Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead!

There is always room at the top after an investigation

Oliver Herford

Title
Stranger (2017)
Also known as
Secret Forest or Forest of Secrets 
Genre
Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Written by
 Lee Soo-Yeon
Directed by
Ahn Gil-Ho
Country of Origin
South Korea 
Episodes
16

oh! … brief

As a child, prosecutor Hwang Si-Mok suffered from misophonia and/or severe Hyperacusis – an inability to tolerate loud noises. His reaction to loud noises was increasingly aggressive and misunderstood so his mother was forced to have surgery performed on his brain to address his tolerance to loud noises. He received a partial lobotomy removing his limbic system, thereby controlling his emotions and reactions to loud noises.

Because of this procedure, he was able to successfully complete University and become an esteemed prosecutor, however, as an adult, he is devoid of almost all emotion, which in his position as a prosecutor is, both a blessing and a curse.

Hwang Si-Mok becomes personally involved in the case of a murdered man. He was investigating Park Moo-Sung who he believed was guilty of bribery, corruption, and sexual coercion of top police and prosecutorial officials. He joins forces with Police Lieutenant Han Yeo-Jin and together they work to eradicate the corruption prevalent in both the police department and the prosecutor’s offices.

oh! … talks drama

I am so disappointed with myself for putting off watching Stranger for so long! I had absolutely no idea it was going to be such a phenomenal kdrama!

What a gem this production was! The script through to the acting and everything in between was perfect! Quite literally perfect! I believe that’s called a trifecta effect – great acting, script and directing.

Writer, Lee Soo-Yeon, debuted Stranger, better known as Secret Forest, a gripping tale of bribery, corruption and murder. You will intently watch each and every single episode trying to manoeuvre your way through the labyrinth of calculated ambiguity that Lee Soo-Yeon cunningly crafted throughout her script.

Even scriptwriters Kim Eun-Sook (Descendants of the Sun, Guardian: The Lonely and Great God aka Goblin) and Kim Eun-hee (Signal) have praised Lee Soo-Yeon’s script and called it ‘most impressive’.

What impressed me so much was not only the research that would have been undertaken to write such an impressive script, but also the rational approach, the intelligence behind the sequential events, the stylish yet conservative narrative, the depth of the plot, the exacting dissection of police and prosecutorial cover-ups, the almost-relaxed tempo  but slow and steady building of the story, the transparency and delineation between protagonists and criminals, the obvious ambiguity, the tension-building, the stimulating conflict, the straightforward presentation of fact, and the consistent mystery. The script alone requires a standing ovation because Lee Soo-Yeon nailed it, completely nailed every single aspect, every little detail.

She skipped the meaningless subplots that kdramas often get mired down in. She allowed her story to unravel slowly and meticulously much like the investigation proceeds. This was by far one of the first unhurried kdramas I have seen, if not the first.

I was most impressed by the fact that this first-time scriptwriter (I’m not sure that’s actually accurate because I do believe she penned Uninvited back in 2003 and a short called Goggles in 2000. Also, I’m convinced she is the writer of Bluebeard another 2017 production) would undertake a writing project that exposes the heinous underbelly of political corruption in South Korean law enforcement and the justice system. This script was perfectly timed considering the 2016 presidential scandal involving Park Geun-Hye, Choi Tae-Min, Choi Soon-Si, Samsung’s de facto head Lee Jae-Yong and Choi Soon-Si’s daughter Chung Yoo-Ra. Subsequent charges were made and sentences were handed out in mid-to-late 2017 to those involved and President Park Geun-Hye was impeached and removed from office.

It’s almost like a ‘Hail Mary’ that this drama aired during the scandal and court cases. Absolutely brilliant on the part of the scriptwriter, director and production team, not to mention, tvN the television network that aired the kdrama. So not only was the plot for the script flawless so was its timing and airing. The tactical inclusion of an issue that was playing out in the media was an added finesse that could have been planned but likely occurred through coincidence. Its social commentary, however, was finessed and is a fate only the gods could have achieved.

