South Korean filmmakers, from Joon Ho Bong to Chan-wook Park, are feted the world over for their gripping tales of crime and redemption. But the country’s television is not too far behind. A new series, which is ratcheting up the ratings, is both sophisticated and sassy, twin hallmarks of Korean crime dramas.
Secret Forest, which Netflix has picked up, goes deep inside the Korean police force to uncover a tale of corruption, malice and intrigue. Prosecutor Hwang Shi-Mok (Jo Seung-woo) is called upon to investigate the murder of businessman Park Moo-sung who had a history of providing favours to top members of the police in return for lax investigation into tax evasion, insider trading and other corporate malfeasance.
Shi-Mok is widely believed to be incorruptible, living alone as a bachelor and sharing a testy relationship with his parents. As he goes about the investigation, he seeks the help of Han Yeo-jin (the internationally known Bae Doo-na), a young and idealistic policewoman who shares his enthusiasm for cleaning up the service.
Both find themselves getting pulled into a thicket that grows darker at every turn. At the centre of the controversy is Kwon Min-ah (Park Yoo-na), an underage sex worker who is believed to have provided services to a battery of top officials, including Shi-mok’s and Yeo-jin’s bosses. She also has some connection to Seo Dong-Jae (Lee Jun-hyuk), Shi-Mok’s colleague and a man who, chameleon-like, has the ability of extricate himself out of any predicament.
At the other end of the spectrum is a former minister who is implicated in taking bribes from the dead Moo-sung and whose daughter now works as a prosecutor under Shi-Mok. A third pole is brought in by Deputy Chief Lee (Jae-Myung Yoo) who, apart from being Shi-Mok’s boss and a morally dubious character, is son-in-law to one of Korea’s most powerful industrialists.
With so many overlapping strands, Secret Forest (it runs under the name Stranger on Netflix) was in danger of drowning. But the show maintains a taut grip on the events, mingling action and investigation to craft a satisfying narrative. Intentions are frequently questioned, and no one, not even the victim’s mother and son, are allowed the benefit of the doubt.
Procedural dramas tend to lag when the focus shift to the action at the expense of the whodunit. Secret Forest studiously avoids this trap. Especially interesting are the scenes in which Shi-Mok imagines himself at the scene of the crime which are thus shot by the director, giving his line of reasoning greater heft.
Jo Seung-woo and Bae Doo-na are excellent as the team that complements one another. He is instinctive but reserved while she is driven and cheery. At this stage, they are as much in danger of rubbing the higher-ups the wrong way as they are on the edge of a triumphant discovery. Since the original series is currently running in Korea, Netflix makes two episodes available every Friday. The wait is as delicious as the cliffhangers that end every episode.