Sometimes death lurks after them for days, weeks, or even months, waiting for their time…

You become a changed person when you face the reaper and deny him your soul

Martha Sweeney, Killmore

Black (2017)
Also known as
Fantasy, Horror, Romance, Thriller
Written by
 Choi Ran
Directed by
Kim Hong-sun
Country of Origin
South Korea 

oh! … brief

In this drama, the physical and underworld collide when a woman who can see death reconnects with someone from her past that is now possessed by death. Black (who is Detective Han Moo-gang), is possessed by a grim reaper who took over his dead body so he could track another grim reaper who is AWOL.

Kang Ha-Ram is a young woman who has always been able to see the ‘shadow of death’ in people about to die. The two unite to save people from death not knowing initially that their paths were once connected in the past.

The grim reaper falls in love with his human partner and because of this defiance of the rules, all memory of him must be erased.

oh! … talks drama

What a fantastic production!

From the script to the visual narrative through the performances delivered, this show was a winner from start to end. And I was ugly crying by the last episode.

This is one of the very few kdramas I have watched as it aired so episode-by-episode and while I liked this approach, it made the waiting for the next episode to air almost unbearable, so I’ll likely not repeat that and instead, stick with my usual marathon method. It’s also taken me almost a full month or so to get around to writing this review, but that’s because I’m still stuck in ‘project hell’ with my day job. Oh to be writing blog posts for a living! I wish!

Choi Ran created a brilliant series based on a single case spanning twenty odd years and traversing two realities – the modern day and the underworld. This idea is brilliance itself and is unlike anything I have seen in the Asian drama and film industries thus far. Although, I’m finding I have chosen a fantastic list of drama and film to watch, so I don’t have much negative to say about my most recent choices.

I’m typically not a huge fan of fantasy, but this series delivered the fantastical elements in a sound way and featured both horror and thriller genre rudiments alongside romance. I was hooked from the first episode and would have liked the show to continue into a second series, however, the ending drowned that wish like a dead body!

I sometimes wonder how scriptwriters develop their story, especially in a production like this one. Do they begin with the backstory and develop the narrative from the inside out, or do they begin with the current story and develop the narrative from the outside in? In this case, I believe Choi Ran started with her backstory as the foundation and then developed her narrative, plots and subplots from there. At least to me, this seems to be the logical method.

Whichever way she approached her writing for the script, I have to say she ended up with an extraordinary tale and it was thoroughly entertained episode after episode after episode.

What kept my interest?

The overarching mystery of what happened in Mujin of course. Not just the collapse of the mall, but the advantage is taken from that incident by the ‘bad guys’ to bury bodies and make people disappear and of course to lay blame on the innocents.

It was really amazingly well plotted by Choi Ran and I’m looking forward to her next script already. She’s the writer behind Iljimae (2008), God’s Gift: 14 Days (2014), and Somewhere Between (2017). But, it wasn’t just her well-devised plots I was also impressed with how she wove the underworld story into the modern-day timeline, creating a whole other level of intrigue with the Grim Reapers and the rules that govern their behaviour and approach to aiding the dead. And of course, let’s not forget, she also paid significant attention to developing each character, their idiosyncrasies and their own life stories. The script was a solid body of work, and as a writer myself I’m always looking for the solid foundation in the script!

From the overarching storyline to the lines the characters delivered to the intertwining of two realities and the connections of the past through the character development, the script was exceptional and well-executed. Choi Ran missed nothing, well, except for the ending scenes perhaps which were a little too far-fetched for my liking, but was written in typical kdrama style – all’s well that ends well!

So what is this series about?

The “Mujin mystery” storyline (or the story of the past) involves not only the collapse of the Mujin Mall which is conveniently used as a cover for other murders but is also the backdrop to a nefarious prostitution ring involving chaebols, underage girls, and police along with rape and murder.

The modern-day timeline is all about one man’s (Han Moo-Gang) desire to unravel the past and uncover the truth behind his brother’s death (Kim Joon). However, in digging into the past, the man acts as a catalyst to bringing underworld beings into the current timeline, disrupting the balance and forcing the hand of the corrupt, ultimately encouraging them to begin a new spate of murders in an attempt to keep the misdeeds of the past hidden.

