Thursday, August 24, 2017

Stranger - or Forest of Secrets

Last night we finished watching the 16-part series, Stranger, also known as Forest of Secrets. It's available on Netflix; apparently that company paid its producers $200,000 per episode. It appeared on Korean television in June and July of this year, so it's very new. 

Is it worth that kind of money? I'd say it is. Made in South Korea with an all-Korean cast, it's a top-notch thriller-cum-detective story. The two leads, Jo Seung-woo as the Prosecutor, Hwang Shi-mok, and Bae Doona as the female detective, Han Yeo-ji. 

Hwang is one of the few honest Prosecutors in his department, and thus a threat to those who allowed bribery and corruption to creep into their work. But he has had brain surgery when younger because certain things, such as loud noises, affected his emotional state. Unfortunately, the operation has reduced his capacity for empathy and emotion. Jo Seung-woo has to play a man mostly incapable of smiling or expressing happiness or anger. In spite of this the actor comes across as a man with whom we have great sympathy, and some characters in the story admire him greatly. 

Korean prosecutors involve themselves in judicial procedure by conducting investigations, determining indictable cases, and the prosecution process, a mode of operating that's different to the English adversarial system. Thus in this story the Police and the Prosecutors work hand-in-hand for the most part, while still complaining about each other's methods at times. 

Bae Doona is a wonderful actress, and a great foil for the seemingly straightfaced prosecutor. She's gutsy, generous, sympathetic, warm, sharp, cool...everything you want in a heroine. She comes across to the audience as someone you want to keep spending screen time with. A delight. 

There's a massive cast of characters, and to give even a brief indication of the plot would take several paragraphs. Suffice to say a man involved in offering bribes on a large scale is murdered early in the piece, and this leads to an ongoing investigation that gradually sees men of high status brought down. Slowly. 

When I say slowly I mean that the events play themselves out in such a way that we're fooled by red herrings; confused about who's on the right side and who's not - at times; discovering characters who appear to be playing the wrong game but who turn out to be playing the right one, and vice versa. I don't think you'll guess who the actual murderer is before he's revealed (there are three murders scattered over the story), even though you'll know who the real baddies are in the story quite early on. 

The series isn't concerned with a constant rush: many scenes take plenty of time, and reveal character in detail. There are certainly action scenes, and big crowd scenes (a chase through one of Seoul's airports late in the series, for instance), but there's plenty of quiet space as well. 

The series is subtitled, and this is well done, but it takes a bit of getting used to the names. You have to latch onto at least one of the three names virtually every character has and hold it in your head. This isn't always easy, because there are least a half dozen Kims in the story. Kim is a surname, of course - and a very common surname in Korea - but when the characters refer to each other, they tend to put the surname first. So hang onto the first names, if you can!

The music is great, especially the main theme, and the photography outstanding. Even though it's in colour, you come away with a sense of monochrome. We've been gripped by it, even watching two episodes in an evening on some occasions. 

In addition (25th Aug, 2017): Forgot to mention the constant bowing towards superiors that goes on during this series. I'm sure it's a common factor of Korean life. It shows up a politeness that doesn't exist in European countries or the USA. 
And one other thing: cellphones are ubiquitous in every episode. And they always work and no one ever runs out of data and they always get the person they want (with one or two exceptions). They can even track people at the drop of a hat. But in one delightful moment, the hero is forced to go to a computer (shock, horror!) to view a video that's been sent to him. Which kind of puts cellphones in their place...

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