My latest exploration into the world of Korean TV mixes crime and the supernatural as a Grim Reaper’s search for his AWOL partner collides with the investigation of a series of murders in contemporary South Korea tying back to a 20-year-old construction disaster.
On 29 June 1995, the Sampoong Department Store in Seoul collapsed, killing 502 people and injuring 937. It was the largest peacetime disaster in South Korean history and the deadliest modern building collapse prior to the World Trade Centre. Black [Beullaek] (2017) draws inspiration from this real life disaster, and the combination of negligence and corruption which led to its occurrence, as a means to explore the corrosive effects of human greed on society. Its fictional stand-in, the 1997 Mujin Shopping Mall Disaster, forms the epicentre of a series of murders echoing like shockwaves through the years right up to the (then) present day of 2017.
Detective Han Moo-gang (Song Seung-heon) is an unlikely policeman. Growing up in the US and attending an Ivy League university, he abandoned a lucrative career in finance to return to South Korea and join the police force. Although clearly temperamentally unsuited to investigating murder cases – he vomits at the sight of (and, if not carefully monitored by his colleagues, directly onto) dead bodies and can’t bring himself to use his gun – at night he disappears into a locked basement to continue his own personal after-hours investigation into the death of his brother in a hit-and-run accident in Mujin 20 years ago. Happily engaged to Yoon Soo-wan (Lee El), a doctor he met in the course of his duties, their relationship takes a sour turn after he discovers that she has been keeping a secret related to his brother’s death – although what this secret might be takes some time to be revealed.
Kang Ha-ram (Go Ara), dubbed Ms Psychic by Man-soo, has grown up seeing black shapes hovering near those who are about to die. If she touches the shadows, she can also see exactly how they will die. Although most people either disbelieved her or told her that she was cursed to bring doom on those around her, her father Detective Kang Soo-hyuk (Kim Hyung-min) always provided a sympathetic ear and bought her a pair of sunglasses so she could walk around without seeing the shadows. 20 years ago she saw the shadow on her father, but her inability to prevent his death caused her to shut down and become increasingly bitter with the world. After two chance encounters with Detective Han lead him to conclude that she has a gift, he attempts to convince her to use her foresight to save people’s lives. Initially heartened by their apparent success, she’s devastated when the Detective – who she has just worked out must be the childhood crush she lost track of 20 years ago – is shot and killed in the same way the person they saved was meant to die. Believing herself to have caused the death of the one person who still meant something to her, her attempted suicide is interrupted by Oh Man-soo (Kim Dong-joon), a pleasant young corporate heir wasting his life away in partying with his pop star friend Leo (Kim Jae-young), both of whom were at the police station while Ha-ram was being questioned about her foreknowledge of a plane crash. Finally granted responsibility for the failing Royeol Insurance Company by his abusive older half-brother Oh Man-ho (Choi Min-chul), he used his connections to obtain Ha-ram’s home address, hoping to employ her to assess the survival prospects of potential clients – an idea which she finds repugnant, but which lack of money forces her to accept.
But what of our leading man, the freshly deceased Moo-gang? He wakes up in the mortuary just in time to stop a mysterious man (Lee Kwan-hoon) masquerading as a doctor and missing a finger from removing his eyeballs. Fighting him off with skills Moo-gang previously lacked, we soon learn of other changes. The previously sweet and happy-go-lucky Detective Han has lost all of his social skills, becoming rude, arrogant and contemptuous of humanity. He wanders the streets in his hospital gown, obliviously flashing his (pixellated) bits to all and sundry. He has no understanding of money. Hes supernaturally strong and, if unobserved, can use any unlocked door as a pseudo-teleport, emerging from another door at his chosen destination. After eventually obtaining (or effectively stealing) some decent clothing, his arrival at the latest crime scene reveals an unprecedented instinctive knowledge of how the latest victim died, and he hungrily tucks into a bowl of intestine soup (a meal he previously couldn’t stomach) after examining the bloody corpse. Detective Han is Moo-gang no longer – he has been possessed by Grim Reaper #444 (Kim Tae-woo), who has decided that the body of a police detective is just the thing to help him track down his rogue partner #419 (Park Doo-shik).