There are a lot of characters to keep up with, so, for this review, I’m going to break those characters down for you and talk about their relationships in a little more detail, without giving away too much of the script.

Firstly, there is Kang Ha-Ram. This character is the productions ‘seer’ of the shadow of death. She was raised by her father after her mother abandoned them both when Kang Ha-Ram was just a young girl. Because of this, Kang Ha-Ram shared a ‘special bond’ with her father and resented her mother. Her relationship with her mother 20 years later is particularly strained, especially as her father was murdered soon after her mother abandoned them. Her mother remarried and has a son. There is a reason behind her abandoning her daughter and husband and it becomes apparent in episode 15 and her father’s murder which is investigated but never solved is resolved in episode 16/17.

There are two types of ‘grim reapers’ in this series: 1. Pure descendants of the underworld, and 2. Humans who become grim reapers because they’re murder victims or have committed suicide. An explanation of all this is given in episode 3.

The grim reaper ‘family’ in the script is comprised of Grim Reaper #007 who comes across as a stickler for the rules and regulations that govern grim reaping, Grim Reaper #416 who initially appears as an oddball, rapping nonsense, older looking reaper, only to be revealed later as Hyun Soo, a former human teenage boy connected to both Kang Ha-Ram and Kim Joon. Lastly, there is Grim Reaper #444 who initially we are led to believe is a pure descendant reaper, but it’s later revealed in the fact that he was a human who had been murdered. These three grim reapers are chasing another human grim reaper that has gone AWOL, they refer to him as “Loser” and they eventually believe that he has taken over a human body to escape the underworld. Grim Reaper #444 also decides to take over a human body and use it to track and locate “Loser” grim reaper. And that is how he becomes embroiled with an investigation team.

The investigation team is really a handful of police officers who are supporting the Violent Crimes Unit and they are all ‘flawed’ in some way. Heading up the group is ‘Old Man’ Bong Man Sik who doesn’t seem to have much sense, at least that’s the way he is initially portrayed. His best detective is Na Gwang-Gyun, a seasoned investigator who was also on the force 20 years previously when the Mujin Mall collapsed, a renowned ‘madam’ was found murdered, and a young boy died during after being hit by a car. He is a feisty man and one with a miserable temper, but he’s thorough at his job. His partner is a man called Han Moo-Gang and is the complete opposite. He is timid and can’t seem to hold his food when he sees corpses in whichever state. He doesn’t seem to be well-suited to detective work or even policing for that matter. Two other detectives complete the team, Oh So-Tae who has bladder issues but is fairly smart and Park Gwi-Nam who has a nervous condition that causes his hands to tremble. The relationship between the team members is such that while Han Moo-Gang is an obvious outsider the team still will ‘protect’ him because he is part of the team, even though he makes investigating crime scenes incredibly difficult due to his weak stomach. The investigation team answers the chain of command, up to Chief Police Commissioner Song Jae-Geun. He was also a police officer during the Mujin Mall and strange murders that occurred at the time.

Oh Man-Soo is a character introduced in the first episode that is directly linked to the situations in the past and the current goings-on. He is the youngest son of a chaebol — a nasty old man who is portrayed as being corrupt and immoral and guilty of more than just ‘one thing’. Oh Man-Soo’s older brother, Oh Man-Ho, is depicted as a nasty, aggressive, super abusive and potentially murderous man and likely the owner of the ‘butterfly watch’. He has a son who is an equally obnoxious, porn-watching, drug-loving brat. The family is firmly tied to events of the past that predicts their future.

The character that ties everything together is Yoon Soo-Won. She is Han Moo-Gang’s girlfriend to start with. But she is a dark horse who appears to be hiding a deep, dark secret and as it turns out she is! Han Moo-Gang uncovers her secret, but soon after he is shot in the head and due to ‘memory-loss’ because of body snatching, it takes a very long time before we understand what he uncovered about his former girlfriend. She is tied in a mysterious way to the crazy murderer who escapes from the mental hospital which is revealed in episode 3.

