. It is related to political crimes and it is done systematically. Signal translates this subject into a more humane narrative using a non-political language which resulted in darkly gripping yet beautifully heartbreaking narratives. I guess it is also why the feeling of “lost” was so intense hovering the story, from literally losing physically one’s loved ones to emotionally feeling losing hope.

Opened with an allusion to director Kim Won Seok’s previous work, Misaeng, Signal seems to also pay homage to possibly one of South Korea’s greatest crime movies, “Memories of Murders”, playing with its picture’s aspect ratio to differentiate the past from the present with background music consisting of 70s-like folk songs and orchestral instrumentals exuding somber and harrowing feelings. In episode 10, Signal also played Yoo Jae Ha’s Melancholic Letter which was played on the background of every murder in “Memories of Murders”. This is probably far-fetched, but the fighting scene in the last episode feels like another homage, this time to Yoo Ha’s “A Dirty Carnival (in which Jo Jin Woong played a supporting role) and Gangnam Blues 1970.

The almost immaculate script carefully tied intricate plots and storylines, switching smoothly between the past and present. This is helped by the fluid camera work which also made Park Hae Young (Lee Je Hoon) & Lee Jae Han (Jo Jin Woong) look like they are on the same space and time despite being physically separated by time. Incorporating elements of comedy and romance nonchalantly balances out the drama’s somber feeling. This is thanks to Kim Eun Hee’s immaculate attention to details. She kind of reminds me of one of my favourite drama writers, Jung Sung Joo (A Wife’s Credentials, Secret Love Affair & Heard It Through The Grapevine) with her multilayered subjects.

Of course a great script needs great tools to be delivered. And the three leads did deliver. Lee Je Hoon’s acting does feel a bit over the top (as is criticised by the K-audience), but somehow it didn’t bother me at all. It still feels relevant to me. He eventually toned it down as the drama progressed.

Kim Hye Soo is so charming as young Cha Soo Hyun who were slightly naïve, sweet and obedient and at the same time as a commanding, calm, composed and tactical older Cha Soo Hyun. She’s the only character that is present in both the past and the present and goes through significant changes in her characters. There’s something about her face that makes her believable as both a 20 year-old and 40 year-old.

 

But Jo Jin Woong is undoubtedly the soul of Signal. He turned this supposedly simple figure into an enthralling character. Lee Jae Han is the metaphor of human’s conscience who longs for justice, whose entire life is dedicated to uphold the truth despite constantly made brokenhearted by the rotten systems. His moves are reckless, his body language is gawky, but he is persistent and holds an unyielding hope for a better tomorrow.

 

In Signal, the road to justice feels hopeless and heartbreaking just like Lee Jae Han‘s plea, no matter how hard you try to be optimistic.

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2 thoughts on “2016 – A Year in K-Drama

  1. mmm..mm..definately gonna check out this drama for sure!ive got like 2 kms long list of dramas, starting from kdrama, jdorama, tw, chinese even thai lakorn on my bucketlist, lol. Later!later! when i pop-out this “annoying-zits” out of my life (ya know what i mean..pfft!)

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