THE SHORT VERDICT:
A gritty, penetrating exploration of the systemic issues plaguing the South Korean military, and a compelling, thought-provoking watch in one, Show boasts tight writing, with a laser-sharp focus on the issues at hand.
It never feels like Show loses its footing or its priorities, even once. The spots of levity are there to provide relief, but they don’t detract from the main narrative. There is hazing, bullying and other violence, and that can be hard to watch, but it never feels gratuitous, in the way it’s showcased. The performances from our cast are all-around excellent, with our key characters rendering nuanced, raw, dig-deep deliveries that I found pitch perfect and quite haunting even, in some cases. In particular, I think Jung Hae In is wonderfully, poignantly engaging, as our protagonist, from whose point of view we understand our story.
A small little package that packs a big punch – and you don’t even need a special interest in the military, to be engaged with this one.
THE LONG VERDICT:
If you’d told me just a couple of months ago, that a gritty story about systemic abuse in the military would capture my heart and my imagination, I wouldn’t have believed you. After all, I have little interest in the military, and no real desire to understand it better either.
On top of this, when this show premiered, I’d heard about how dark it is, and how difficult this show can be, to watch. That’s.. not generally what I look for, in my dramas, as you guys know.
YET, I got completely sucked into this little show, and right away, too, from episode 1. Wow. What a happy shock, truly.
In short, I’m so glad that I didn’t miss out on this one, my friends.
D.P. OST – Crazy (Kevin Oh)
To be honest, this is the main song that stood out to me during my watch.
Somehow, this song feels perfect for this show. There’s something hauntingly ironic in how this laidback-breezy-sounding song, has such unexpectedly mournful and angsty lyrics; it just fits so seamlessly into this drama world.
If you’d like to listen to it while you read the review, just right-click on the video and select “Loop.”
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS / THE VIEWING LENS
Here are a couple of things that I think would be useful to keep in mind, in order to maximize your enjoyment of your watch:
1. It’s not pretty. What I mean is, unlike many other kdramas, that serve up sanitized, glossy story worlds, this show serves up its drama world in all of its gritty, unvarnished glory.
2. There’s smoking, swearing and violence basically every step of the way. Importantly, though, like I mentioned earlier, none of it actually feels gratuitous.
3. Some of the issues are particularly sensitive, and include things like sexual harassment and suicide.
4. Show is here to highlight issues that exist in real life, and therefore, unlike most other kdramas, there is no neat happy ending.
5. Show remains engaging, despite all these heavy things I’ve just mentioned.
SPOTLIGHT ON OUR MAIN CHARACTERS
Jung Hae In as Jun Ho
Because Jun Ho is our protagonist and we consistently see things from his point of view, it makes sense that Show gives him more of the spotlight, compared to our other characters.
I found Jung Hae In immediately very compelling, as Jun Ho. There’s a.. jadedness about him that immediately becomes apparent. There’s also a matter-of-factness about him that I find intriguing.
[EARLY SPOILER] When that family accuses him of keeping the change in episode 1, when it’d actually been their son who’d lied about it, he doesn’t get angry; he just goes back, rings the doorbell, and states for the record, that he hadn’t lied. And when his boss flips out over this and fires him without paying him, he doesn’t get lose his temper either; he just goes out there, rides off on the delivery motorbike, and sells it, to get the money – which he then sends to his mother. [END SPOILER]
There’s just something hauntingly sad and almost wretched about him, beneath that matter-of-fact, slightly glazed-over exterior, like misery has set into his bones. And, watching him dip his toes into the dark, troubled waters that is military life, I couldn’t help but wonder what this experience would do to his already rather broken state.
E1. Clearly, Jun Ho’s been treated unfairly before, and clearly, he’s made up his mind to keep his head down, while keeping his head to the ground. He only ever flinches a little, when he’s bullied by more senior soldiers, or when he’s subjected to punishment because someone else in the platoon said or did something stupid. He’s basically as perfect a recruit as you could ask for, but that only rubs his seniors the wrong way, and makes him a prime target for more picking on, more bullying, and more violence.
There’s also the thing where we see that his mother suffers from domestic abuse, and it feels like there’s guilt that haunts Jun Ho, along the lines of not doing anything to save his mother from his father. This makes me feel that perhaps he’s enduring all the harsh training, bullying and hazing, as a form of personal punishment.