Choi Ran’s script is fast-paced, exciting, full of mystery and intrigue and she develops all her characters with exceptional insight and cunning. Throughout the series, you will be surprised by the sudden ‘aha’ moments and those cookie crumbs you’re following don’t always lead to the suspected individual, which will keep you on your toes and anticipate where the story will lead in the next episode.

I urge you to pay particular attention to the initial first four episodes because while these are jam-packed with lots of activity and multiple situations going on all around, they also hold some key aspects that you need to understand to fully appreciate this production. So, here’s my interpretation and take on the first four:

Episode 1:   I basically call this episode ‘Setting the Scene’ because it introduces the main characters in mind-blowing fashion. You have Detective Han Moo-Gang literally blowing noodles all over the place. Kang Ha-Ram is unable to protect her ex-boyfriend and almost loses her life on an aeroplane. There’s a suicide on a bridge that appears unrelated to everything but is incredibly significant so pay attention. And before the episode is even finished, one of the main characters is already dead! Mind-blowing!!!

Episode 2:   I call this episode, ‘Explaining the Reapers’ because the Grim Reaper family (#007, #416 and #444) make an ostentatious appearance, but it looks like they’ll be sticking around for a long while. Their presence helps explain to the audience the significance of the shadows Kang Ha-Ram can see and maybe puts into perspective the ‘walking dead’ man. Han Moo-Gang becomes ‘Black’ because of Grim Reaper #444 who also becomes ‘Black’. Confused yet? Don’t worry it will all work out in the end!

Episode 3:   I call this one ‘Frozen’ because the case the investigators will look into is all about a woman found in a freezer and the mystery of ‘Middle-finger-missing’ man begins. This ‘middle-finger-missing’ man thread runs the entire production and is essential to uncovering the guilty party or is that parties? The contrast between the ‘hot-blooded’ murder at the mental hospital (episode 2) and the ‘cold-blooded’ murder of the woman in the freezer is very important to pay attention! We’re also introduced to the adorable Sip-Gyeong – Oh Man-Soo’s much-beloved dog who apparently can sniff out corpses, so be careful all you walking dead!

Episode 4:   I call this episode, ‘Understanding the Shadows’ because in this episode you really come to understand the ‘shadows’ aspect of what Kang Ha-Ram sees and can sense or feel when she touches a shadow. I also love the reference to the film, ‘Meet Joe Black’ one of my favourite Brad Pitt films and one, not too many people know much about.

I know! It sounds like I’m gushing and really, I am because while the ‘idea’ for the story may come over as a little kooky for some people watching, for me, it’s more about the writing. Understanding how the story evolves and all the side investigations and sub-plots.

I’m extremely thrilled by the strength of the script because it really holds the production together and offers director Kim Hong-Sun a decent basis to work from. And once again, he didn’t waste a minute of airtime.

Every scene is constructed by soundly directing the cameramen who captured minute details and every possible emotion the characters display through the lenses of their cameras.

Kim Hong-Sun directed amazing choreography of fight and chase scenes — there’s lots of action in this series, alongside grisly and horrific murders. Horror and thriller fans will definitely enjoy the spectacular display at crime scenes.

Kim Hong-Sun knows how to deliver visually and pays great attention to the emotions of the characters – their pain, frustration, anger, resentment, cunning, grimaces, fear, horror, but also the sadness, the anguish, the worry, the love. As with Voice, one of his many outstanding directorial productions, Black is visually exquisite while being exceedingly dark in subject matter and tone.

Special effects are used for this production and play an important part what with all the ‘shadows’ and collusion between the underworld and the modern-day timeline. I got a kick out of Kim Hong-Sun’s ‘shadows’ and how special effects were used to depict the physical representation as Kang Ha-Ram sees them, but also the make-up and special effects used to present the grim reapers. Also, alongside the supernatural aspects, this production includes many graphic scenes of bloody gore and body injuries, or bodies at crime scenes, along with weapons (and not just knives and guns). I was pleasantly surprised to see that the weapons were not blurred out and that once again Kim Hong-Sun was able to realistically depict actual injuries and real-life violence and gore.

There is some progress in those areas being made in the Asian drama and film industries. I hope they don’t go too far with these types of depictions like Hollywood has because that would be disappointing. I am a fan of horror, but horror is not only about the blood and gore, it’s also about how the story is told and the emotions that are evoked and not just the images flashing on a screen.

