This is courtesy of dearest pal Al whose claim that Forest of Secrets (비밀의 숲/Secret Forest, or Stranger on Netflix) is on par or even better than Signal nudged one to succumb to temptation. Now that one has finished it (twice!), one should get these thoughts out of one’s system before one starts swinging axe to kill bug #29. Coherence be d@#n3d!
There is a scene in episode 14 that reminds one of a shot in Pacific Rim’s closing credits sequence. In a rather wierd way, it makes a handy shorthand for a summary of one’s impression of this drama. Forest of Secrets among kdramas is like Mr Del Torro’s Pacific Rim among Mr Bay’s Transformers films. And one agrees with the following sentiments: (0). Well-written and well-executed story; (1). Jo Seung-Woo and Bae Doo-Na take it to another level; (2). Those smiles! (3). More adventures of Hwang Shi-Mok and Han Yeo-Jin, please —they definitely can pilot a Jaeger together. Because this is one of those rare cases in which one actually digs the (non existent) romance in a non-romantic crime mystery thriller drama, indicated by the lack of need for palate cleanser afterwards (it’s Mitchellian rants and outbursts these days). In short, Forest of Secrets is a Kdrama done right.
The biggest mystery that’s been bugging yours truly (excluding the question of who in their right mind would cast Jo Seung-Woo to play a character who doesn’t smile, not that one minds) is this: which musical instrument makes the clanking metal dissonance on the background music in the following video from 00:15-ish onwards? One is sure it’s emulated or synthesized but one thinks one had heard similar sound from an instrument. Is it muted bonang (of gamelan family)? Muted bass metallophone? Muted bass xylophone? Muted bass tubular bells? Transposed glockenspiel?
It comes in whenever Shi-Mok does his stuff related to the mystery, eg. intimidating, playing his cards, thinking, planning, and later on smiling. The distant muted, elemental, resonating, clashing, and sonorous noises sound out of place in the “orchestrated” music that somehow describes Hwang Shi-Mok, is it perhaps his leitmotif? It is also observed as reverberation in the background as if it were being fine-tuned, whenever Yeo-Jin is quietly defiant, challenges or questions his view.
‘Do you believe aliens exist?’
‘Otherwise, it would be a waste of space…’
‘Exactly. The same principle goes here…’
But, let’s get the less savoury bits out of the way first.
Some Gripes and Minor Nitpicks
“A prosecutor who lost the ability to feel empathy as a child joins a police lieutenant to uncover a serial killer’s true identity while fighting the rampant corruption within his department that continuously undermines his investigation,” says Google about Forest of Secrets, or similar lines at other sites.
One, however, found it hard to buy such premise. Not when the first five minutes includes a caveat, “… As a post-surgical after effect, he may suffer from extreme pain or may not feel emotions at all…” Really, Show?! Is this ‘Beautiful Mind’ all over again then?! One’s got a little wiser to such tricks, thanks to the inclusion of the word ‘may’. Hurray! Or should one have lamented this loss of innocence for some of the excitement might have escaped one since one started with different initial assumptions?
One increasingly scoffs at the “super rational logical unfeeling” trope. Too many shows treat ‘inability to feel (empathy)’ (or ‘please excuse the attitude problem for being a genius and oh-so-smart’) like some sort of cool superpower ever since Sherlock. What does that say to crime or corruption fighting? Should crime fighters have their brains altered to boost intelligence, suppress emotion, be steady and stay ‘true to the cause’, reduce human error, and avoid folly? Why not have a real robot instead? Or perhaps we would for crime-solving and corruption-fighting AI and algorithms will probably be a commonplace in a decade.
Other minor nitpicks include a handphone, which has been stored in evidence room for two months, still having 90% battery life and a particular hotel cctv footage that conveniently exists after Shi-Mok presses further, which bears the ever-changing date from 2016 to 2017 and then back to 2016. There are more but this post has reached a ridicilous word count.
One applauds Forest of Secrets for being tonally consistent in its storytelling. It’s like having a nice serving of espresso instead of a serving of orange caramel green coff-tea latte (fancy stuff, cool names, but terrible taste). This is first and foremost a crime mystery drama with a sober mood. There is very little to non-existent romance or comedy, no idol actors, no fan service scenes or filler—one’s got a good laugh reading a comment complaining why there’s shower sound yet no shower scene, hahaha. It places confidence in its story and characters and it shows. Rightly so.
