2017 – A Year in K-Drama

1. Secret Forest (비밀의 ) tvN & Solomon’s Perjury (솔로몬의 위증) JTBC

It is really hard to decide which one between Secret Forest and Solomon’s Perjury has even one higher point than the other. As a show, Secret Forest is a more well-rounded work, from screenwriting, to cast ensemble, and even to soundtrack. But Solomon’s Perjury has a visionary stronger idea, which the show perfectly translates what it means by ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.

Solomon’s Perjury (솔로몬의 위증) JTBC

Runs from December 16, 2016 – January 28, 2017 for 12 1-hour episodes

Solomon's Perjury 4

I can’t quite remember why I didn’t include Solomons Perjury in the last year’s list. It is as good as (if not better than some of) the other dramas on the list. Now that I think of it, most probably because there were too many sensational or ‘big’ dramas in 2017, it easily made this low-key drama fell off the radar.

Based on the novel Solomon no Gisho by Miyuki Miyabe, Solomons Perjury had also been made into two Japanese movies; Solomons Perjury 1: Suspicion and Solomons Perjury 2: Judgment, both were released in 2015.

The story opens with the death of Jeong Guk High School’s student, Lee Seo Woo (Seo Young Joo) who at the time his body was found, it looked like he took his life by jumping off of the school rooftop. Unsatisfied with the school and police decision to rule out his death as suicide, some students took the initiative to lead their own investigation. They even conduct a mock trial to unravel the truth behind Seo Woo’s death. The investigation is led by Go Seo Yeon (Kim Hyun Soo), Jeong Guk High School’s model student, a female teenager with very supportive non-gender discriminating parents. Respect.

Short and effective, Solomon’s Perjury managed to get so many things right in just 12 episodes. In the process of solving the mystery, it also addresses entangled problems they found along the way which all contribute to Seo Woo’s death, from corrupt education system (literally and figuratively), school bullying (both by students and teachers), to mental health.

What really makes Solomons Perjury stands out is that it talks about subjects rarely touched when portraying the world of teens, such as democracy and social justice, which hooked me right from the get go. This is not the kind of coming of age story where one’s enlightened by one’s personal awakening, but instead it shows what a collective awakenings look like, when young people collectively come to a realisation that they too are part of the society. The same human beings who like the adults, can be mature and also feel the anxieties of things or problems that happen outside themselves.

Solomon’s Perjury shows what it means by “it takes a village to raise a child” that the well-being of not only a child, but in this case also the entire society, is a collective social responsibility

In a place where seniority and social ranks rule the society, it feels like a utopia when the weaker members of the society have their voices heard and stand equally tall as the stronger members, as far as it may look from coming true. But that exactly what Solomon’s Perjury trying to, maybe, construct through Lee Seo Woo and the other teenagers in the Jeong Guk High School. Lee Seo Woo shook up this order. And the establishment hates it. Han Kyung Mun (Jo Jae Hyun), the head of Jeong Guk Foundation said, “The school is also a society. And that society only provides places for members who try to assimilate. But the society does not bear the responsibility to embrace those who already gave up in effort. That was Lee Seo Woo. He didn’t even make the effort to adapt to it”. He didn’t want him to adapt, he wanted him to obey.

Solomon's Perjury 8
Lee Seo Woo (Seo Young Joo)

 

 

Secret Forest (비밀의 ) tvN

Runs from June, 10 – July 30, 2017 for 16 1-hour episodes

Secret Forest 1

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”.

[SPOILER ALERT]

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.

Secret Forest 8
Police Lieutenant Han Yeo Jin (Bae Doo Na) & Prosecutor Hwang Shi Mok (Cho Seung Woo)

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.

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Prosecutor Yeong Eun Soo (Shin Hye Sun)

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 reunites with fellow cast mates, Cho Seung Woo and Yoo Jae Myung in JTBC’s Life.

Secret Forest 16
Prosecutor Yoon Se Won (Lee Kyu Hyung)

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.

One thought on “2017 – A Year in K-Drama

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