Secret Forest: An Introduction

This article serves as an appetizer for the Korean show 'Secret Forest', also known as 'Forest of Secrets' or 'Stranger'.

With 'Secret Forest', Korea has managed to churn out a crime mystery only rivaled or beat by the fantastic 'Sigeuneol'.

While the subject matter has none of that show's supernatural references and is comparatively a pretty run-of-the-mill police drama, it nevertheless manages to weave a complex story clearly targeted at people a step above the general American public, with superb cast performances and an intelligent plot.

The two protagonists of the story are Hwang Shi-Mok and Han Yeo-Jin, played by Cho Seung-Woo - an actor mostly unknown to a non-Asian audience - and Bae Doo-Na ('Sense8'), respectively.


Our lead, Shi-Mok, is a prosecutor - and in South Korea, prosecutors are far more involved in what would be described as "normal police work", effectively doubling as criminal investigators - and the show opens by dumping a murder case in his lap as he's visiting an associate finding him stabbed to death in the living room. He meets newbie cop Yeo-Jin at the scene of the crime and the two strike up a sort of relationship investigating the case, which turns out to have deep roots in the corruption of the judicial system, with the victim being the spider in a web of bribes.

All of this is standard fare for Korean cop dramas lately, as there have been several high-profile corruption scandals involving the Supreme Prosecutors' Office which have been featured frequently in the media. Thus, judging from that alone, 'Secret Forest' is far from original.

It probably helps, then, for me not to be that familiar or oversaturated with this sort of material, but what makes this stand out are the exceedingly-well fleshed out and acted characters combined with a very layered story.

There aren't many good guys in 'Secret Forest' - our two protagonists are really the only ones mostly portrayed as ultimately benevolent - but there are no comic book villains either. It's often quite unclear if the people we come to root against are truly bad people even if they do despicable things, as the show takes great care to portray the problem within the organisation as systemic rather than driven by an evil mastermind.


In this system, everyone is pressured by someone, and all your attachments are simultaneously your chief strengths and something to use against you. Of course, there's your signature corrupt chief prosecutor and his bootlicking, scheming lackey - both roles excellently played - but their true culpability remains in question.

Thus, Shi-Mok, our lead character, is someone structurally incapable of forming attachments and pathologically fearless. After a major neurosurgical operation with some unfortunate side effects in his youth, he has little to no emotions. He never smiles and has limited understanding of the social games, leaving him at odds with the nepotist culture at his workplace. To be frank, he's often not even a very nice person. On a personal level, this ice-cold detachment is tested by his contact with newbie cop Yeo-Jin.


This may sound like a bit of a cliché - certainly, "cop-with-quirky-partner"-shows are a-dime-a-dozen even since Sherlock Holmes - but it's very well sold by both actors. Doo-Na's character is far more well-rounded than her role in 'Sense8', and we get to see much more of her register, while Seung-Woo has that rare, vague quality of a young Chow Yun-Fat, able to convey much through a very understated performance.

This is a show where it's often hard to discern the players' ultimate motives, and the investigation of the case is many levels more complex than you're used to watching American crime shows. Lead after lead are proven to be wrong, but never absolutely so - each failed theory serves as a piece of the bigger puzzle. Even after half the show - 'Secret Forest' is scheduled for 16 episodes - it's more or less impossible to say "who really did it", with the available evidence pointing different ways almost every episode.


Another notable character is Eun-Soo, whom I've been referring to as "Junior" for the whole show - seriously, keeping track of the names of all the people can be quite a task for a European who's never heard them before. She's a young prosecutor and underling of Shi-Mok who may-or-may-not be involved in the murder - though honestly, you could say that about practically everyone on the show. It's unclear if she's cast as a romantic interest for the lead, a possibly corrupting influence, both, or none. She seems to have a mild crush on Shi-Mok, but that could just as well be her testing her charms on him for an ulterior purpose.

There are some "staples" to Korean drama. Some are pretty clear, others more intangible. While it's there, the "goofy humor" trademark is very much subdued here - it's a rather dark show, even if intensely cute at times.

You have the typical portrayal of Korean society as extremely hierarchical and traditional - and yes, with a fair amount of sexism. That may make it a hard sell to some people, but that would be a shame. It's important to realize how this show is intended as a fairly realistic drama showing social relations as they are, not as we may wish them to be, and it certainly doesn't paint these things in a positive light - as an example, condescension against women is a villainous trait. There's also, for example, a certain dinner scene who really serves a burn to that entire mindset.

It's hard to put the finger on exactly what makes this show so good. It's probably a mix of a tightly written plot, a deliberate ambiguity and sizzling chemistry between the leads. It's proven quite adept at ending each episode on a high note with an intriguing twist or plot development. Finally, for a Korean show I think the format is pretty accessible to Westerners.

I can only urge you to find out for yourself.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hope you do another review once the drama has ended! This was excellent. :)

Bec's Blogs said...

Great review! I completely agree with you, I am loving this show due to the writing and realistic characters. Very different to US dramas with the usual one dimensional characters. The characters in this drama are extremely complex. Even if they are physiologically incapable of emotion, they are emotionally complex, interesting and well done to portray this!.

Anonymous said...

I like this review overall; it gives a nice overview of the dynamics in the show without giving too much away, but the two digs toward American TV/American public give me pause. "Targeted at people a step above the general American public"? "Many levels more complex than you're used to watching [in] American crime shows"? I get that we're trying to get Westerners out of their comfort zone of what they usually watch... but digging at Western TV isn't the way I'd do it.