THE SHORT VERDICT:
Starkly beautiful yet disturbingly dark, White Christmas explores the issue of nature vs. nurture in relation to the human condition. How much of one’s fruit is a result of qualities inherent in one’s seed, and how much of it is due to how and with what you water that seed? Throughout its 8 episodes, this psychological thriller relentlessly asks the question, “Are monsters born or made?”
Depending on your preferred answer to that question, your mileage may vary with this one.
Thought-provoking, in either case.
THE LONG VERDICT:
I’ll admit upfront that I don’t have a preference for dark and edgy. Or suspense thrillers. Or anything scary, for that matter.
There are basically 2 major reasons I checked this out. Firstly, it’s got Kim Woo Bin in it (yes, the things I do in the name of fangirl love. *shakes head*) Secondly, it comes highly recommended by so many other viewers, who, almost as one voice, hail it as a bit of a cult classic. Put those 2 factors together, and White Christmas wormed its way onto my must-watch list, almost against my will.
In a nutshell, I can appreciate the merits of the show: it’s beautifully shot, it features some very good-looking people, it’s atmospheric and suspenseful, and it asks a compelling question.
At the same time, I do have some issues with where the show chooses to go with that question, which I’ll get into later.
The cinematography in White Christmas is deliberate, calculated and quite masterful.
On the one hand, the show makes it a point to show us that our setting is, literally, a white Christmas. The snowy surroundings are captured beautifully. Crisp, clean and almost blindingly white, the snowy mountains provide a pure, unadulterated setting for our dark story.
On the other hand, the school in which our story takes place is all straight lines and geometry; a sharp contrast to our snowy, natural, organic surroundings. A metaphor for the nurture planted within nature, perhaps.
By day, the school’s angular, geometric design looks streamlined and clean.
By night, those same geometric lines take on a more sinister, ominous sort of feel, especially when paired with foreboding music and the piecemeal unveiling of the elements of our mystery.
As the plot of our story thickens, interesting camera angles take advantage of our geometric setting to create almost dizzying shots such as these. Perhaps another metaphor, for the convoluted workings of the human mind.
The camera also makes use of reflections and perspective, such as it does here, to show us, quite literally, the different faces of our characters:
The OST is eclectic and varied, ranging from moody trance-like instrumentals, to hard-edged rock anthems, to cheery, bright ditties.
Paired with cinematography that’s full of portent, and subject matter that promises to delve into the deep, dark, twisted recesses of the human psyche, the OST itself often takes on an additional layer of irony.
All these elements come together to create a finely textured, heavily atmospheric stage for our story.
For such a short show featuring an ensemble cast, I was pleasantly surprised at how well each character got fleshed out by the time we reached the end of our story.
In the end, I really felt like I’d gotten to know these characters, what they were made of, and what made them tick. Considering that the details of the story are given to us in a scattered, piecemeal fashion, I consider it no small feat that those pieces actually come together to make each character effectively come alive. Kudos to the writers indeed.
Due to the twisty nature of the story, and also, the jigsaw-esque characterization employed, it’s quite impossible to get into character discussions without being spoilery. If you plan to check out the show, I’d recommend skipping to the end where I’ve posted a non-spoilery trailer. Then come back later after you’re done, so that we can talk ALLLL about it!
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
Baek Sung Hyun as Park Moo Yul
I really enjoyed Moo Yul as a character. I found him interesting, relatable and likable.
His leadership ambitions clash with his insecurities, and together, those collide with his earnest desire to do the right thing. That all makes for some fascinating inner conflict, as Moo Yul struggles to prove himself in the midst of others more easily inclined towards leadership than he.
More than once, Moo Yul wrestles with his conscience as his ambition faces off with his morals. His moral compass wavers at times, but it is precisely his humanity that makes him a sympathetic character.
Hands-down, my favorite scene with Moo Yul is when he is in the mountains alone with Chi Hoon (Sung Joon).
When the boys realize that Jung Hye (Lee El) is not some random noona but an ally of Dr. Kim (Kim Sang Kyung), and that Moo Yul’s left the gun behind with Eun Sung (Esom), Chi Hoon remarks, “Will she feel safe with a gun that has no bullets? I don’t understand you or Eun Sung.”
Increasingly upset, Moo Yul shouts, “Do you think we all think with our minds and not our hearts?” … “You’re treating me like a fool.”
The boys soon have each other by the collar, eyes blazing:
Their tussling escalates into an all-out scuffle, and Chi Hoon accidentally steps off the edge of the slope, to Moo Yul’s shock:
There’s a long moment where Moo Yul considers what to do, and it’s clear that the thought of leaving Chi Hoon there crosses his mind.
He comes back with rope that he finds in the trunk of the abandoned police car, and starts to haul Chi Hoon up the slope.
When he’s hoisted Chi Hoon about halfway up the slope, Moo Yul’s mind floods with memories of all the times that Chi Hoon had outshone him. In a dramatic moment of internal struggle, Moo Yul allows the rope to go lax in his hands, and Chi Hoon slides back down the slope.
We see Moo Yul overcome the moment of hesitation, and steeling himself, he begins to haul Chi Hoon up the slope again. This time, he does it with more determination than ever, roaring with each agonizing pull of the rope. We can see in his eyes that it’s not just the desire to save Chi Hoon that drives him now, but also anger and even a measure of self-loathing; that he needs to save Chi Hoon, to prove to himself that he’s not That Guy, who would leave someone else to die for his own gain.
When Chi Hoon has been hauled to safety, Moo Yul collapses, his eyes filled with tears and his face a mix of relief and horror at what he’d almost done.
After a moment, Chi Hoon asks, “Are you all right?”
When Moo Yul answers in the affirmative, Chi Hoon pauses before admitting, “I thought you wouldn’t come.”
Moo Yul looks at Chi Hoon silently, as remorse colors his gaze.
What an awesome scene, and what a stellar performance by Baek Sung Hyun. So nuanced, so textured, and so real. I believed him completely in the moment, and I was so proud of Moo Yul, for overcoming the temptation to leave Chi Hoon.