Kim Hong-Sun has great talent when it comes to creating the visual narrative. Everything from the wardrobe choices to the setting of each scene, to the accompanying soundtrack, is meticulously planned out. And look at the effects?

Black is a dashing figure is stylish suits and shirts, all black for obvious reasons. The rest of the investigators dress like typical detectives is casual attire. Kang Ha-Ram wore some weirdly stylish but often clashing outfits, specifically chosen to complement her oddball personality and character. I got a kick out of Kang Ha-Ram and Oh Man-Soo’s party outfits and the dialogue they share discussing them – watch out for it, it’s truly funny!

The soundtrack features “Take Me Out” by Nam Tae-hyun, “Like A Film” by leeSA, and “Another Me” by Han Min-Chae among other instrumental pieces by various artists for background music. A bonus for English speakers is that the lyrics for all the songs on the soundtrack are English and they’re perfectly beautiful!

In fact, I’m listening to the soundtrack as I type this, I enjoy it that much.

A fantastic production, one that was chosen by Netflix (not that it means much, but to be chosen as a Netflix Original is to be placed in the same category as fantastic productions like: “The Killing”, “13 Reasons Why”, “Argon”, “Erased”, “Happy Valley”, “House of Cards”, “Lucid Dream”, “Man to Man”, “Narcos”, “Ozark”, “Pandora”, “River”, “Resurface”, “Stranger Things”, “The Last Kingdom”, “The Bridge”, and “The OA” to mention a few of the ones I’ve watched, among a growing list of others soon to be watched).

As with Voice, Kim Hong-Sun chose a fantastic cast (including many industry favourites) to play the characters for this production. The cast did such a fine job with their individual roles, but also gelled well collectively and delivered an incredible series that I am sure many people will enjoy if they haven’t already!

Detective Han Moo-Gang or Black was played by the amazing and dashingly handsome Song Seung-Heon.  I thoroughly enjoyed Song Seung-Heon’s performance and interpretation of both Han Moo-Gang as an ordinary man and then Black possessing Han Moo-Gang’s body. As human Han Moo-Gang, he gave a strong performance as the sweet, kind and super-sensitive man who isn’t suited to being a detective but is sticking it out to try and solve his brother’s murder. Song Seung-Heon’s performance allowed the audience to connect with gentle Detective Han Moo-Gang. But Song Seung-Heon’s performance and interpretation of Black is what really stole the show! He inhabited Black and gave distinct differences Black’s personality and idiosyncrasies. I was mesmerized, Song Seung-Heon exuded his character’s confidence and arrogance. It was a brilliant and unforgettable performance. Kudos!

Kang Ha-Ram was played by talented Go Ara. What a spectacular performance. Go Ara gave her all, she delivered her character’s every emotion and sentiments with a quiet spirit that allowed the audience to connect with her pain and the anguish she carried because of her special ability. It was undoubtedly a difficult role to play but she carried herself exceptionally well and I was very impressed. Particularly Go Ara’s interpretation of Kang Ha-Ram’s pained expressions and the way she carried her character’s body gave believability to the words Kang Ha-Ram spoke. It was a truly an eccentric interpretation and gave Kang Ha-Ram a bizarre air. I so enjoyed Go Ara’s performance that I wanted the show to continue, unfortunately, the ending made the show’s ending final.

Kim Dong-Joon gave a solid performance as the enigmatic Oh Man-Soo. I liked that Kim Dong-Joon was chosen for the role and I just adored his interpretation and delivery of his character. It was a breath of fresh air among all the seriousness of everything else going on and Kim Dong-Joon gave Oh Man-Soo an air of innocence and naivete. I was caught up in Kim Dong-Joon’s performance and his growing admiration for Kang Ha-Ram. I believed his sincerity and felt his pain from suffering at the hands of his brother’s abuse and hatred. He gave an incredible performance.