I guarantee that this is one of the best legal-crime kdramas we are ever going to see and it will rank up there with other classic pieces in the years to come — and not only on my Keepsakes List.

Back to my review of Lee Soo-Yeon’s writing. There are many, maybe even a dime a dozen Asian dramas and films for that matter that feature a cop with a wacky partner and you almost expect the leads in this production being male and female to have romantic inclinations by the end, and while there are little hints that it could happen, it never comes to fruition. And the sexual tension that does exist is never distracting, in fact without it, the production would not have been as successful I don’t believe.

I relished in Lee Soo-Yeon’s use of ‘motivation’ almost like a theme within the overarching story. Every single one of her well-developed and fine-tuned characters is driven by motivation. In fact, motivation is central to the story, whether you are looking at it from the viewpoint of the protagonists or the criminals. And those characters that Lee Soo-Yeon created, they will have you guessing and then second-guessing your assumptions and presumptions. It’s amazing! It’s stupendous! All the theories you craft in your head as the kdrama plays on, you abandon, but you don’t discard them because they are part of the bigger picture. It is a little intense at times and you do have to pay attention. This isn’t a body of work that you can simply flip on and be entertained by, theirs is a certain amount of interaction the audience goes through to participate in the mind-game of the writer.

Truly, this is a masterpiece and I’m hoping that at the very least Stranger will be nominated for tvN year-end awards. Sure, the story is nothing new with the typical good versus bad, corruption versus honesty, and ultimately the rich versus the poor. But for the brilliant manner the story unfolds like a rose coming into bloom, one petal at a time, and the intriguing characters that develop much like the lifecycle of a caterpillar and the astounding visual narrative captured in Hollywood style and with plenty of action sequences, one might get lost in the raw emotions evoked by the simple beauty of the cinematography.

I’m guessing after directing Stranger, Ahn Gil-Ho will get a ton more offers, not that his career as a director is shabby or anything. His work includes popular Rooftop Prince, Her Lovely Heels, Sarangman Halrae and My Son-In-Law’s Woman to mention a few. I’m also guessing that the more experience you have working on the various genre’s the better your skill set grows because Ahn Gil-Ho did an exceptional job of directing Stranger.

Much of the success of the production lies in the pragmatic approach Ahn Gil-Ho used to translate the script into a visual feast for the eyes, with a realism that is both uncanny and frightening. He did an excellent job of depicting the multiple shades of grey that Lee Soo-Yeon’s script alludes too to the various characters depicted. I mean human nature is not entirely bad (black) or good (white), instead we exist in multiple shades of grey. Likewise, Ahn Gil-Ho didn’t go the easy route in depicting the investigative work. Characters didn’t just sit at a computer and work a computer to solve the case, they physically engaged in the legwork and chasing breadcrumbs. This was refreshing and portrayed Ahn Gil-Ho’s genuine desire for authenticity.

The cinematography for this production was astounding. Ahn Gil-Ho’s skilled use of colour grading gave the kdrama an aesthetic movie-like quality. Each scene was choreographed, and both camera angles and aerial shots utilized were exceptional.

I particularly was taken with the remarkable urban and sub-urban terrain backdrops, the beguiling nightfall scenes, the striking profile work, the mastery at the framing of scenes, the skilled transitioning of time and perspective, and the commanding panoramic shots. I’m breaking my norm and including a gallery of film stills and gifs of what I just described.

 

To add to the class of this kdrama, Ann Gil-Ho paid attention to minor details, like wardrobe, special effects, makeup, props and the soundtrack.

The men of the prosecutor’s office donned stylish suits, mostly black, navy or dark-striped and in contrast, the detectives wore casual outfits, leathers and jeans. Did anyone notice how the male lead always fabric-wrapped his files to carry to court in pink? I wonder if there was some significance to this? Did the pink fabric mean something that I missed? I know certain shades of pink are thought to have a calming effect. Maybe I’m over analyzing?

Special effects were used for some of the bloody gore scenes and theatrical makeup was used to ensure the actors and actresses looked good on camera. Don’t believe me? Just watch and see for yourself!