I didn’t hold it against him, for entertaining the thought for that moment. After all, he’s only human. I only felt pride for the decision he made in the end, and I hoped that Moo Yul wouldn’t be too hard on himself for that moment of weakness, as we so often are on ourselves.
Sung Joon as Choi Chi Hoon
Chi Hoon is one of my favorite characters in the show. I really love how quietly fierce and intense Sung Joon is as Choi Chi Hoon. And how quietly fearless too.
I love how matter-of-fact Chi Hoon is, about everything. From analyzing his own sin in the context of the mystery letter, to breaking into the teachers’ dorm, to brainstorming ways to solve all their serial-killer related problems, Chi Hoon remains steady, unflinchingly unafraid and quite selfless.
Even when faced with imminent death, Chi Hoon faces it impassively, without betraying any fear:
Certainly, we get a lot more insight into this, in episode 6, when Chi Hoon is revealed to still be alive (How much did I love that the show kept him alive? A WHOLE LOT, that’s what!).
As the boys gather around Chi Hoon, who eats as if nothing has happened, Mi Reu (Kim Woo Bin) says incredulously, “You almost died. You should act in a way that reflects that. Cry or bawl.”
Pointing to his head, Chi Hoon explains without batting an eye, “I have a problem here. My left brain. The nerves that send emotions are thinner than most.”
Mi Reu asks, “What do you mean?”
So Chi Hoon spells it out for them, “I can’t feel emotions easily.”
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: context means everything.
NOW, knowing this, would anyone blame Chi Hoon for appearing aloof and impassive? I’d guess not. There’s something to be said about letting others know your weaknesses. It humanizes you.
At the same time, I’d like to point out that not being able to feel emotions easily does not explain all of Chi Hoon’s behavior.
Sure, it might explain why it’s easier for him to remain calm and fearless compared to the other kids, but we see in the snow incident in episode 7 when he thought Moo Yul had left him for dead, that Chi Hoon does experience some measure of fear. Chi Hoon’s courage isn’t simply a side effect of his nerve problem; he does muster it up too. And I kinda love him for it.
Also, the nerve problem doesn’t explain Chi Hoon’s general selflessness. He doesn’t ever hesitate to put himself out there, for the benefit of the group, whether it’s undertaking the risk of getting into trouble for breaking into the teacher’s dormitories (which he offers to do alone, if Moo Yul is uncomfortable joining him), or heading out into freezing temperatures to get a cell phone signal, or dragging himself and his broken leg into the line of fire to save Moo Yul.
Just because he doesn’t feel emotion easily doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel cold, or pain. And he never hesitates to push through, for the greater good.
I also love Chi Hoon’s sense of fairness. From calling Eun Sung out on her mixed messages to Moo Yul, to putting Kang Mo (Kwak Jung Wook) in the detention cell to protect him from Young Jae (Kim Young Kwang), to keeping Jae Kyu’s (Hong Jong Hyun) secret in order to protect him from the rest of the group, Chi Hoon is always fair and never plays favorites. It’s no wonder that the group looks to him as their de facto leader.
Aside from the incident in the snow, where Chi Hoon shows shades of vulnerability, another favorite Chi Hoon moment of mine is in episode 8, in a small, almost throwaway moment.
Moo Yul goes to Chi Hoon’s hospital room after regaining consciousness, and the other kids all gather around Moo Yul, touching and prodding the big bump he got on the back of his head from falling off the roof.
Silently, almost surreptitiously, Chi Hoon gets off his bed and drags his IV stand with him, to try to touch Moo Yul’s head too. HA.
Moo Yul turns around, twisting out of Chi Hoon’s reach, saying, “What, even you??”
Blankly, Chi Hoon answers, “I can’t touch it?”… “I’ve never felt a bump before.” Giggle. How cute!
I LOVE this little moment, so much.
Not only does it show us an innocent, child-like side to super-smart, knows-everything Chi Hoon, it shows us how these two boys have bonded. From seeing each other as mere competition, then to becoming allies, they’ve now become friends. Friends who gape at each other and poke each other’s heads. And I love that.
Kim Woo Bin as Kang Mi Reu
I also really enjoyed Mi Reu as a character.
Wait, I need a fangirl moment to squee: Woobie!! Eeeee!! ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Alright, *shakes self* – back to business.
I found Mi Reu as a character quite compelling and rather heady.
First of all, when we meet him, we just know right away, that he’s completely badass and one hundred percent comfortable in his own skin. From the way he stands, to the way he walks (even in just his briefs, for a brief (hur) moment), to the way he cracks his jaw in front of the mirror, we know that this character is a force to be reckoned with.
I also kinda love that whenever Mi Reu appears, rock music plays in the background. It’s like he brings the rock wherever he goes. Ha.
In episode 2, Mi Reu remarks to Moo Yul, “Park Moo Yul. You’re not as innocent as you look.”
How apt, that it is Mi Reu who points out one of the themes of the show, that appearances can be deceiving. Because, beyond his shock of flaming red hair and bad-boy attitude and looks, Mi Reu is wayyy up there on the intelligence scale, having been scouted from middle school and outranking even Chi Hoon during their first year.
A bad boy who’s brazen AND brilliant?? How does one not keel over from all that awesome?
We find out fairly quickly that Mi Reu is on a vengeance trail, intent on finding out who was responsible for the explosion of the school statue that got him wrongly expelled.
He narrows it down to Yoon Su (Lee Soo Hyuk) and tackles Yoon Su to the ground in the school yard.
Later, Yoon Su explains with uncharacteristic bitterness and passion, how Mi Reu’s bungy-jumping stunt had ruined his carefully planned single shot at leaving his miserable existence in the school.
Mi Reu drops the cool arrogant act, and quietly apologizes, “I’m sorry about what happened. Maybe it’s too late, but I’m really sorry.”
I was really taken with how Mi Reu’s apology to Yoon Su is refreshingly sincere. I love that Mi Reu’s ego isn’t too big for him to humble himself and admit his mistake.
Perhaps my favorite Mi Reu scene of all, is when he pieces together the serial-killer situation based on the SOS-via-toast that Moo Yul sends him, and proceeds to save the day, wearing a confident, almost delighted smirk.
