Dear readers, I’m sorry! I haven’t written for many months, while I’ve been tending to real life. But nothing brings me back to the world of K-dramas faster than Ji Sung. My heart beats for you, oppa.
Ji Sung’s new 16-episode legal thriller, Defendant, is getting great ratings in Korea right now. Perhaps President Park’s impeachment has made everyone hungry for a story of righteous justice. And it’s always good to see Ji Sung again.
Yet I do wish the show offered more fun and less frustration.
The prison break at the beginning of episode 1 suggests Defendant will develop into a man-on-the-run narrative. But the first five episodes remain firmly in prison.
There, the talented prosecutor Park Jeong-Woo (Ji Sung) awaits sentencing for killing his beloved wife and daughter. He denies this charge, but he can’t mount much of a case, thanks to a pesky case of recurring amnesia.
The Memento-meets-Fugitive set up is promising. And the script comes from Choi Soo-Jin, writer of the beloved and enjoyable City Hunter.
Ji Sung plays the prosecutor defendant with a mix of charm and recklessness that keeps us wondering if maybe, just maybe, he’s capable of impulsive murder. And Uhm Ki-Joon, in the role of wealthy twin brothers, gives us a villain who’s more interesting than the hero.
But something’s off. Despite a good opening episode, despite the carefully manufactured cliffhangers, this thriller isn’t very thrilling.
Is it because the public defender is played by the bland pop idol Kwan Yuri (of Girls Generation)? Or is it because the show doles out clues at a glacial pace? Or is it the uninspired editing, which keeps us hopping from plotline to plotline?
These are relatively minor problems. My core frustration is that we don’t know whether the hero brutally stabbed his doting wife and daughter.
Given this is network television, not an arthouse film, the odds are he didn’t. But at the end of episode five, the show is still taunting us. We don’t even know if his daughter is alive or dead.
Not telling us the truth obscures the emotional arc of the story. Is this a story of a murderer looking for redemption? Or is this the story of a man looking for his wife’s killer?
Even if the hero doesn’t know the truth, the audience needs to know. Otherwise, we don’t know what emotions to feel.
The director and writer of Defendant may think they’re being clever by withholding information. But they’re undermining their own story by making the hero such a mystery.
Ironically, the villain Cha Min-Ho (a pitch perfect Uhm Ki-Joon) is more compelling to watch than the hero. Cha Min-Ho is a cruel, dangerous man. But we can follow his story with a certain amount of sympathy, because we at least know what his story is.
Since we don’t know what kind of hero we’re dealing with, I feel a strange ambivalence about Jeong-Woo. This makes it hard for me to suspend my disbelief when crazy things happen.
And crazy things do happen.
Why does the amnesiac Jeong-Woo recognize his old co-workers but not his worst enemy?
How do you get an eye injury while wearing a sturdy protective fencing mask?
And can you really suffer from a pathological fear of manila envelopes? Does that mean you have to avoid post offices?
A digression about the thriller genre. If a thriller offers strong characters, audiences will suspend disbelief.
We cheer for the impossible stunts in City Hunter or the absurdly narrow escapes in Two Weeks.
We willingly choose to believe that the hero of Heartless City can fight twenty men single-handed, or that the scammer running Squad 38 is always two steps ahead of everyone else.
Why? Because in the best thrillers, the characters are so vivid that we really, really want to believe. We know the emotional stakes for the heroes. We sympathize with the choices they face.
Will Lee Yoon-Sung complete his father’s revenge or defy the old man?
Will Jang Tae-San save his daughter’s life or die trying?
Will Jung Shi-Hyun and Yang Jung-Do live and die on the wrong side of the law or come out of the cold?
No quantity of clues and plot twists can make up for a hero without a clear emotional narrative.
And that’s the director’s responsibility. The director tells the actors how he imagines the characters. The director decides how scenes are edited and ordered. These choices determine whether we have a clear story or not.
Now back to Defendant. For viewers who wonder what the director of a drama really does, I direct your attention to this show. Here, the director appears to have done as little work as possible.
Director Jo Young-Gwang has produced a few melodramas, including the joyless, disappointing Hyde, Jekyll, Me. And Defendant gives me the feeling I got in early episodes of Hyde, Jekyll, Me. A feeling that the director isn’t very interested in the story he’s telling. He’s filming scenes and splicing them together, but his heart isn’t in it.
The writer has produced a great narrative, with a lot of twist and turns, and Ji Sung is certainly putting his heart in it (he always does!). But his character remains confusing. It’s as if even Ji Sung doesn’t know whether Jeong-Woo is a murderer or not.
We’ve only seen the first act so far. K-dramas are full of surprises. Perhaps the second and third acts will give us a clear story.
Episode 6 airs in an hour. I’ll be watching and hoping. ♥
What do you think of Defendant so far? I’ll keep you posted with updates.
February 15 update: Episodes 6, 7 and 8 delivered the goods. We got clarity about the murders and the hero’s emotions. I have concerns: the cockamamie plot gives new meaning to the words “far-fetched,” and the directing’s a little ham-fisted. But I love watching Ji Sung playing the Resolute Man Alone. (And Kim Min-Seok, who I’ve liked ever since Shut Up Flower Boy Band, is bringing a lot of heart to the increasingly interesting role of Lee Seong-Kyu.) My big question: can “Defendant” keep topping itself with crazier and crazier cliff-hangers every week? I’ll keep watching to find out!
Episode 9–14 update: This show remains totally committed to over-the-top implausibility. And the director makes me tear out my hair with his reliance on “gotcha” moments. Still, the hero’s great, the bad guy increasingly unhinged, and the theme music is really, really awesome. Major credit goes to Ji Sung and Uhm Ki-Joon for convincing me to care despite the plot flaws.
Final verdict: Thanks to that two episode extension, the last couple episodes did lack the punch of earlier episodes. This series wasn’t great overall, but I’ll remember a few great scenes. Like every single scene with child star Shin Rin-Ah. The series definitely came along at the right historical moment, which may have helped the high ratings—with President Park Geun-Hye removed from office near the end of the series, everyone in Korea was in the mood for a story of a righteous prosecutor. Even if this particular prosecutor often felt too good to be true. ♥