Grim Reaper #444 is the top Grim Reaper. He’s also an arrogant asshole. Reapers operate in pairs to collect human souls at the moment of death. Each Reaper is paired with a newly dead human partner to assist with their work – but #444, sick of spending time with somebody he thinks is a loser, deliberately sent his partner off to collect their latest soul on his own, hoping that he would screw it up and be destroyed by their bosses, thus enabling #444 to get a new partner. His plan backfires when #419 absconds in a recently vacated body, leaving #444 in big trouble unless he brings back his partner before anybody notices. His time on Earth quickly becomes complicated when he realises that, if he wants to maintain access to the privileges and access available to a member of the police force, he will have to carry out his search while also completing his official duties as a member of the Regional Crime Unit’s support team. His colleagues are a selection of misfits reassigned to a dead-end team who receive only the lowest priority cases: team leader Bong Man-sik (Jung Suk-yong), referred to by #444 as “Short-Legged Grandpa”; Na Gwang-gyun aka “Crazy Dog” (Kim Won-hae), a colleague of the deceased Detective Kang who has anger management issues and is prone to biting people; Oh So-tae (Lee Cheol-min), whose bladder can’t go more than half an hour without a toilet break; and Park Gwi-nam (Heo Jae-ho), whose shaking hands prevent him from using a gun.
Ha-ram continues to pursue the “amnesiac” Detective Han, determined to build a new relationship with her old crush and to continue the pre-mortem Moo-gang’s suggestion that they save lives together. #444 continues to avoid her until a chance encounter leads to her observation that she can see a black shape inside a student. Realising that she can identify Reaper-possessed corpses, he dispatches the rogue (not the one he was after) and pretends to agree to her proposal on the condition that she looks for other people with a shadow inside them. Inevitably, while maintaining a lookout, Ha-ram keeps encountering people she wishes to save and enlisting his help – causing #444 to straddle the line of appearing to help her while attempting to sabotage her efforts, lest he be blamed for disrupting the natural order of things. Although the philosophical implications are never really discussed, from the viewer’s perspective Ha-ram’s successes begin to call into question the whole predetermined nature of the deaths. Saving one person doesn’t doom another person to the same death, despite the coincidence of Moo-gang’s demise – instead, those saved generally go on to live normally. On the other hand, we witness shadows appear next to people as soon as they have made a decision which puts them in conflict with whoever is pulling the strings behind the aforementioned murders. Everything we see in the course of the show seems to suggest that deaths are not predetermined by some external force of destiny, but are the result of human decisions and actions putting them on a trajectory with disaster (whether by chance or another human’s intention).
Writer Choi Ran does a very effective job at slowly unravelling the web of interconnections between characters and the reasons behind the various murders. Many of the characters appear both in the modern day and in flashbacks to the time surrounding the Mujin Shopping Mall Disaster. Choi has a strong sense of when to enter or leave a scene, leading the audience to believe one thing only to reveal missing chunks of the scene later in the episode – or even several episodes later – which cast events in a different light. He makes similarly effective use of flashbacks, pulling some clever narrative tricks to confuse the link between the younger characters and their present day selves. Tonally, however, the show is a very mixed bag. The opening credits sell it as a dark and depressing experience, which – to an extent – is true; the show doesn’t shy away from depicting bloody crime scenes when warranted, several characters contemplate suicide, a beloved pet is beaten to death (off-screen) and the circle of crimes extends beyond murder to the sexual exploitation of children. On the other hand, there are entire lengthy stretches of the program which are played for comedy – #444’s initial attempts to come to terms with the human world are hilarious, and his co-workers’ attempts to help him “regain” his memory late in the series play directly into all the slapstick clichés of cures for amnesia as depicted in sitcoms and cartoons. Plus, of course, there’s the almost obligatory romance angle – Ha-ram’s attempts to begin a relationship with her old crush are complicated by the presence of his (now ex-)fiancee, while her new boss Oh Man-soo begins to develop as a potential romantic rival. The combination of these elements is not something generally encountered in English-language TV drama, and while I feel that they are largely successful in this context, other viewers might find themselves thrown out of the drama by the tonal whiplash.
There is an interesting theme of blended families running through the show. I can’t think of a single instance in which the shared biological parents of a child have remained together, whether because of separation, divorce or death. Similarly, none of the family units depicted include siblings who share both parents – the show is scattered with half-siblings, step-siblings and siblings-by-adoption. Although in more conservative hands this could be used as a symbol of societal decay, here the intention is clearly to celebrate the more positive aspects of society, the need to embrace one’s fellow humans independent of purely biological familial connections – Oh Man-ho’s abuse of his half-brother marks him as a villain, and Ha-ram’s personal journey includes the need to return the affection of her estranged mother’s (Kim Jung-young) young son (Go Seung-bo). Another thread running through the series is compassion for the poor, the disturbed and the discarded elements of society. Many of the secondary female characters either are or were sex workers, either through lack of alternative opportunities or through grooming backed up with coercion – whatever their background, they are all portrayed sympathetically. After protecting the “hostess” Tiffany (Oh Cho-hee) from his drugged-up friend’s violent actions, Oh Man-soo befriends her and buys an expensive birthday present for her young daughter. Crazy Dog’s beloved Clara (Cha Chun-hwa), whose disappearance/death 20 years ago he continues to investigate, is eventually revealed to the audience to be not just a sex worker but a post-op trans woman, as devoted to him as he is/was to her. It’s truly refreshing for her identity as a trans woman to be almost a throw-away detail which nobody ever comments on, rather than being mocked via “gay panic” “humour” (still sadly all-too-prevalent).