I love how he swaggers fearlessly along the school corridor, making his way to the staircase outside the infirmary:
And I LOVE how he uses his smarts to set the trap.
Mi Reu’s weapons of destruction: the surveillance system that he’s hacked into, enough electrical current to fell a horse, and.. a flower pot. LOVE. IT.
Dr. Kim falls headlong into Mi Reu’s trap, and is quickly overcome and cuffed to the bed:
Afterwards, I love how the rest of the group throw themselves on top of Mi Reu, tackling him to the ground in the biggest show of group affection in the entire show:
When Mi Reu realizes that Chi Hoon is “dead” though, his disbelief is poignant.
While the rest of the group hangs back, Mi Reu approaches Dr. Kim and asks him the question we’re all thinking, “Oy, Ahjusshi. Did you really kill Choi Chi Hoon? What the heck is wrong with you? What does someone have to do to become like you?”
I love how frank and fearless Mi Reu is. It’s no wonder that he is one of the alpha males of the group, and effortlessly so.
Another of my favorite Mi Reu scenes is later in the episode, when, after a somber conversation with Moo Yul, Mi Reu takes off running, roaring out loud all the way.
One by one, the other boys join in, running and roaring alongside him, even though they have no clue what he’s doing or why:
Talk about leading by charisma.
I also really, really love how all that roaring and running lands them horsing around in the snow, all shirtless and giddy with glee.
What a fantastic, spontaneous moment for the boys, and how apt, that it is “Mad Mi Reu” who sparks it off.
All in all, Mi Reu is a huge breath of fresh air, amid the more conventionally smart types in the group. And I don’t say that just because he’s played by Kim Woo Bin. Although, I really can’t think of anyone else who would’ve done Mi Reu justice.
Hong Jong Hyun as Lee Jae Kyu
While Jae Kyu isn’t one of my favorite characters, I certainly found him intriguing.
For most of the show, Jae Kyu is subdued, timid, and basically blends into the background. He is cooperative and follows orders from whichever alpha male is taking charge in the moment, whether it’s Moo Yul, Chi Hoon or Dr. Kim.
Which, really, is what makes his moment of transformation in episode 7 all the more fascinating.
In episode 7, Dr. Kim, holding Eun Sung hostage, instructs Jae Kyu to bring him Young Jae within the next 30 minutes.
Jae Kyu’s attempt to lure Young Jae with a lie fails, and he resorts to force instead. His attempt to hit Young Jae with a stick is unsuccessful, and sends Young Jae scuttling into hiding.
Jae Kyu then goes on the prowl, taunting Young Jae, “Where are you, Jo Young Jae? The doctor wants to see you. [sneers] I heard everything.. You told him that you sent the letter? Really, Jo Young Jae?.. Jo Young Jae, you surprise me.”
While it’s interesting that he would resort to violence, I think what’s most chilling is the pleasure he derives from the hunt. I mean, just check out at that look on his face.
Young Jae manages to get the upper hand for a while and beats Jae Kyu bad and bloody, telling him, “Don’t criticize me. You would let someone else die in your stead, too.”
When the tables are turned again, and Jae Kyu goes into a blind rage, beating Young Jae repeatedly – and vehemently – with a stick, all the while yelling, “Not me.. I wouldn’t!.. I’m not you.. I wouldn’t do that.. Not me!”
Jae Kyu even goes so far as to look for a heavier object to bash Young Jae with, and picks up a metal canister. He’s all ready to throw it at Young Jae, and is only stopped by the fact that the metal canister is anchored by its wire.
It’s only at this point, that Jae Kyu catches sight of his now bloody, messed up and quite monstrous-looking face in the mirror.
That seems to finally snap him out of his blind rage and he slumps to the floor in shock.
What is perhaps even more fascinating than this moment of transformation, is that afterwards, Jae Kyu seems to still savor the sensation of being in possession of power.
Later, as Dr. Kim locks up the group for the night, he asks Jae Kyu, “Will you be all right?”
Evenly, Jae Kyu replies, “What do you mean? You think the other will harm me? [turns to the others] You can attack me. But when you do, you’d better be prepared to kill me. Otherwise, I’ll point you out as the most sinful.”
Wow. Strong words, from the one in the group who had been, up to that point, arguably the most timid. And spoken with such sardonic calm.
In the dorm, Eun Sung asks Jae Kyu what he plans to do, and he says simply that once Moo Yul and Chi Hoon return, he will point out someone as the most sinful.
Almost to himself, Jae Kyu muses, “I dreamt about this situation. Everyone listening to me and watching my every move. The moment I became the center of attention.”
Jae Kyu’s brush with monster-hood is perhaps the most startling because it is the most extreme, the most literal and the most in-yo-face. I mean, you probably can’t get any more extreme than the meekest member of the group going on a bludgeoning rampage while sporting a blazing gaze set squarely in a messed up bloody face.
It’s interesting to know that at the bottom of it, Jae Kyu basically wanted – was starved of, perhaps – the same attention that the other alpha males were getting, and disturbing to see that he would relish that attention even if it was for all the wrong reasons. Equally disconcerting, is how violent Jae Kyu gets, once that attention and power is in his grasp.
It really does make us wonder if Jae Kyu is the first real monster of the group, and whether it’s because he always had that inclination innate in him, or if it’s because keeping secrets is tiring, and keeping his wore him out.
The show doesn’t offer us answers to those questions, but it certainly provokes thought in the asking.
Lee Soo Hyuk as Yoon Su
Yoon Su is the most overtly strange member of the group, and Lee Soo Hyuk is the perfect person to play him, really.
With his deep, languid voice and matching languorous limbs, Lee Soo Hyuk expresses Yoon Su’s sluggish apathy perfectly.
I found Yoon Su as a character quite fascinating, really. Most of the time, Yoon Su is like a drugged-out cat. He moves with feline grace, likes to keep to himself and hangs out in high places.
Despite his agility, though, we quickly get the sense that he’s a prisoner in his own mind, which I find quite eloquently expressed in this screenshot:
In his mind, Yoon Su is tormented by the monster in the corner, whom no one else sees, and who freaks him out tremendously.