The Game itself is a combination of whodunit and a variation of “I know that you know that he knows that you may or may not know that I know about what possibly happened and didn’t happen last summer” kind of entanglement —a waft of game theory’s non-/zero-sum games and information asymmetry. It is peppered with a commentary on the culture of corruption and collusion, which is too close to home, and the consequences of it. Corruption starts small, perhaps even with good intention, and builds over time as the participants get greedier and the fence-sitters and rejectors turn a blind eye and do nothing. Then it overtakes a system, here a justice system, and renders it dysfunctional. A justice system that doesn’t deliver invites anarchy and chaos: those in alliance of corruption sell each other out to save themselves when it falls apart; those being denied justice are determined to get it one way or another; those who despair over a broken system and question its existence altogether are bent on bringing it down.
One enjoyed the game because the players are good at it, some better than the others. The unpredictable ways various players react and move to certain states and therefore reveal or conceal information or data and manipulate others make this show entertaining. It manages to weave characters’ motivations and behaviours with surprising efficiency, clarity, and shadows. Of course, one has expected a mastermind —the “orchestrated” music says so. When the mastermind was revealed, it didn’t feel shocking. It felt right.
It helps that our player Prosecutor Hwang Shi-Mok (Jo Seung-Woo) manages to hold his own and even thrive in the game. Hwang Shi-Mok may be expressionless but one can hear the machines turning (as well crashing) inside his brain. The eyes, eyebrows, facial muscles, and the voice tell his tales. On top of trying to win the game, Hwang Shi-Mok also goes on a personal journey to reexamine his own assumptions about himself and expand his emotional range and social adequacy. One cannot help but cheer for him and his happiness though one did get a good scare when his hand flexes automatically as he sees the knife as if…
Balancing Hwang Shi-Mok’s monochromatic flair is Police Inspector Han Yeo-Jin (Bae Doo-Na), who turns out to be the most enigmatic character in this show. There is very little information about her or where she comes from yet the show manages to establish that she is a capable and smart detective, and a unique individual. She doesn’t stand out but her presence is anticipated. She is understated, laid back, observant, and astute almost in the mold of one’s favourite Superintendent Battle (“He relies in part on the public notion that police detectives are stupid or unimaginative, when he has a good idea of just what is happening,” Wikipedia says). She has positive outlook on people in general. She rarely shows emotions and when she does, she does so in an unflashy manner that packs so much punch even Hwang Shi-Mok cannot help but take notes seriously. One liked her right from the start for she wears sensible hair and shoes for a detective, a rarity in kdramaland.
Birds of a feather flock together. In a way, that describes Hwang Shi-Mok and Han Yeo-Jin and their partnership in this venture. They share values, points of view, and passion for truth and justice. They are both well grounded in reality and have got a healthy dose of scepticism about it. Following them building their partnership and how it influences them (more visible in Hwang Shi-Mok) is the most satisfying bit of this series. For “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
So. Will or won’t Hwang Shi-Mok and Han Yeo-Jin get romantically involved?
To Be Or Not To Be? That’s NOT the question!
The discussion whether they will get involved romantically reminds one of the comment section of Queen’s ‘You’re My Best Friend’ at Youtube. Some comment that it’s ‘the ultimate friend-zone song’. But yours truly agrees with other comments that it is, in fact, the anti friend-zone song since John Deacon wrote the song for his lady wife. It’s funny, and sad, how one word (or two), friend-zone, sets unnecessary limitations.
One would say this drama stands out in its characters’ characterisation, especially Hwang Shi-Mok’s. The way Hwang Shi-Mok functions is consistent to the end: he is an ISTJ through and through with enhanced rational and analytical faculty and a diminished emotional capacity. As an introvert oneself, yours truly understands his need for private time and space. One is most pleased that his arc is not about a super-introvert who just needs the right woman’s touch to be able to open up. NO. NO. NO. Hwang Shi-Mok’s character is about asking the right questions.
And has one mentioned that Hwang Shi-Mok and Han Yeo-Jin can pilot a Jaeger together?
It’s rare that one came out of a korean drama satisfied. *sigh…*
Unrelated but interesting, perhaps: John Macrae’s “Underdevelopment and the Economics of Corruption: A Game Theory Approach”
PS: No, dear Al, no. Forest of Secrets is Kdrama done right but Signal is on a different plane. Going by previous analogy using Guillermo Del Torro’s films, if Forest of Secrets is a Pacific Rim, one considers Signal closer to a Pan’s Labyrinth. It is an “experience”…