And while his ability to endure unreasonable commands without complaint is quite impressive, there’s clearly a lot, that he feels on the inside, which can and does all come spilling out, when his limits are reached. We see it in the way he just ups and takes that motorbike to sell, when his boss continues to refuse to pay him, after weeks of procrastination. And we see it in the way he snaps, at the realization that someone had died because of his and his partner’s actions – or inaction.
I was quite startled to see the glass shatter, with his one single swipe. Jun Ho is much more lethal than he first appears. I’d guessed that he was strong, judging from the way he could endure the training and punishment better than his peers, but that swipe, and the subsequent sequence, of him beating his partner bloody, shows us just how dangerous he can be, when he wants to be.
I do appreciate that he’s not violent for the sake of it, though. He really is so disturbed and so traumatized from having been thisclose to the deserter, and yet, having lost him, because he’d given in to his partner’s insistence that they ought to drink and have fun. It says a lot about him, that as he’s beating his partner to a pulp, in his mind, he’s the one who deserves to be beaten.
I’m also intrigued by how fast his reflexes are (the way he dodges that nail!), and how smart he naturally is, with the way he immediately picks up on clues in his surroundings, like when Sergeant Park (Kim Sung Kyun) tests him about the color of his socks, and when he takes a peek at the case on Sergeant Park’s table, and quickly thinks of possibilities for where the deserter may be working. He’s clearly a very intelligent, very sharp individual, and it feels like a social injustice, that someone with his potential, hasn’t had the opportunity to go to college.
E2. I feel bad for Jun Ho, that even though things are better this episode compared to at first, he’s still clearly haunted by the fact that a deserter had lost his life, on his watch.
E3. We only get trickles of information about Jun Ho, but his sad eyes speak volumes. And the factoid, that he’d learned to fight, so that he wouldn’t get beaten up by his dad, is so full of pathos. There’s a tragic story behind his sharp reflexes and fight skills, and it really tugs at my heartstrings.
Koo Kyo Hwan as Ho Yeol
I really liked Ho Yeol, from the moment we’re introduced to him in episode 2. It doesn’t take long for Show to establish that he’s a bit of a nutcase, but he’s essentially a good guy who wants to get the job done.
I also like that Ho Yeol isn’t afraid to speak up &/or take action, when he sees that things aren’t right. And, in a system where so much is broken, it’s actually helpful, that Ho Yeol isn’t the type to do everything by the book, and is more than ready to get a little creative, when the need arises. He mostly really doesn’t seem to be intimidated by anything, and I really do like that about him.
[SPOILER] From that moment in episode 2, when we realize that he’d accepted the money from Choi Jun Mok’s mother, because he’d foreseen that they’d need it for the investigation, I knew he could be trusted. I’d thought at first that he’d taken the money for himself, but he’d actually been thinking about how the investigation was taking longer than expected, and how they were running out of money; money that was important to the success of their operation.
Ho Yeol’s definitely more forward thinking and sensible than his nutcase persona might imply. [END SPOILER]
Jun Ho and Ho Yeol as a team
I really enjoyed watching Jun Ho and Ho Yeol learn to work together as a team.
At first glance, they really are as different as chalk and cheese, and yet, as we progressed through our story, I started to realize that these two, with their very different backgrounds and mindsets, actually complement each other really well.
Jun Ho’s more thoughtful while Ho Yeol’s more streetwise, and I feel like the way they think is different enough, such that when they work together, they have many bases covered. It was great to see them getting to a place where they understand each other, often without needing to say anything.
One of my favorite things about seeing them work together, is how, when it comes down to it, the key to their success at tracking down all the deserters, always boils down to them actually taking the time to sit down and understand the deserters’ contexts.
My favorite moment between these two, is this shot of them sharing a burger in the bus, on their way back to camp. I love it; it’s so precious. They definitely seem more like buddies in this moment, and I like that a lot.
Kim Sung Kyun as Sergeant Park
For a character who’s as gruff as Sergeant Park, I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up liking him.
It doesn’t take Show long to demonstrate that Sergeant Park may exist within the system, but he’s more concerned with what’s right and what’s humane, than what the rules say.
I love that scene in episode 3, where Sergeant Park stands up to Captain Im (Son Seok Koo), even though Captain Im is his reporting officer. The way he immediately changes the power dynamic between them, is nothing short of gloriously badass.