Probably in an attempt to deal with that distress, Yoon Su also uses drugs, which in turn adds to his unstable mental circus:
Despite his spacey-ness, however, Yoon Su sometimes says the most insightful things. For example, of Young Jae’s shouting and brandishing of his weapon in episode 4, Yoon Su remarks almost off-handedly, “He’s just scared. The cowards are usually the most violent.” It sounds like an almost throwaway comment, but it’s so spot on that it’s quite startling.
Hands-down, the most striking thing about Yoon Su, is how he responded, in the end, to Dr. Kim’s therapy, which “unlocks the monster within.”
Throughout the show, Yoon Su grapples with the corner monster, and Dr. Kim offers to help him discover who that corner monster is. Yoon Su declines at first, but eventually, he manages to unlock a key memory, of hiding in his ex-nanny Miss Seon Hee’s closet when policemen came to rescue him from having been “kidnapped.”
Notably, little Yoon Su looks disappointed when Miss Seon Hee runs to embrace the corner monster in the scene, thus informing us that the corner monster is really Seon Hee’s own son.
In episode 8, after a final call from Dr. Kim, Yoon Su is shown speaking with the corner monster saying, “Why did I lie? Because she hugged you instead of me. I must’ve wanted to be you.”
Soon Yu then walks away from the corner monster and, significantly, closes the door on him:
Yoon Su then takes his own life, after having painted his face blue, to resemble the face of the corner monster that he’d always wanted to be.
The short suicide note that he leaves reads: “The egg’s about the crack.”
When the group hears of the suicide note’s contents, it is Young Jae who first articulates the reference: “The monster’s egg.”
Later, Dr. Kim admits to the group that during the phone call to Yoon Su, he had spoken the final keyword to unlock Yoon Su’s monster.
Putting together the pieces, it’s safe to conclude that Yoon Su, upon becoming aware of the awakening monster within, chose to take his own life rather than allow the monster to have free reign.
What a drastic, firm, yet forceful response to the monster within, from the person in the group who had appeared the most laid-back and non-committal. Appearances can really be deceiving.
While I was saddened and horrified by Yoon Su’s suicide, I have to respect the strength of Yoon Su’s retaliation towards the monster that he perceived was awakening within himself.
Kim Young Kwang as Jo Young Jae
Young Jae is easily the most aggravating of all the characters. He’s impatient, loud-mouthed, self-centered and a total coward. It’s easy to be completely annoyed with him, given his awful behavior.
As the show progresses, though, his layers do peel back a bit to reveal more of the person beneath, and he becomes – just a tiny bit – more sympathetic.
Right off the bat, in episode 1, we see Young Jae’s rash, tyrannical streak come to the fore, when he hunts down Kang Mo in the snow, jumping to the conclusion that Kang Mo is the person who sent him the letter.
Advancing on Kang Mo, Young Jae’s tone switches from overly saccharine to suddenly menacing, “Forgive me, please? Please… I’d forgive me if I were you.”
Confused, and backing away, Kang Mo asks, “What do you want?”
Young Jae raises his voice with each stride and with each phrase that leaves his mouth, “As you live life, some things displease you from time to time. I may just be joking, but you may get hurt. Then all we have to do is say sorry and forgive each other. We can use words. How dare you send this?!!”
Young Jae wrestles Kang Mo to the ground and is about to punch him, when Moo Yul comes upon them and stops him.
Dislike. Right away.
What makes Young Jae even more annoying – and even a little bit despicable – is how he taunts Kang Mo, but is clearly terrified of Mi Reu. Clearly, he’s the sort who bullies others when he can, but cowers, sniveling, before someone stronger and more powerful than he.
In episode 2, Dr. Kim remarks, “What interests me is you students. Your faces when alone and the faces you show to others are different.”
I thought that very apt, in describing Young Jae in particular.
We see a hint in episode 4, when Young Jae, after hunting Kang Mo all day in bully mode, stares at his hands in private, appearing to experience doubt and perhaps even a hint of regret:
As the episodes progress, we more examples of this duality in Young Jae.
One key instance is in episode 6, after Mi Reu successfully traps Dr. Kim.
As the kids pile on top of Mi Reu in celebration and delight, Dr. Kim eyes Young Jae knowingly, and Young Jae’s smiling expression turns to one of troubled guilt.
Later that evening, we see the layers peel back a little more as Young Jae broods in the dark hallway and has a short exchange with Eun Sung who passes by him.
Young Jae taunts Eun Sung about what she might have done with Moo Yul when she was alone with Moo Yul the night before, and Eun Sung shoots back, “Young Jae, Jo Young Jae. What can I do to make you lose interest in me? What should I do?”
As Young Jae replies, he seems to experience a myriad of emotions. He begins, “Lose it. A lot more than now. [he walks almost threateningly towards her] Become twisted enough for a twisted boy like me to like you. [he pauses and deflates] But that’s all over now too. I’m so twisted now that I can’t do it. [pauses and starts to tear up] I said my name. I said my name.”
We aren’t told what exactly he means when he says “I said my name” but it possibly alludes to him naming himself as the most sinful of the group. Which would have been hugely redemptive, if that were the case. But, the show later tells us that he names Eun Sung in that conversation with Dr. Kim. So.. I find this inconclusive.
Nevertheless, this moment with Young Jae definitely shows us hints of his self-loathing.
Soon afterwards, wielding the gun, Young Jae goes to the detention cell where Dr. Kim is being held.
When Dr. Kim asks whether Young Jae is sad about betraying his friends, Young Jae’s answer is telling, “If betrayal is turning your back on trust, I never betrayed anyone. No one trusted me anyway. Don’t you agree? Lying, stealing. Soon, murder. I’m guilty of every crime. But not betrayal. I’m innocent about that, your Honor.”
His eyes fill with tears as he rests his head on the wall of the cell:
That Young Jae tears up because no one has ever trusted him, is telling.
Dr. Kim continues, “So why do you want to kill me? Because I may tell the others that you confessed?” … “If I tell, are you afraid that they will hate you? You’re used to being hated.”
