Stranger: the hero you never knew you needed

Having missed out on American “peak television” as it happened, I always felt out of the loop until I finally did get around to watching The Sopranos and The Wire and even Mad Men years after their original airing. Now that streaming is the norm and universal, I can be mostly in the loop, including for those series on premium cable that don’t have much lag time on their way to Hulu or Netflix or Amazon Prime. I resist the urge to binge, however, even when the storyline seems to reward bingeing. The exception during the past six months or so of self-isolation has been the South Korean drama series Stranger, whose two seasons are now available on Netflix. Originally broadcast on the Korean cable channel nTV, which also brought you the biggest binge phenomenon of the pandemic (at least in Asia), Crash Landing On You, Stranger‘s first season appeared back in 2017 and the second not until this past summer. I watched the first season in October and just as I finished it the second season was made available worldwide on Netflix, so I was able to watch both seasons in rapid succession. 

By “binge” I don’t want to imply I watched three or four episodes a day. I stuck to one a day, and for a specific reason. Stranger, which takes place in the South Korean Prosecutors Office, is dense with incident and exposition that is almost completely conveyed through dialogue, and that means I had to read a lot of subtitles. Reading subtitles is not a problem for me, but the plot layers of Stranger can overlap and intersect in often confounding ways, and if you’re not taking notes certain narrative points might drop from memory if too much time elapses between episodes. At the same time, since this density of information can be overwhelming at times, I often felt so exhausted after an episode, trying to keep up with the various threads, that I couldn’t bring myself to watch the next one right away, even if it ended in a cliffhanger. These aspects aren’t unique to Stranger, but because of the peculiar themes developed by the writer, Lee Soo-yeon, they made the experience of watching it unlike any I’ve ever had with a narrative TV series. 

Part of that feeling, of course, is that this is a Korean show, and while I’ve watched my share of Korean dramas, I’ve never been as partial to their particular charms as I am to those of Korean cinema, which is an entirely different animal. But Stranger doesn’t align with most Korean TV dramas, either, and from what I’ve gathered reading reviews of it, even Koreans don’t think it does. Like a lot of Korean dramas and movies, it’s “high concept,” in that its premise can be explained in one sentence: the hero is a prosecutor who literally lacks empathy. Hwang Si-mok (Cho Seung-woo) suffered from hypersensitivity to certain frequencies of sound as a child, often resulting in extremely violent behavior. He eventually underwent surgery to alleviate the sensitivity, and while the operation was successful enough for him to lead a normal life, he also lost the ability to empathize with others. This aspect is explained in the first five minutes of Episode 1 and almost never comes up again during the entire series, and it wasn’t until I was deep into season 2 that I realized why. The whole point of Hwang’s “condition,” in practical terms, is that he is unmoved by the power games that hold sway in any bureaucratic organization, especially in Korea, where one’s station is determined by myriad arbitrary details having to do with education, age, family background, and, most significantly, professional connections. None of these things matter at all to Hwang, which means he approaches his job in the purest manner, undistracted by peripheral concerns that may affect his career. In fact, he is the opposite of a careerist. He addresses his work, which, in essence, is the search for truth, as something that is only understandable in the here-and-now. This not only means he can’t be bribed. It means he doesn’t have the capacity to feel as if every human interaction is in reality a transaction for measuring one’s self-worth. The five-minute origin story is necessary as an explanation for his eccentric behavior, but once you see his methods, especially in terms of investigation—and Stranger is, basically, a mystery series—you buy into his unique world view.