This just goes to show that it’s not only rank that has power in the military. Personal power is a thing too. And I have respect for Sergeant Park for generally not using it, until in this case, when he feels it’s needed. Ordinarily, he appears almost pedestrian, he’s so nondescript, but when he stands up to Captain Im, he’s legitimately scary, and very efficiently so. I’m impressed.
The biggest thing that impresses me about Sergeant Park, is how he doesn’t hesitate to put his own job on the line, when it comes to the safety of his boys. He truly cares, and his humanity is one of the few bright spots within the system.
Son Seok Koo as Captain Im [SPOILERS]
I have quite a lot of affection for Son Seok Koo, so I was delighted to see him on my screen, as Captain Im. Captain Im turns out to be quite the gray sort of character, and I think Son Seok Koo is perfectly cast, for the role.
I mean, all the military people seem to have a bit of twistedness to them, ie, they’re appear to be shades of gray and there’s no one who seems to be 100% straitlaced.
Sometimes, Captain Im appears to be trustworthy where it matters, like how he orders for the senior to be dismissed in episode 2, rather than the junior who beat him up. That tells me that he’s more interested in justice, than in hierarchy. Plus, there’s the way he gives Sergeant Park the warrant without questions, and then smiles to himself.
Yet, at other times, Captain Im seems to stand on the other side of the fence, like when he aligns himself with what he thinks his commanding officer is implying, even though that’s not actually a helpful course of action.
However, when I see how Captain Im gets told off so harshly any time he attempts to suggest anything different to his commanding officer, I can see that he’s quite powerless to do anything, even if he did believe in helping his men. I can see why people get messed up by the system, one way or the other. You either get cowed into aligning yourself with it, or you get beaten to a pulp by it.
I’m glad, though, that at the end of our story, Captain Im chooses to do the right thing, never mind about the commanding officer’s orders, and never mind that his own career is on the line. It’s a costly decision that he makes, but at least, at the end of the day, his conscience is clear. And really, isn’t that the most important thing, after all?
SPOTLIGHT ON THE VARIOUS DESERTER CASES [SPOILERS]
Show serves up more than these two cases, but these are the two that lingered with me the most.
Choi Jun Mok’s case
I feel bad for Choi Jun Mok (Kim Dong Young), for how he got abused in the barracks. It’s terrible that his bunkmates basically made him feel like he was drowning, by pouring water in the gas mask that they made him wear.
He can’t help that he snores. At the same time, I can also imagine a tired group of soldiers losing patience with a loud snorer, because I imagine they’d find it hard to get enough sleep, with him snoring like that regularly. It’s a tough situation, and I don’t have an answer for it.
The thing that I find most heartbreaking and disturbing about this case, though, is that in the end, Choi Jun Mok is right; even though the higher ups know what’s going on, everything gets swept under the carpet, and the people who had made his life hell, are going to get away with it. There’s literally no reason for Choi Jun Mok to come back, except to be punished, because nothing’s going to change.
How bone-numbingly dispiriting is that? 😭
Cho Suk Bong’s case
Among the various cases, this is the one that haunts me the most. This is a truly fantastic performance by Jo Hyun Chul, whom I didn’t even recognize from his role as Yeo Jin Goo’s quirky buddy from Hotel Del Luna.
For most of our story, Cho Suk Bong presents as such a sweet, patient person, who had looked like he had figured out a way to get through the incessant bullying, judging from his kindness to others, and his general aura of patience and calm. In reality, though, he was basically slowly reaching breaking point, until he finally lost it.
It’s heartbreaking, to see what the bullying has done to him. He legit looks like a crazy person, as he sets out to stab his main tormentor in episode 5. I sincerely think that he’s not in his right mind, and it breaks my heart to think that without this whole bullying experience, he’d be living well, well-loved by everyone around him, because he’s just such a good guy.
I also think about how hard it must have been for Suk Bong, to hold himself back, since he has the skills to fight back, from his judo training, but isn’t in a position to actually use those skills. I’m sure that that would have also contributed to his torment. 💔
ISSUES IN THE SPOTLIGHT [SPOILERS]
Besides the various issues that I’ve already mentioned, here are a few more that I felt Show wanted to shine the spotlight on.
E4. The bullying is so systemic, and that’s one of the most heartbreaking things about it. People end up bullying others, not because they particularly want to, but because they’re forced to. It’s such a tough position to be in, it’s literally either bully or be bullied, in some cases.