Young Jae, with rising emotion, spits back, “That’s right. I’m used to it. So used to it that I feel scared if people don’t hate me. So I do things on purpose to be hated by others. But people hating me… and me hating myself is different. You made me hate myself!” And he levels the gun at Dr. Kim, ready to actually kill him.
While Young Jae’s self-loathing doesn’t absolve him of the rest of his really, really awful behavior, it does make him a little more sympathetic.
I feel that Dr. Kim’s “therapy” has forced Young Jae to confront his self-loathing in a way that is much more head-on and direct than he has ever allowed himself, and that the confrontation triggers his self-loathing to an extent where he feels completely stuck and helpless.
I believe that Young Jae wants things – himself – to be different, but genuinely doesn’t know how to dig himself out of the messy pit that he’s created. Seeing no other option, he decides that killing Dr. Kim is the only way forward.
Certainly, he wasn’t successful because the gun wasn’t loaded, and it’s debatable that if it had been loaded, whether Young Jae would have had the guts to go through with it. Nonetheless, the fact that he experienced this degree of desperation is significant, and tells us a lot about the inner workings of his character.
Like I said before, there’s something to be said about letting others know your weaknesses. It humanizes you.
When Young Jae asks Dr. Kim, “What’s wrong with me? What’s bad about me?” Dr. Kim sums it quite nicely, “You’re not bad. You’re just weak. If people knew how weak you are, no one would hate you.”
Kwak Jung Wook as Yang Kang Mo
As a character, Kang Mo is one of the more understated ones in the drama. He stays on the fringe of the group for almost the entire show, and there is an air, not of secrecy, but of obscurity about him.
Over the course of the show, we do get to understand Kang Mo in a more concrete manner, and he does eventually come out of his shell, at least a little.
In episode 2, Kang Mo is asked why he didn’t attempt to stop Mi Reu from going ahead with his dangerous bungy-jumping stunt, but instead simply prepared numerous cameras to capture the event. By way of explanation, Kang Mo says, “…I’m just the camera. I watch only. It’s cheating if I stop or provoke them.”
That, in a nutshell, encapsulates Kang Mo’s outsider-observer sort of approach to everything.
Kang Mo has a deep-seated insecurity due to his hearing impairment, and overcompensates by being over-sensitive to other people’s treatment of him in relation to it.
In episode 3, we find out that the boy who’d died, Kim Jin Soo, had named Kang Mo as his closest friend, but that Kang Mo, in turn, had named Jin Soo as the person he hated the most.
Kang Mo’s explanation to Young Jae is heavy with bitterness, “Friends are those who have been close for years. Equal with no feelings of sympathy or pity.”
Because he perceived that Jin Soo had been acting out of pity, Kang Mo aggressively rejected his friendship.
Piecing the clues together, I feel that because Kang Mo believes that he is treated as an outsider, that is why he makes himself an observer instead of an active participant in his surroundings. As a self-defense mechanism, perhaps.
And perhaps that’s how it translates into his stance with photography, where he only allows himself to be an observer and a bystander, regardless of the danger or gravity of the event.
We find out in episode 4 that Kang Mo nurses a crush on Eun Sung, and that is why he had effectively been stalking her and taking photographs of her.
When Moo Yul questions Kang Mo on why he hadn’t ever made his feelings known to Eun Sung, Kang Mo’s response is, “Why didn’t I ever confess my feelings for her? The Eun Sung that I like best… Is the Eun Sung that’s with you.”
On the surface, that statement sounds selfless, keeping Eun Sung’s happiness as the central focus. But I do feel like there’s more going on beneath the surface.
On the one hand, I feel like that statement speaks of his lack of confidence in himself, in bringing Eun Sung – or perhaps anyone else, for that matter – happiness.
On the other hand, I believe that Kang Mo is again detaching himself from being any kind of active participant in his surroundings.
Kang Mo’s detachment extends to disturbing lengths, as we see from his clinical response to Eun Sung’s suicide attempt. Instead of being at all emotionally affected by it, he takes photographs. Which, shudder.
Clearly, Kang Mo has shut off that part of himself that invests emotionally to a very large extent, to be able to take such photographs of the girl that he likes:
We also learn that Kang Mo is made of more steely stuff than he appears.
In episode 3, while Kang Mo is the object of everyone’s suspicion, Young Jae remarks, “If we hit him a few times, we’ll find out the truth.”
Chi Hoon’s response is revealing: “You don’t know much about Kang Mo.” … “I’ve seen Kang Mi Reu smash his camera in the past. He fought back against Mi Reu then, although he got beaten afterwards. Anyways, Jo Young Jae. You can’t even look at Kang Mi Reu in the eye.”
Ironic, that Kang Mo, who is the regular target of Young Jae’s bully tendencies, is actually the one who’s made of stronger stuff.
I like how, by slow degrees, Kang Mo begins to engage with the group, over the course of the show.
In episode 6, when the group realizes that Chi Hoon is alive after all, I love that Kang Mo takes a private moment to cry a little. I thought that was a very nice indication of Kang Mo beginning to engage emotionally with the group.
While Kang Mo remains largely reclusive through stretches of the show, he rises to the occasion at key points.
In episode 7, while isolated from the group, he sets a trap for Jung Hye, and manages to lock her in the detention cell, effectively closing off one major source of danger to the group.
In episode 8, Kang Mo undertakes the most risk that we ever see from him, when he even crawls near Dr. Kim in the broadcast room, and screens the surveillance feed to the police surrounding the compound.
While not exposited in great detail, the very fact that Kang Mo does this, shows us how much his character has shifted.
From only allowing himself to be an observer on the fringe, he is now able to be an active participant in the thick of his surroundings. And that’s significant growth, any way you look at it.
Esom as Yoon Eun Sung
When we first meet Eun Sung, she gives off only a cold, caustic, distant sort of vibe. She doesn’t seem to like speaking much, and when words do leave her mouth, they are typically sharp, bitter and abrasive.
When Young Jae makes a joke in poor taste at dinner, Eun Sung doesn’t hesitate to shoot him down, “Shouldn’t the audience be entertained rather than the comedian?”
