I always find the most successful K-dramas (read: satisfying) are the ones that meticulously connect multiple aspects of human lives, where individuals are part of a larger collective, hence our personal problems always intersect with larger and more complex problems within the social system. And this is what sets Secret Forest apart from the surge of legal dramas in 2017.
By now, I have become quite familiar with most legal-thriller K-dramas’ core theme; social injustice caused by the corrupt, broken and rotten system. Much of it is probably a reflection of people distrust towards the government and the nation’s judicial system which statistically is very high in South Korea.
The show’s story itself is said to be inspired by real life prosecutor graft scandal, most likely to be Sung Wan Jong, a construction tycoon and former lawmaker, who left a suicide note accusing those who had received money from him, known as “Sung Wan Jong’s list”.
Some parts of the drama do look like a reconstruction of the actual case’s details, particularly noticeable is the use of the same method to reveal politician names receiving bribes in the last episodes. As political corruption works in many layers and levels, Secret Forest’s storyline is unavoidably complex, too. Not simply for the sake of making it look complicated, but because the layers are necessary to give a thorough illustration of structural crimes’ complexities, thus making the drama is slightly abstruse. I did find myself sometimes lost in between sequences or vaguely groping which direction the drama is heading, which is why I appreciate the writer’s choice to focus on making one tight plot to connect ‘smaller’ cases to bigger ones, from naked-eyed crimes to invisible high power conspiracies, rather than the common practice of creating unnecessary subplots. Hats off to Lee Soo Yeon on her superb first drama screenplay.
The intricate plot thankfully is delivered by an ensemble of excellent casts, led by dynamic duo Cho Seung Woo as Prosecutor Hwang Shi Mok and Bae Doo Na as Police Lieutenant Han Yeo Jin. Portraying a prosecutor who barely shows emotions due to insular cortex surgery which removed part of the brain that activates them, Cho is in a league of his own. His stoicism and aloofness look like a metaphor of what justice should be, apathetic towards reasons behind any crime, which in this case is the greed of high crimes and misdemeanours. Ha Jae Geun, a culture critic, said Hwang is a “fantasy that was borne out of a time of distrust. For those who desire money, those higher-ups buy the elite with money. For those who want power, they lure the elite with power. But there is no way to lure the person with no desires. And if the person has no emotions, he knows no fears and thus is free from any threats. The result is the most ideal prosecutor, Hwang.” Far from one-dimensional and mannequin-like expression, Cho delivers the most impressive and realistic stoic and aloof portrayal I’ve ever seen in K-dramas or any other show.
Bae Doo Na is, of course, the epitome of coolness. She moves nonchalantly. She doesn’t try to look cool, she just is. Her quirky gesture, which is very far from the South Korean actress archetype, gives a pleasant and edgy nuance to such an ordinary character. When these two are in the same frame, the audience is in for a treat of atypical interactions in a very rare male-female platonic relationship with an explosive chemistry. A very stylish duo, I must say.
Shin Hye Sun (as Prosecutor Yeong Eun Soo) and Lee Kyu Hyung (as Prosecutor Yoon Se Won) who are relatively new to television shows also steal the scenes with their strong presence even when they are not the lead actors. Shin Hye Sun started small in Oh My Ghost, stole the show in Five Enough, solidified acting in Secret Forest, and really took off in My Golden Life.
Lee Kyu Hyung, though is considered new in the small screen, has actually had a long stage acting career prior to his television and movie appearances. Later in 2017, he showcased a complete opposite outstanding performance in Prison Playbook and will reunite with fellow cast mates, Cho Seung Woo and Yoo Jae Myung in JTBC’s upcoming drama, Life.
Secret Forest may not offer something new to the genre, but it sure has everything it needs to be a impaccable show; detailed directing, solid screenplay, outstanding actors’ performances, gripping background music, and as a bonus, a hipnotising gloomy un-melopop soundtrack.
At the end of the show, we are shown a glimpse of how some things are back to the way they were. We have hopes for a better future, but nothing really changes. Which sadly is our world’s bitter truth.