E4. The rules are so cold. Basically, if Ho Yeol hadn’t decided to let Heo Chi Do (Choi Jun Young) go, his grandmother would have been in dire straits. She suffers from dementia, there’s no one at home with her, and there are gangster types ready to demolish her house. What would have become of her, if Ho Yeol had gone by the book? The rules have no room for humanity, and that’s a problem too.
E5. Bullying is a social issue, not just a military issue. Hwang Jang Soo (Shin Seung Ho), who had bullied others while in the military, gets bullied too, when he’s out of the army and working at a convenience store. Looks like Show is extending its critique to society at large.
E5. The abuse of power is messed up. The way the commanding officer (Hyun Bong Shik) gets Captain Im to cancel the operation, by indirectly indicating that keeping it quiet would be best, and then turns around and blames Captain Im for making a poor decision, when someone gets hurt, is just awful. It’s pretty much damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. And you’re always the scapegoat, because the senior officer can never be wrong. I can see how living like this would mess people up.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
I find this ending difficult to talk about, you guys.
I was completely glued to my screen through all of it, and basically, Show had my heart in its grip all the way to the very end. But, the events of this episode, and where we leave off our story, come together to be such a tragic combination of things, that Show leaves me reeling, long after the credits have stopped rolling.
What happens to Cho Suk Bong is so heartbreaking, and it is gutting to think that he would have led a peaceful, happy and fulfilled life, if he just didn’t have to enlist in the military. The incessant, over-the-lines-of-human-decency bullying truly broke him, and I feel like he really was on the edge of losing his sanity. The tragedy of it all, is I can see how he’d ended up like this, and I can see why he’d choose to end his life, as well.
Being from the military police himself, he knows that everyone talking him down from the edge, is just that: talk. He knows, better than the average soldier, that systemic change, just because he’d run away and kidnapped his tormentor, wouldn’t actually happen. His choice, to shoot himself in the head, wasn’t just to escape his situation. He made that choice, so that his case would contribute something more tangible, to the long fight for change. What an awful price, that he should never have had to pay. 💔
It’s also disturbing to see that the people who had actually tried to speak up, end up being punished in very real career-affecting ways. Sergeant Park gets disciplined, and Captain Im gets transferred. And, their efforts to speak up had only reaped sharp reprimands and belligerent threats of destroyed careers – just for trying to bring a more balanced, humane voice to the table.
And then, there’s the loud echo of guilt that shrouds everything, this finale; that everyone who had stood by and done nothing to stop the bullying, is basically complicit. And that doesn’t just extend to those in the military; even Shin Woo Suk’s sister, whom Jun Ho runs into this finale, feels guilty for having dismissed her brother’s complaints that life in the military was too hard. It really brings home the point, that we should be listening more, and taking what we hear, much more seriously than we do. Because, at the heart of it all, is the fact that this show is inspired by true events.
Shin Woo Suk and Cho Suk Bong may be fictional characters, but they represent real people who have died real deaths, and whose deaths were entangled with their military experiences. That’s a heavy thought that doesn’t go away easily, and I feel that Show leaves us with that heavy thought on purpose, so that we will actually sit up and listen properly.
Through all of this, I feel the most for Jun Ho, who’s tried so hard to do his best for Cho Suk Bong, who’s been a comrade to him. His desperation to save Suk Bong from himself, and his anguish when Suk Bong shoots himself, together culminate in his agonized, wretched howl, as he cradles a bloody, dying Suk Bong in his arms.
It’s utterly traumatic, and it’s the kind of thing that can really mess you up. And yet, we see that after Suk Bong’s death, things are quickly covered up, and soldiers are gruffly rallied to be in good spirits, as if one of their own hasn’t just died.
It’s no wonder Jun Ho ends up running away himself – and it’s little wonder that, in the epilogue, we see Suk Bong’s friend, Luffy (Moon Sang Hoon), choose to shoot his tormentors, also in the spirit of “doing something.”
It’s completely heartbreaking, to think that the lives of these young men are ruined on such a deep level, because of systemic problems that still prevail today.
This has been a difficult watch, but now that I’ve come out the other side, I also feel that this is such an important work, because it gives voice to those who’ve been silenced by the system.
I’ve read that this show has sparked some serious debate about military service in South Korea, and I’m glad for it. For the sake of the young men who have either lost their lives or been wounded and scarred because of these systemic problems, I sincerely hope that the right people are listening.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Dark and difficult, but so important, compelling and thought-provoking, at the same time.
FINAL GRADE: A-