By the end of episode 1, we see her make a suicide attempt, and we also soon find out that she once used to be cheerful and warm:
But that certain events in her life caused her to withdraw into her shell, and become cold, pensive and distant:
We also find out that before the suicide attempt, she had been slashing herself:
Clearly, the traumatic event in her life had unlocked some serious destructive tendencies in Eun Sung.
Over the course of the show, we see tension between these 2 sides to Eun Sung: on one side, the girl who wants to detach herself from life, and on the other, the girl who wants to live.
We get our first hint at the girl who treasures life, in episode 3, when Eun Sung tends to a feverish Dr. Kim in the infirmary.
I was genuinely surprised to see Eun Sung so concerned about Dr. Kim’s well-being. When she hears him falling down, she rushes to him and looks way more worried than I expected her to be, given her usual distant sort of air. She even summons the boys and frantically mashes up medicine into a paste, to feed Dr. Kim.
Clearly, there is a side to Eun Sung that treasures life, even if it’s of someone whom she doesn’t know.
Another instance where the 2 sides to Eun Sung come into play, is in episode 4, when Moo Yul brings her the album of photographs taken by Kang Mo.
This time, she flips through the album thoughtfully, and by the time she is done, she has tears in her eyes, some which fall onto the pages of the album in her hands.
In response to Moo Yul’s concern, Eun Sung explains her tears, “It’s just… I think I was happy back then. I didn’t know anything. I smiled. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to smile like that again. Thank you. Tell Yang Kang Mo that I said thanks.”
While Eun Sung’s words indicate a longing for life and happiness, it’s stark how jaded, lifeless and empty she looks as she says them.
She feels old, even though she’s only 18.
It is only in episode 7 that Eun Sung breaks through her depression and realizes that she wants to live. Of course, that is while at gunpoint, but we’ll talk about Dr. Kim’s methods later.
The one moment in the entire show, where Eun Sung’s steely calm is most ruffled, is in episode 8, when Dr. Kim asks Eun Sung’s mother to confess her greatest sin over the broadcast system. Eun Sung immediately screams and lunges at Dr. Kim, in a futile attempt to stop him.
With her head held down forcibly to the table, Eun Sung screams, “You devil! [Dr. Kim: “See how far your mom goes to save you.”] I’m going to kill you! I will!”
Clearly, her mother’s greatest sin (the affair that Eun Sung talks about while under hypnosis), along with any related shame, hits close to Eun Sung’s heart, to provoke such an extreme response from her.
I see Eun Sung’s dogged attempt to protect her mother’s reputation as also a desire to protect her own dignity. To me, that is another indication of Eun Sung’s desire to live. Because if she doesn’t care and doesn’t want to live, of what use is reputation and dignity?
In the end, we do see Eun Sung re-engaging with her emotions to some extent.
At the end of the show, when the group confronts Dr. Kim on the roof-top, Eun Sung has tears in her eyes when she speaks of Yoon Su’s death.
Considering how she was far from being on close terms with Yoon Su when he was alive, this is a clear indication of empathy. Which is significant, coming from Eun Sung, who had been so distant and cold when we met her.
From trailing on the edges of death, Eun Sung has now made the turnaround towards life.
Kim Sang Kyung as Dr. Kim Yo Han
In a nutshell, Dr. Kim is a self-righteous psycho who has no regard for human life and plays his game by his own twisted set of rules. His big mission: to determine the answer to the question of whether monsters are born or created.
In episode 5, during the question and answer session, Eun Sung asks, “Why did you kill the high school girls from Chuncheon?”
Dr. Kim answers, “They were impolite. So ill-mannered and offensive. They laughed and were so loud. They swore too. [pauses] I can bet you this. I bet the people on the bus that day felt the same way I did. ”I wish those girls would disappear if only they’d go.” So I thought about it. Those girls being there… Living on with their lives… Is that beneficial or not?”
From the serious expression on Dr. Kim’s face, we can see that he’s given the question considerable thought and is telling the truth. He genuinely believes that he was doing the world a favor, killing those schoolgirls who were so “ill-mannered and offensive.”
At the same time, we realize one key thing about Dr. Kim. He’s playing God.
Basically, where does he get off, deciding if someone’s life is worthy? In order to have that thought, he has to be extremely self-righteous.
It makes me wonder about why Dr. Kim chose to let Chi Hoon live, when in episode 5 he had given the impression to the group that Chi Hoon had to die.
Is it because he, in his self-righteousness, deems Chi Hoon worthy of taking up space on the planet? Vs the girls that he’d murdered previously, who he had deemed unfit? Because Chi Hoon is brilliant, well-mannered and UN-offensive?
Dr. Kim obviously operates on a different set of principles than, well, pretty much everyone else on the planet. Except maybe other serial killers.
One of the things we learn about him fairly early on, is that gratitude and indebtedness do not have a part in his operating principles.
Despite the fact that the kids literally save him from the brink of death (or at least, more brain damage than he already has), he is quick to point the gun at the very people who saved him.
Not only that, Dr. Kim believes that circumstances have forced his hand.
Because the kids’ teacher (Jung Suk Won) happened to have a TV in his room, and because Dr. Kim’s photo had been broadcast, Dr. Kim believed he had no choice but to kill Teach. And then, because the kids (1) discover the body, and (2) raise the monster question, Dr. Kim decides that he must hold them at gunpoint and experiment with them, until he finds his answer.
Sick. In the head. For sure.
What’s weirdly fascinating about Dr. Kim, is that at times, he does seem to genuinely want to help the kids achieve psychological breakthroughs.
His methods are completely unethical and very dangerous, but he does help Eun Sung overcome her desire to die, Yoon Su to identify the corner monster, and forces Young Jae to confront his self-loathing.
All at gunpoint, of course.
As twisted as Dr. Kim’s rules are, he plays by them.
In episode 6, when Mi Reu asks if Dr. Kim will plead insanity in court, Dr. Kim answers in all seriousness, “I don’t feel shame at what I have done. It’s not pride, but I do feel a sense of responsibility. Murder is quite a difficult process. You can’t do it without a sense of duty. So why would I lie about it?”