This isn’t to say Hwang presents with Asperger’s. Some commentators have said he lacks normal social skills, but I disagree. He understands social dynamics and knows exactly how to act in front of his superiors, but he has absolutely no emotional investment in these matters. Moreover, he doesn’t pretend to have any, and once the people he deals with realize this, they become uncomfortable with him, because they know that they can’t cajole or intimidate him. Such a situation completely changes the work environment for his colleagues, and almost all of them are unprepared for the ramifications. The only person who adjusts to him is the police inspector Han Yeo-jin (Bae Doona), a woman with a strict work ethic but normal career ambitions that are nevertheless challenged by her professional relationship with Hwang. This contrast comes fully into play in season 2, when both Hwang and Han are assigned to a panel that is formed to discuss whether the police should have greater discretionary authority in criminal investigations. As it stands, in Korea prosecutors have more authority with investigations and, thus, more discretion in issuing arrest warrants. The police have always found this protocol to be a problem, since it effectively prevents them from investigating some cases due to procedural roadblocks. Prosecutors, on the other hand, feel that if the police have too much discretionary authority in investigations there is the danger of them overstepping that authority, especially in the area of human rights. If you’ve ever watched a Korean police thriller, you’ve surely seen how crooked cops routinely force confessions and deny suspects their civil rights. It’s almost a cliche, and Stranger actually confronts this cliche head on in the second season. At first, Hwang and Han are set up as adversaries with their own agendas, but due to an old suicide case that may have been a murder and a subsequent kidnapping, they are compelled even more to work together to find the various criminal perpetrators; in effect, testing through practice the tenets they put forth in the panel discussions. 

So while Stranger follows the contours of classic crime thrillers, it’s closer to Kafka. The title in Korean, as well as Japanese, translates as “Forest of Secrets,” which is a pretty good description of the halls of the Prosecutors Office. (Not sure how they came up with the English title—who is the “stranger” exactly? Or is it the situation that’s “stranger”?) The law enforcement bureaucracy is both monolithic and impersonal, but the persons who comprise its workings are all too human and constantly fall prey to self-serving impulses. Only Hwang does his job to the letter, and while, as consumers of narrative fiction we tend to root for feeling over logic, in this case Hwang is the hero we need, since he—consciously or not—protects the public interest against the creep of corruption that such a system breeds naturally. The genius of Lee Soo-yeon’s script is Hwang’s consistency. For one thing, there are no romantic subplots in the series, something almost unheard of in Korean dramas (or in any TV drama, for that matter). Love is not only something he can’t feel, sex is a distraction he can’t abide. And while his relationship with Han is purely professional, they develop a rapport that is a cognate of affection. 

Another way that Stranger upends normal expectations is in its outcomes. Each episode opens with the typical disclaimer that everything you are about to see is fiction and not based on any real people, places, or things, but that, of course, is a lie. I’ve read some reviews that say that while the stories are intriguing, the exposition is too slow and the lack of “action,” for lack of a better word, means there’s no break in the monotony of dialogue. For sure, many people will find Stranger too dense, but it is anything but slow, and that’s because while the plot particulars seem as contrived as those in any police procedural, the overall impression one gets is that this is probably exactly the way police and prosecutors deal with each other in South Korea. One of the running jokes of the series is that whenever someone in the Prosecutors Office has to call someone in a different branch for a favor or information about a case they have to first find out when that person entered the Prosecutors Office, because that determines the power balance and whether or not it will be easy to get the favor or information desired. Hwang, of course, doesn’t follow this unspoken rule, and yet he is completely aware of it and factors it into his own analysis and calculations about who may be doing what. The intricate plots of each season turn on the machinations of upper level prosecutors, who are often beholden to powers outside their office, be it the fictional chaebol Hanjo, or a handful of powerful politicians, almost all of whom started their own careers in the Prosecutors Office. Money is involved, but most of the corruption boils down to the desire for prestige, which is why suicide figures so importantly in the plots and doesn’t feel gratuitous when it occurs. And because Hwang fearlessly (literally) hounds his own colleagues and superiors, even when he wins he knows he will be punished by demotion and/or transfer. The rub is that he doesn’t really care. The pursuit of truth is the only driving force in his life, and as long as he gets at that truth he is satisfied; or, as satisfied as someone like him can be. He’s a hero who doesn’t know the meaning of the word, and so doesn’t feel disappointed when no one acknowledges his good work. For the most part, his colleagues hate him for his good work. 