The weakest elements of Choi’s script are related to the mythology behind the Reapers themselves, which he appears not to have fully thought through – most notably in the rationale given for the numbers assigned to each Reaper, a rationale which makes no sense for either #444 or #007 (Jo Jae-yoon in a delightful role as an experienced Reaper in Joseon dynasty garb who becomes addicted to TV dramas while helping #444). And while I have no intention of giving away the ending, which ties up most of the details effectively, the elements relating to Reapers and the ultimate fate of #444 came across as arbitrary and potentially contradictory, depending on how you read the final scenes. I suspect the writer wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t work out how to resolve the central emotional throughline given his own rules, opting for an ending which makes emotional sense but cheats to get there.
Star Song Seung-heon shifts effortlessly between the very different personalities of the pre- and post-mortem Han Moo-gang, providing a nuanced and believable transition as #444 becomes more and more humanised by his experiences in his stolen body. He reunited with Black director Ko Jae-hyun, along with some of the other cast members, for Player [Peulleieo] (2018) in which he portrays a con-artist who teams up with a prosecutor to solve crimes, a role which won him Best Drama Actor in the 23rd KCA Consumer Day Awards. His co-star Go Ara previously played the female lead in historical drama Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth [Hwarang] (2016-2017). Lee El, appearing as her romantic rival, plays a far more tormented character here than her follow-up role in the wonderful A Korean Odyssey [Hwayugi] (2017-2018), which called more on her comedy skills in the role of a dog spirit who is the personal secretary to the Bull Demon King. Youngest among the core four characters is Kim Dong-jun, previously a member of boy group ZE:A (2009-13) and lead performer in several musicals, with roles including Aladdin and Elvis Presley.
But the real standout performance here comes courtesy of Kim Won-hae as Crazy Dog. Best known in Korea as a cast member in the first four seasons of Saturday Night Live Korea [SNLK] (2011-2013), he appeared with Go Ara in several episodes of Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth, receiving a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the KBS Drama Awards. I first encountered him in Strong Girl Bong-soon [Himssenyeoja Dobongsun] (2017) (reviewed here), where he played the dual comedic roles of a frequently-hospitalised low level gang leader and a gay cross-dressing video game executive in love with his younger boss. His role in Black stretches well beyond the requirements of the broad comedy skills on display there – while there are elements of caricature in Crazy Dog’s surface mannerisms, he’s a far more complex character than is at first apparent and forms the emotional core of his team. In 2018 he played the prosecutor opposite Song Seung-heon in Player and won the Best Supporting Actor award for his performances in The Ghost Detective [Oneurui Tamjeong] and Are You Human? [Neodo Inganini]. He has since appeared in shows such as The Fiery Priest [Yeolhyeolsaje] (2019) and Hotel del Luna [Hotel delluna] (2019), both currently airing on Netflix.
In the context of my viewing of contemporary Korean TV dramas to date, Black comes across as an uneasy hybrid. Where Strong Girl Bong Soon was a romantic comedy which successfully balanced out its darker elements, the comedic elements of Black sit more uneasily with its seedier and bleaker aspects. A Korean Odyssey presented a world fully integrated with its hidden supernatural aspects, while Black has a tendency to sideline any inconvenient intrusions of the Reapers’ world and allows some inconsistencies to creep in for the sake of story resolution. The convoluted overlapping circles of competing agendas and complex plotting associated with the criminal investigations are on a level with the web of corruption unveiled in Stranger [Bimileui Sup] (2017) (reviewed here), but the final wrap-up of the criminal plot in Black feels rushed by comparison and is arguably undermined by the supernatural elements. And the resolution of the romance plot comes across to me as an uncomfortable compromise between the more successfully realised wrap-ups to both Strong Girl Bong Soon and A Korean Odyssey. But I don’t want to end on a sour note – despite its flaws, Black is a successful drama series with interesting characters, clever plotting, some very funny moments and its heart firmly in the right place.
[Once again I had difficulty finding a trailer with English subtitles – for that you’ll need to go directly to Netflix, who have emphasised the darker elements – but the teaser below provides a pretty good sense of the fun aspects of the first two episodes.]