The accompanying soundtrack is still not yet available on Spotify, but I’ve included a YouTube channel below, so you can still have a listen. You won’t be disappointed because the choice available is just as good as everything else I’ve reviewed so far.

But now the best of all – the cast. Ahn Gil-Ho made fantastic choices. The cast was mostly mature, seasoned actors and actresses.

Cho Seung-Woo played Hwang Shi-Mok to perfection. I was mesmerized by how in character Cho Seung-Woo was. He perfectly depicted a man incapable of forming attachments to the people around him. I waited for a glimmer of something other than the deadpan expression to his face and was rewarded by a few brief half-smiles. I can’t imagine how hard it was to stay in character given that as humans we are excessively expressive with both our faces but also our bodies. Cho Seung-Woo was not only convincing, he embodied all his characters traits and flaws to perfection. It was a remarkable performance deserving of awards and I sincerely hope he gets them.

Stunning Bae Doo-Na played Lieutenant Han Yeo-Jin and she was the perfect Yang to Hwang Shi-Mok’s Yin. Bae Doo-Na’s vivacious interpretation of her character brought the spunky lieutenant to life and allowed the audience to connect with her and become invested in her story. On a side note, the character, Lieutenant Han Yeo-Jin, is a remarkable role model for women, rising to a highly respected rank and equal in strength and ability to her male counterparts, thanks in part to the strong writing of Lee Soo-Yeon’s writing but mostly because of Bae Doo-Na’s performance delivery.

Together, Cho Seung-Woo and Bae Doo-Na shared electric chemistry, not the kind that sparks on the screen for the obvious reason that Cho Seung-Woo’s character just can’t have those emotions, but there was a definite attraction between the two that was more than the casual drinking-buddy friends they became. The sexual tension between the two was authentic and not one-sided either, but it never develops more than being tangible tension, which worked exceptionally well within the overarching narrative.

Yoo Jae-Myung had the hardest role in this kdrama. As Lee Chang-Joon, Yoo Jae-Myung must have used every ounce of his acting skills because I was totally convinced that he was exactly as he turned out to be the anti-hero turned hero. It was captivating to watch his personal interactions and the distinct difference in the tone of voice and behaviour when he was dealing with his father-in-law or his wife, not to mention the cold, calculated manner he used when dealing with his staff. Yoo Jae-Myung was outstanding!

Lee Joon-Hyuk made me both love and hate his character, Seo Dong-Jae in equal measure. He nailed the manipulative, side-swapping, brown-nosing, face-saving, detestable prosecutor and then some. I relished his facial expressions, the smirks, the sly smiles, the frustration, the fear but most of all the loathing. You could just tell from his face how he felt about the people around him, it was brilliant!

oh! … sidekicks

Of all the possible supporting roles to remark on (and there were so many of them), my absolute favourite was Choi Jae-Woong who played Hang Gun, Han Yeo-Jin’s sidekick. Choi Jae-Woong was incredible in this role. I’ll admit I was a little smitten with the character and I’m guessing that is as much because of Choi Jae-Woong’s performance and personal interpretation of his characters foibles as it has to do with his amazing smile.

Unlike my feelings toward Choi Jae-Woong’s character, I had the opposite reaction to Choi Byung-Mo’s character, Kim Woo-Kyun, but not his performance, which was understated and seemingly innocuous. But it was perfect!

I can’t end without mention of Lee Kyoung-Young who gave a stellar performance as Lee Chang-Joon’s father-in-law, Lee Yoon-Beom.

oh! … that’s a wrap

This show raises the bar for all kdrama I’ll watch following it. I won’t repeat everything I’ve already written in a summary here, I’ll just encourage you to watch Stranger for yourself. It is a superior body of work that encompasses a level of mastery that is rare in television drama.

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

oh! … trailers

oh! … nooz

Stranger (Secret Forest) enjoys success as tvN’s top-rated series in 2017

“Forest Of Secrets” Makes New York Times’s Top 10 International Dramas

Signal and Forest of Secrets in consideration for second seasons

 

 

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