Korean Crime & Corruption – Stranger Season 1 (2017)

Time to crack into some more South Korean TV courtesy of Netflix! The first season of Stranger [Bimilui Soop] (2017) is a 16-episode crime thriller which begins with a seemingly cut-and-dry murder case involving an opportunistic TV repairman before expanding to deal with widespread corruption among the police force, the prosecutorial sector, the military, government ministers and large corporations.

Leading the investigation is Prosecutor Hwang Si-mok (Cho Seung-woo), the titular Stranger, an honest and forthright official who is disliked by many of his colleagues for his cold, seemingly rude and emotionless manner. Rather than simply being an asshole, the reason for his difference in affect stems from his childhood medical treatment for hyperacusis, an acute sensitivity to certain sound frequencies which caused debilitating migraines and prompted apparently unmotivated outbreaks of violence against his classmates as he attempted to remove the source of his pain. Brain surgery at the age of 14 alleviated the condition but also left him unable to experience emotion. Thankfully, although there is a passing reference to the idea that this might be accompanied by an increase in cognitive capacity, writer Lee Soo-yeon never pushes this aspect and avoids playing the “autistic superpowers” card.

The original Korean title for the series translates as Secret Forest, referencing the convoluted web of corruption growing undetected through the various strands of society. The decision to market it to an English-speaking audience under the title Stranger, implicitly switching the focus to the male lead, is unfortunate since it de-emphasises the equally important role of Police Lieutenant Han Yeo-jin (Bae Doona) of Homicide Team 3. Lt Han is diligent and professional, a dogged investigator who rises above the disrespect of her sexist colleague Lt Kim Soo-chan (Park Jin-woo) with a roll of the eyes. A canny observer of human behaviour, her investigative style is informed by an awareness of and concern for the emotional welfare of the victims’ relatives. She’s also a not-so-closeted fan of anime and manga who references Tezuka Osamu’s Astro Boy [Tetsuwan Atomu] and enjoys sketching amateurish doodles in her notebook.

Bringing the two investigators together is the murder of Park Moo-sung (Eom Hyo-seop), a failed businessman who until recently was a key figure in a network of bribery and corruption which Si-mok suspects extends to his flashy colleague Prosecutor Seo Dong-jae (Lee Joon-hyuk) and their superior Chief Prosecutor Lee Chang-joon (Yoo Jae-myung). It thus comes as some surprise to Si-mok, who has made no secret of his suspicions, when the Chief Prosecutor places him in charge of the investigation and encourages him to root out corruption, dangling the promise of a promotion to his own position after he climbs the political ladder. Soon he discovers that Prosecutor Seo’s concurrent crackdown on prostitution is a smokescreen concealing his search for Kim Ga-young (Park Yoo-na), a sex worker employed by the dead businessman to compromise senior officials while she was under the age of consent, setting off a race between multiple individuals to secure either her testimony or her silence. It also becomes clear that the case is connected to the disgrace of former Minister of Justice Young Il-jae (Lee Ho-jae), whose daughter Young Eun-soo (Shin Hye-sun) has just completed her internship with Prosecutor Hwang and is determined to force herself into the investigation in an effort to clear her father’s name. While she is convinced of the guilt of Chief Prosecutor Lee, her father’s former pupil, both his beauty queen wife Lee Yeon-jae (Yoon Se-ah) and her father, corporate giant Lee Yoon-beom (Lee Geung-young), are strong contenders as potential powers behind the throne.

Initially wary of each other, Prosecutor Hwang and Lt Han gradually begin to build a working relationship based on mutual respect and trust (although his obliviousness to many of the social graces requires her to do all the heavy lifting in making their partnership work). Their core investigative team eventually expands to include: Sgt Jang Geon (Choi Jae-woong), Lt Han’s regular partner; Choi Young (Kim So-ra), Si-mok’s assistant officer; Kim Ho-sub (Lee Tae-hyung), Si-mok’s investigator, who has a gossipy office friendship with Choi and has been seen accepting money from Prosecutor Seo; Kim Jung-bon (Seo Dong-won), a human rights lawyer who had his fingers broken by Si-mok as a child and hasn’t seen him for years but who lately just keeps turning up; and Prosecutor Yoon Se-won (Lee Kyu-hyung), fresh from conducting an internal investigation into Si-mok’s background after his handling of the original murder investigation attracted public censure.

