“Defendant” (Episodes 1-5 Review), or The Truth about Thrillers (with updates)

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.

defendant ji sung korean drama

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.

Prosecutor Ji Sung!

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.

defendant poster prison
Prisoner Ji Sung!

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.

Cha Seon-Ho, or is it Cha Min-Ho? (Uhm Ki-Joon)

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?

As Attorney Seo, Kim Yuri isn’t bad per se, but she’s not very interesting

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.

Prosecutor Jang-Hyuk, Jeong-Woo’s old friend with dubious motivations (Oh Chang Seok)

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. ♥

Full cast information is at Asian Wiki and Drama Wiki.

14 thoughts on ““Defendant” (Episodes 1-5 Review), or The Truth about Thrillers (with updates)

  1. Welcome back Odessa! Looking forward to more of your insightful reviews. I’m staunchly in the ‘refuse-to-watch-until-it’s finished’ camp so won’t dip into ‘Defendant’ yet. Love Ji Sung! But hey, I’m also interested in your perspectives on Korean Culture. I flew there regularly for six years as a flight attendant before I retired and plan on returning. Hope you are digging into their ‘Kimchi-take-on-life’: warm but passionate heat in the deep connection to each other mixed in with the bite & crunch of their firm etiquette and heirarchy. And do tell us, WHAT dramas have you been watching during your blog-silence?
    Charlotte, Victoria BC Canada

    • Hi Charlotte! What a great description of Korean culture. I really love it here. I have to figure out how to put my thoughts in order to write about it!

  2. As soon as I saw Ji Sung was in a new show I thought of you Odessa and hoped you would post. I am not sure I have time to watch this right now. Well I know I do not have time but I am not sure if I will or not. Perhaps you and others will be able to help me decide.

    best to all here 🙂

    • Hi, Erin! I’m so glad you came by to read this after my shamefully long absence! How are you? Of course I was thrilled about a new Ji Sung show. But a lot rides on whether they can make sense of this bizarre plotline. Maybe wait to see how this show turns out…

  3. Wow, Odessa, it’s good to hear from you. I, too, am a big JiSung fan and didn’t realize he had another drama going now. I’ll certainly catch up with it. Welcome back. Are you drill in Korea?

    • Hi Weesie! I’m sorry I was gone for so long! I’m still in Korea, so I get the pleasure of watching “Defendant” on TV without subtitles, and then being totally confused. This language is hard. 🙂

      • Odessa….will be looking forward to hearing about your experiences of living in Korea. I live in Michigan. Did you know….the country of S. Korea, comparatively on a map, is about the size of my state? I. Always wondered how they seemed to get from one section of the country to another in a relatively short amount of time. I’m particularly interested in your experiences with the language and the differences between English and Hangul. Since I’m hearing it so much on the dramas I decided to try to learn it. I can now read and write it out, but alas, I still don’t know how to express it or translate. Spoken articulately, it is quite a beautiful sounding language. Looking forward to hearing from you again!

        • Korea looks like such a small country, at least compared to the US. And in the dramas, everyone gets everywhere super fast. But in reality, it feels bigger. Kind of like Michigan having the UP, Korea has all those islands off the southwest coast. They’re quiet and go on forever. Maybe if I lived in Seoul, I’d feel like the country was small. People in Seoul think the capital is the whole universe. But from where I’m based down south in Jeollanam-do, the country seems bigger and more varied than in the dramas. I’ll try to write more about this soon!

  4. Well, I’m really enjoying not knowing if Ji Sung’s character did it or not. I find it different than the usual.

    My only peeve with this drama is, up until episode 5 (or maybe it was 6), we only saw his confusion and sense of “this is unfair because I didn’t do it (or couldn’t have done even if it don’t remember recent events”. But we didn’t see his grief at news of his wife and child being dead. Nor did we see what should come next – “I need to find out who killed them!” It looks as if we’re approaching a bit more of that now but I felt those two things would’ve been front and center each time he loses his memory and had to face their deaths again. Also, we should see more drive from him about “maybe my daughters alive?! You’ve got to find her!”

    So my issue is not with the lack of information to me as the audience, but with the lack of certain emotions/ thoughts of our protagonist. THAT would’ve made me even more in tunetsympathetic to him.

    • You have a good point. I found that episode 6 was really satisfying, because it was the first time we really saw the hero’s grief. Seeing the emotions in episode 6, I didn’t care much whether or not he did it. But it was important to see those emotions.

  5. Wow, Odessa, you really posted again. I occasionally checked this place but it was inactive for months. Still in Korea??? If so how goes your life there??
    I really can’t wait to see more reviews in the site. For example, any thoughts on Goblin or Weightlifting Fairy??

    • Hi! There’s so much to catch up and write about. But in the quick answers department: I loved Weightlifting Fairy so much. And Goblin…I loved the first six episodes so much. I felt let down by later episodes–this is obviously a big topic!

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