It’s a twisted logic for sure, but we can see Dr. Kim is serious about it.
Also, he keeps his word and begins to release the kids to their parents, one by one, in episode 8. He proves that he is a man of his twisted word.
In that, I don’t see Dr. Kim as innately evil for evil’s sake. Rather, he’s a man with very unorthodox ways of thinking, and perhaps, a missing moral compass.
To Dr. Kim, his experiment is the thing that is of paramount importance.
In the end, he survives the episodes at the school not for the simple sake of living, but for the sake of seeing the results of his experiment.
After the kids flip him over the edge of the roof, Dr. Kim, while hanging onto the ledge, smiles and says, “I won.” And it is with that satisfied, gleeful smile that he lets go of the ledge and falls to his death.
Eventually, I feel like Dr. Kim was genuinely satisfied with the outcome of his experiment, and that he had no regrets dying.
Did he win?
I’m gonna have to say that I think he kind of did. We’ll talk more about that in a bit.
WRITING & EXECUTION
I’ll be honest and say that while I thought the writing and execution was quite excellent in many ways, there were also weaknesses that took away from that excellence.
I’ll touch on them in sections.
Immediately, in episode 1, we get our set-up in Moo Yul’s voiceover, “December 24th, Christmas Eve. The only vacation of the year… The 8 days of break have begun. And… the story I’m about to tell is about my fight with a monster. I had to become a monster myself for 8 days to fight it.”
It is immediately intriguing, and we also soon get our introduction to the mysterious letter that started it all: “You tainted me, made me pitiful. You made me a monster in the corner. You silenced me. You ridiculed my false hopes. You took the only thing I had and put it around your neck. I held out my hand and you let go. You deleted me from your eyes. Finally, you overtook me. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. After 8 days, walk up the path by the zelkova tree. Under the clock tower, you will see someone dead. The night that Jesus was born, I curse you.”
Right away, we get 2 things that continue to recur throughout the story.
(1) Comparisons and references to the Christmas Story, and (2) the question about monsters being born or made.
The show often handles this using contrasts between dark and light, and often with some symbolism thrown in.
In episode 1, we get a whole lot of dark talk among our group, peppered with scary music, not forgetting the symbolism of having Teach seated with the students in a scene reminiscent of the Last Supper.
Immediately after this stretch of dark, we get a pop of perky light, with a scene of the kids having a snow fight with happy, peppy music in the background.
Overall, I thought this was quite nicely done.
Those recurring motifs of light and dark, Christmas and monsters, continue to consistently pepper the show.
Voiceovers are employed regularly from the very beginning of episode 1, and continue throughout.
Most of them are voiced by Moo Yul, who is our main narrator. At times, though, the show allows Dr. Kim to do the voice-over, which I found interesting, because it allows us access to his thoughts, such as in episode 5, where he narrates:
“2,000 years ago, 3 wise men followed a star to find baby Jesus. Today, that light led me to them. I realized that all the coincidences that had occurred, were part of a destiny that had been determined long ago. Are monsters born or created?”
At the same time, there were occasions where the voiceovers sound cool, but honestly make no sense. In episode 4, Moo Yul narrates:
“Now that time has passed, I’m trying to explain what happened. In a weird twist of fate, everything changed for the worse. Even the person who started it all had no control over it. It’s because two mirrors were stood face to face. Darkness shines on darkness to create another darkness. A monster appears from the two facing mirrors. And another uncontrollable darkness is formed.”
Um. That last bit about darkness shining on darkness to create another darkness? And all the rest of it? I really don’t understand what those sentences are trying to say. Even on hindsight, after finishing the show, I still don’t understand what those words really mean. Do you?
In line with the twisty nature of the show, the writers employ a number of decoys, ie, they keep giving hints, then negating them.
In and of itself, I have no issue with the method, but I think the execution could have been better.
In general, what I mean is, the scenes which hint at each person as the possible writer of the letters, are obviously skewed towards fanning our suspicions. When re-examined after the fact, the scenes all feel kind of “off,” pointing to the fact that the scenes were built to manipulate our suspicions, but can’t be explained easily on hindsight.
Let me highlight a few examples to show you what I mean.
In episode 4, the group discovers Teach’s body in the snow and begin to suspect Kang Mo because he is not with them. When the group comes to the cafeteria, they find Kang Mo chopping vegetables.
There are several instances where Kang Mo’s expression is darker than it needs to be, and he even twists the knife in his hand, almost with a bit of pleasure. Afterwards, he starts to leave the cafeteria with his food in one hand, and the knife in the other.
In the moment, all of these details point towards Kang Mo being a prime suspect in Teach’s murder. We know on hindsight, though, that it was Dr. Kim who killed Teach.
Once we know that Kang Mo is innocent, all these details of him caressing the knife with a dark expression on his face, and moving to bring the knife with him to his room become glaringly dissonant and don’t make a lot of sense.
Another example, again involving Kang Mo, has to do with Kang Mo printing a photo of Eun Sung bleeding out into the snow after her suicide attempt.
The scene of Kang Mo is interspliced with a conversation among the other boys about Kang Mo having been Jin Soo’s best friend and therefore how it would make sense if he were taking revenge on Jin Soo’s behalf: “Revenge for a friend’s death. It makes sense.”
When we see Kang Mo printing the photo, his expression is dark, colored with shades of anger, and that totally turns our suspicions on him.
Later, though, we are shown that Kang Mo not only wasn’t best friends with Jin Soo, but he’s taking photos of Eun Sung because he’s nursing a crush on her.
While that’s all good, what are we supposed to make of that dark expression that we were shown? Coz try as I might, to see that expression as a neutral one, it doesn’t ring true to me.
A third instance of what I call the manipulative decoy, is in episode 3, when Jae Kyu goes with Moo Yul to the security room to investigate what Kang Mo might have done in there.
As Moo Yul fiddles with the panels and switches, Jae Kyu starts fidgeting in the background, tugging at his own collar, looking extremely ill-at-ease.