Then there’s the look of the series, which is starkly at odds with what you usually see in Korean dramas. Shot mostly in a fast-frame digital format that highlights textures and mutes colors, the show is a perfect iteration of bureaucratic drudgery. Most of the scenes take place in drab offices filled with enormous stacks of paper; or in the ridiculously gaudy offices of the Hanjo Corporation, which look as if they’d been designed for a Las Vegas casino. Most striking is the use of closeups. Unlike the kind of porcelain perfection that you see in Korean dramas, the complexions here are pasty, pockmarked; the makeup on the women unevenly applied. This naturalness is jarring and at times almost off-putting, but the discomfort intensifies the human element. This is especially the case with Bae, who was the original reason why I started watching Stranger. I’ve always admired her work in Korean films, especially her banished cop in A Girl At My Door, a character not that different from Han, and not so much in the English language films she’s made (I also tried Sense8 because she was in it, but quit after two episodes). Except for an occasional smudge of lipstick, she doesn’t wear makeup here, and in the second season she grows her hair out long, a decision that many of her fans found distasteful since she doesn’t have the kind of face that’s flattered by long hair. But I think there was a purpose in her character’s tonsorial miscalculation, since during the two years that passed between the first and second seasons, Han has been transferred out of the field and into a chair behind a desk in the National Police Agency’s structural reform division, a post that doesn’t suit her and which she secretly hates. However, this new post gives her a vantage point from which to observe and get close to a woman, her boss, who has risen above her station to a position of power that Han, initially at least, finds reassuring as both a woman and a civil servant, because it proves that hard work and dedication really do amount to something. Needless to say, this mentor turns out to be a disappointment for pretty much the same reasons that her male colleagues are disappointments: when an opportunity to get ahead comes with strings attached, you take it anyway. Han’s soul-crushing disillusionment when she realizes what is really happening is telegraphed by Bae with such superhuman emotional economy that I had to watch several scenes again just to absorb the enormity of it.

Cho’s lead performance is different but equally potent. On the surface, he doesn’t seem to have to do much since Hwang’s default mode is indifference, occasionally interrupted by mild curiosity. He’s the Mr. Spock of the Seoul Western Bureau. What’s thrilling about Cho’s interpretation is how he develops such an unusual character over time. We see Hwang not only processing the information he gleans from his surroundings and interactions, but adjusting to the case at hand accordingly, using what he knows and how humans respond to deepen his understanding of what is actually happening. In one late episode in the second season, while trying to get information from a kidnapping suspect who refuses to talk he uncharacteristically explodes in anger and frustration. It’s more of a shock than you can imagine. Then, in a subsequent scene with a different suspect who he thinks is secretly working for an unidentified prosecutor to frame the police, he slyly drops a hint that if he does find something with which to charge the suspect, he might run into trouble with his superiors, and the suspect responds with a devilish smile, thus indicating that he is, indeed, connected to someone higher up. Like the scene where he blows up, Hwang here is doing something he never did before, using subterfuge to get what he needs. Emotionally, he has no skin in the game, but he’s learned how to play off people’s biases and preconceptions, and you wonder if the anger expressed in the previous scene wasn’t an act. Cho, for what it’s worth, has apparently dedicated most of his latter career to stage musicals, and only agreed to do Stranger because of the script and its attendant challenges. (Between the two seasons he also starred in another Lee series about a hospital where he plays the heavy.) 

I am assuming there will be a third season of Stranger, though none has been announced. The ratings in South Korea are good if not great, but it’s obvious from the lack of resolution at the end of season 2 that we aren’t through with the Hanjo Corporation and Hwang’s slimy, obsequious colleague Seo Dong-jae (Lee Joon-hyuk), who spent the latter episodes of the season either locked in a closet or in a coma. When he wakes up, he’ll have lots to say and I can imagine Lee Soo-yeon right now putting words in his mouth. This topic is far from being exhausted. 

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