Lee Soo-yeon has constructed an intricate plot which relies on the accumulation of small details and the constant questioning of whether different aspects of the investigation are genuinely making progress or are being railroaded down a pre-determined path to suit other agendas. Behaviour which seems suspicious may turn out to have a perfectly simple explanation, or to be differently dodgy than suspected. The central character of the Chief Prosecutor is particularly well handled, a complex individual who plays his cards close to his chest and keeps wrong-footing all of those around him while climbing to greater and greater social prestige. Lee skilfully juggles the competing demands of establishing the extreme difficulty of uprooting entrenched corruption while still allowing his investigators to solve the case and achieve some degree of success, however temporary it might be. He also never loses sight of the collateral damage on those connected with the events under investigation, the family members and friends of both the victims and the guilty parties, as well as the individuals who end up treated as convenient tools by those with their own agenda, however noble they might believe their motivations to be.

The relationship between Prosecutor Hwang and Lt Han is central to the success of the series, and the leads are more than equal to the task of sustaining audience interest. Surprisingly, considering the unemotional character he portrays here, Cho Seung-woo’s first love was musical theatre and he has appeared in 29 different productions over the past 21 years. After the first season of Stranger, he followed the writer Soo-yeon to take a lead role in his series Life [Laipeu] (2018) – a hospital drama also involving murder and corruption – before returning for a second series of Stranger in 2020. But the big draw-card for me was Bae Doona, notable for significant performances in Bong Joon-ho’s Barking Dogs Never Bite [Peullandaseu-ui Gae] (2000) (reviewed here) and The Host [Gwoemul] (2006), as well as Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance [Boksuneun Naui Geot] (2002) (reviewed here). Bae imbues Lt Han with good humour and crafts a nuanced performance full of human foibles, a self-sufficient woman resigned to living alone who craves community and wants to see the best in people. Following on the heels of a spate of appearances in American movies and TV, Bae took a lead role in the period zombie thriller Kingdom [Kingdeom] (2019-present) before returning to star opposite Cho in a second season of Stranger.

Yoo Jae-myung delivers a suitably complex performance as the main antagonist, all the more impressive since I completely failed to recognise that I’d seen him before in a distinctly different role as the father of Strong Girl Bong-soon [Himssenyeoja Dobongsun] (2017) (reviewed here). He would appear again opposite Cho in the following year’s TV series Life. Park Sung-geun (playing the honest Chief Prosecutor Kang Won-Cheol) has a supporting role in The Man Standing Next [Namsanui bujangdeul] (2020) (reviewed here) and plays the main character’s father in the Netflix series Sweet Home [Seuwiteuhom] (2020). Kim So-ra enlivens the role of Si-mok’s assisting officer, a relatively small role which could have been forgettable in another’s hands, and graduated to a more prominent supporting role as a member of the Spirits Immigration Office in The Uncanny Counter [Kyeongirowoon Somoon] (2020-2021). Park Jin-woo is more nuanced than he first appears as Lt Park, a policeman who is either corrupt or has unfortunate personal loyalties. Notable entries in his CV include supporting roles in The Good, the Bad, the Weird [Joheunnom Nabbeunnom Isanghannom] (2008) and Rampant [Changgwol] (2018) (reviewed here). Park Yoo-na is calculatedly jaded as schoolgirl-turned-callgirl Kim Ga-Young and would go on to a supporting role in Hotel del Luna [Hotel delluna] (2019) as Princess Song-hwa.

If I had to single out any aspect of the show for criticism, it would be that some of the episode endings are unnecessarily over-staged. As each episode draws to a close, Kim Jun-seok’s sometimes intrusively scored theme music swells to melodramatic heights and the cameras shoot each posed tableau of characters from a multitude of angles which emphasise the artificial staging as they confront each other dramatically. It’s a minor complaint, but it does rather tend to change the emphasis of the series at such times from crime thriller to melodrama. Dialling back the music and omitting a couple of dramatic movements that real people don’t tend to indulge in, such as sweeping the contents of their desk onto the floor, would help to maintain the sense of reality the series is otherwise so successful at establishing. Those quibbles aside, it’s well-plotted, holds the attention, and is highly recommended for fans of Bae Doona. I’m looking forward to exploring the second season! Finding a trailer for the first season proved to be incredibly difficult and I wouldn’t recommend the auto-translate subtitles on the attached video – you can find a shorter trailer with better subtitles at the show’s Netflix page.

3 thoughts on “Korean Crime & Corruption – Stranger Season 1 (2017)

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