Lee El played Yoon Soo-Wan and while I’ve seen her perform in many other roles, I really think that this might be her strongest performance for me. I’m not a fan of Lee El, I find her acting style a little too dramatic for my liking, not that it’s excessive, she just comes across as making too much of an effort, so her acting isn’t as natural as her counterparts. But for this production, she did better than I expected so I’ll give her thumbs up on her performance. Unfortunately for her I completely disliked her character. I can’t stand these deceptive women that pop up in EVERY kdrama. Why women are painted in such bad light is a permanent question of mine.

Bong Man-Sik heading up the team of detectives was played by Jung Suk-Yong and I think as usual Jung Suk-Yong gave a strong performance in his supporting role. Jung Suk-Yong is a professional with a prolific career in acting in both drama and film. He always gives a strong performance and does an amazing job of interpreting and delivering his character. He is especially good in this production and I love the humour his character brings.

Lee Cheol-Min’s performance as almost incontinent Oh So-Tae had me rolling in stitches sometimes. All that peeing! I think Lee Cheol-Min gave a strong performance and alongside Hae Jae-Ho’s performance as Park Gwi-Nam, they added much-needed comedy and fun. I’m not sure I would want either character’s investigating anything on my behalf because they’re not exactly the sharpest tools in the shed, but they do get the job done after a lot of running around! Anyway, performances by Lee Cheol-Min and Hae Jae-Ho added to the overall success of this production.

My favourite among the detective characters was Na Gwang-Gyun played by the ever- impressive Kim Won-Hae. I just love this guy! He nails his supporting roles time and again and always brings a little something new to each of his characters. He was fantastic in the role of Na Gwang-Gyun, the detective who once he had caught something fishy, just couldn’t let go. I so enjoy all Kim Won-Hae’s comical facial expressions and high-pitched screeching when his character loses his temper. It’s brilliant!

oh! … sidekicks

There were so many sidekicks in this production, far too many to mention them all, so here’s a few that I wanted to give a shout out to.

I must start with Lee Hyo-Je who gave a tremendous performance as Kim Joon (Joon Oppa). Lee Hyo-Je was impressive as Kim Joon and while most of his scenes were flashbacks or minimal performance opportunities, Lee Hyo-Je gave his all and left a lasting impression. I’ll look forward to watching this young man grow into his acti8ng shoes.

Although he wasn’t around for much more than one or two cameo scenes, Kim Tae-Woo did make an appearance as Grim Reaper #444. I would have liked to see him in a bigger role in this production because he’s a good actor and always brings out the best in his characters.

Jo Jae-Yun and Lee Gyu-Bok played Grim Reaper #007 and Grim Reaper #416. I didn’t initially understand why these characters were needed for the overall story but eventually understood. Both actors did a good job with supporting Song Seung-Heon on the underworld aspects. I haven’t been a fan of Jo Jae-Yun in the past, but he’s growing on me, just a little. Personally, I don’t know or recall anything I’ve seen Lee Gyu-Bok in before, but because of the acting in this production, I’ll look to include other productions both men have starred in.

A very special shout-out to the three, young actor and actresses who played younger versions of Kang Ha-Ram, Yoon Soo-Wan and Oh Man-Soo. Choi Myung-Bin (Kang Ha-Ram), Song Soo-Hyun (Yoon Soo-Wan), and Lee3 Seung-Woo (Oh Man-Soo) gave stellar performances.

oh! … that’s a wrap

If you’re looking for something different in the kdrama scene then you should absolutely give Black a try. It won’t appeal to everyone because of the subject matter, but it’s a well-developed story with a lot of thought and effort put into its script. You won’t be disappointed by the story. And visually, it’s as appealing as anything coming out of Hollywood, perhaps more so because the Asian drama and film industry mostly put a lot of effort into their productions.

In short, the script is strong, the creativity of the story is exceptional, the visual narrative is remarkable, and the performances are award-winning, so, there’s nothing to lose in watching 18 episodes.

The only criticism I would have is that the ending is a little far-fetched and could have been worded better to allow for a second season or a follow-up special.

This kdrama will be added to my list of drama to watch again and keep.

oh! … tidbits

In Episode 2, the character ‘Black’ spends all night watching kdramas so he can learn to be like a detective. He complains about how ‘inept the detective is in the show Voice, which is hysterical given this production is directed by Kim Hong-sun, the same director of Voice.

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

oh! … trailers

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