Given the context of everyone looking for a perpetrator, Jae Kyu looks very guilty in this moment.
We find out later, though, that Jae Kyu had nothing to do with cutting off their phone and internet lines. And there is nothing to explain his odd behavior in the security room.
This is why I feel like the show is not as well thought-out as it might like to be.
It doesn’t feel like someone thought through all these scenes and then planted decoys which would later make sense. Rather, it feels like the scenes that we are shown are designed to lead us on, but then, they later do not jive with the version of the truth that the writers reveal. And that disappoints me.
A technique that the writers use throughout the show is alternating between characters to maintain key roles.
When the letter writer is no longer a perceived threat, enter serial killer.
In episode 6, once serial killer Dr. Kim is locked away, Jung Hye comes to the fore to be the new psycho among them. In the same episode, with Chi Hoon “dead,” Mi Reu re-enters the building to become the de facto Smart Boy leader of the group.
While the device effectively kept up the tension within our story, it did get kind of obvious after a while. Perhaps the writers might have explored other ways of maintaining dramatic tension in our story?
One technique that the show does use nicely, is that of parallels in order to magnify a point.
For example, Moo Yul narrates in episode 1: “things that seem unrelated come together to form one, and unimportant moments all feel like destiny.” With this narration, we see that all moments which had hurt Jin Soo so deeply, had been throwaway moments of our lead characters.
Very quickly into the show, we see this paralleled, where the act that had angered Yoon Su so deeply – Mi Reu’s bungy-jump – had been simply a fun stunt in Mi Reu’s eyes, of no harm to anyone else.
Sometimes, opposites are shown in parallel, and the contrast magnifies each opposing element.
In episode 7, we see scenes of a monster uprising (Jae Kyu’s bludgeoning of Young Jae) interspliced with scenes of a monster overcome (Moo Yul choosing to save Chi Hoon instead of leaving him for dead).
I thought that it made for an interesting tension between the two, while magnifying each element. Nicely done.
There is a gaping plot hole in episode 8 which is really hard to ignore.
Essentially, Dr. Kim switches Teach’s body for his own, and I get that this is to create a situation where Dr. Kim can have a final face-off with the group.
BUT. There are so many problems with that plot device.
It is alluded to, that Dr. Kim shot Teach in the face in order to make him unrecognizable (Chi Hoon mentions in episode 8, that the police officer had stated that “Dr. Kim” had shot himself in the mouth).
Firstly, I strongly suspect that a body frozen for 8 whole days would respond differently to a gun shot than a body that was alive at the point of shooting.
Secondly, Teach’s body would have also had a gunshot wound in the torso, since that is how Dr. Kim killed him. How would the police have reconciled the second wound, which, obviously would look completely different than a fresh gunshot wound?
Thirdly, even without these issues, the police should have been able to use other means to identify Teach’s body, like through the use of fingerprinting, for example. Even if Teach didn’t have registered fingerprints because he wasn’t a felon, the police should have had records of Dr. Kim’s fingerprints.
Fourthly, disregarding even all of these inconsistencies, the show explicitly tells us that the police had broadcast photos of Dr. Kim and that is what prompted Dr. Kim to kill Teach in the first place. Surely the police would have been able to see that the “teacher” who survived had, well, the same face as the serial killer whose photo they had publicized?
That the police would have overlooked so many things is just So. Implausible.
I get that the fact that Dr. Kim found a way to survive was meant to be a clever twist to the story, but instead it came off really lame.
Basically, the show is raising the question: when everything is stripped away, do humans behave like monsters? We see it even in the poster, with all our lead characters standing in a uniform line, with everything stripped away.
The show persistently asks the question, “Are monsters born or created?” and as the show progresses, we see our lead characters engaging in behavior that is increasingly dark.
I don’t like the show’s idea, though, that we are all monsters, deep down. It’s a dark, edgy sort of idea, but one that I tend to think is being popularized for the sake of sounding cool and philosophical.
One major question that gets posed is: what is a monster?
Dr. Kim is a monster, yes. He kills people and feels justified in doing so, in his self-righteousness.
Are the kids monsters? I can’t say that they aren’t. The moment they felt it was justified for them to kill Dr. Kim, they moved in the same, disturbing self-righteousness that Dr. Kim did. And once you go there, the question is, will you go there again?
Did they plan to kill Dr Kim? My answer would be: yes. Sure, they only started planning it after finding out about Yoon Su’s suicide, but it’s pretty clear that they lured him to the roof to get rid of him.
Personally, I get the dark tone that the makers of this show are trying to achieve by having the kids kill Dr. Kim in the end. But really, is that the message that you want to give? That driven hard enough, good kids who would risk their lives for one another would find it justifiable to kill someone? Even if that person were a serial killer who had killed one of their own? That human beings are, at heart, monsters if only you dig deep and hard enough?
Some viewers feel that the final face-off had to be between Dr. Kim and the students. I can buy that. But what defines victory? Why is victory defined as killing the opponent? Why can’t victory be putting him behind bars for life? Just because the police force is inept, does it justify you taking the law into your own hands and ending another human life?
To that end, I can’t say that Dr. Kim is wrong, in pronouncing his own victory over the kids.
He wanted to lure out their inner monsters. And he succeeded in bringing them to that point, of taking grave, sinister, deliberate action in that monster mental space. The question isn’t whether they ever return to that point for the rest of their lives. The key here is that they got to that point and took action AND felt justified in doing so.
The only person who doesn’t allow himself to get to that point of monsterhood, ironically, is Yoon Su. He felt his inner monster rising and snuffed it out with his own hands.
But again, that still alludes to the show’s disturbing message: that a monster exists in each person.
I feel like from this point forward, the kids will live life similar to this picture: they can play and laugh, but behind each of them, is a stark, dark shadow that they will never be rid of. And that makes me sad.
I grew to really like these kids, and all I want to do is watch them live regular lives, dealing with regular-sized problems. That, for me, would be the show that I want to watch.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
For those who’d like to embrace the dark side for a little bit. Or, y’know, who at least want to poke a stick at it from a distance. Just to see what’s in there.
FINAL GRADE: B-