~ Korean Revenge Dramas ~
vs. Bad Guy ~ Which Drama Is Best?

Korean Drama Reviews By Alison, USA

I’m a big fan of the Korean revenge drama. One of the best I have seen by far is Shark (2013), starring the explosively sexy Nam Gil Kim. So I was eager to reacquaint myself with this charismatic star in his earlier revenge drama, Bad Guy (2010). Sadly, though, I didn’t think that Bad Guy was anywhere near as compelling as the superior Shark (review below) which in my view is truly special. I would not say Bad Guy was a total disappointment, but it was much more pedestrian in style and execution. However, it is generally enjoyable even if it is nowhere near as emotionally resonant as Shark.

Bad Guy is a dark and convoluted revenge drama, with some of its ultimate weaknesses (a rather lame and disappointing ending) stemming from the fact that before the series wrapped, lead actor Nam Gil Kim received his notice to perform his required military service. A request to give him an extension to complete the final episodes was denied. So out of necessity the drama had to move to its conclusion more rapidly than intended. It shows, as all of a sudden Nam Gil Kim disappears from the canvas and his revenge plot limps along to a rather silly conclusion.

As always in a revenge drama, there is an obsession underlying the desire to seek retribution. In this case, as in Shark, the “hero” is looking for payback against a powerful wealthy family whom he holds responsible for destroying his life many years earlier. Bad Guy’s protagonist was taken from his poor but loving mother and father as a little boy and adopted by the Hongs, who believed he was Tae-song, the illegitimate son resulting from an affair conducted by the family patriarch.

The charismatic actor Nam Gil Kim in a snapshot
from Bad Guy and a snapshot from Shark

Then, the Hongs discovered he was NOT that son, and heartlessly (really unbelievably heartlessly) threw the boy out of the house to stand in the rain, waiting for the original parents to retrieve him. As the distressed couple was driving to fetch him, they were killed by an oncoming truck. So the little boy, no longer Hong Tae Seong, was sent to an orphanage, and the real heir (played as an adult by the slender, handsome and appealing Jae-wook Kim from Coffee Prince, Mary Stayed Out All Night, Voice and Who are You?) was brought into the household to be raised with his half siblings.

Actor - Singer Jae Wook Kim in
Bad Guy (top left) & Who Are You? (bottom left)
Mary Stayed Out All Night (top right) & Coffee Prince (bottom right)

That is the primary set up, but another key plot point is revealed right in the drama’s first scenes. So let’s backtrack a little. It all begins with a shocking event – a minor car accident, and a young woman’s fall to her death from the roof of a high rise apartment building. Involved in the car accident are the series main female protagonist, a young woman named Jae In Moon (Ga-in Han, who has a casual, unaffected prettiness, pert nose, and a suitably strong personality).

Gun Wook and Jae-In play a risky revenge game on a rich family,
with unintended consequences

Jae-In has just confronted her former boyfriend at his wedding to another woman (a scene that she carries off with great dignity) so is understandably upset as she is speeding home. A man suddenly steps out in front of her car, seemingly in a daze. Her car strikes him; he falls to the ground and Jae-in frantically does the right thing and starts to call for an ambulance. However, the man turns his back on her and just walks away on his own. All she can really note about his appearance is the large scar across his lower back.

Then the accident scene is complicated by another violent event that has occurred nearby  – the death of a woman named Choi Sun-young (an appealing performance by Min-seo Kim) who has apparently jumped (or perhaps even been pushed) from the top of a high rise building after crying out to someone not to come any closer. The two events will be linked through the characters involved, and the tragic dead woman’s story will unfold to reveal her connection to the Hong family and both its former and current adopted sons. The mystery surrounding the fate of this woman is an intriguing subplot that drives another part of the story.

Meanwhile, the former Tae-seong, played as an adult by Nam Gil Kim, renamed himself Gun Wook Shim. He is working as a stuntman when he initially insinuates himself into the lives of the Hong family. First he meets and charms both of the daughters of the family: Tae Ra (Yeon-soo Oh, whose pageboy haircut, slender build and delicacy reminded me of Audrey Hepburn), the self contained, uptight beauty, unhappily married to a legal prosecutor and mother of a young daughter herself, and Mo Ne (Jung-so Min, cute and animated, who moved on to star in Playful Kiss), a confident, pretty teenager. (The drama takes the “meet cute” to an interesting level by having Gun Wook literally parachute onto the Hong sisters’ boat as if he were "Bond, James Bond"). Both women are drawn to Gun Wook instantly, Tae Ra reluctantly, and Mo Ne eagerly. He will manage to seduce them with great ease.

One sister toyed with (Bad Guy) and another
sister cherished and sacrificed for (Shark)

Eventually, Gun Wook will also be drawn into the lives of Jae-In and the Hong family’s second son, his successor, the “real” Tae-seong. Jae-In has her own connection to the Hong family – she works for the truly malevolent Mrs. Hong, the family matriarch (played with over the top evil gusto by Hye-ok Kim), and is interested in getting close to their younger son Tae-seong because he is a wealthy heir. She’s friendly with his little sister Mo Ne, too, and idealizes the family. Jae-In is rather a peculiar character – a good girl with principles who is also an admitted gold digger. She has a loving bond with her own little sister, Won-in (tomboyish and spirited Eun-kyung Shim) and a great deal of pride and decency, but she also makes no bones about using her wiles to go after a rich man simply because he is rich. I could never quite figure out what really motivated her although the actress makes it easy to like her too.

Initially, Jae-In deliberately stages an encounter with Gun Wook because thanks to her friend Mo Ne, she believes he is Tae Song. Determined to get his attention, she even cleans his apartment for him from top to bottom (including the toilet!). He plays along until the truth is finally revealed when he meets Mo Ne and Jae In at a restaurant and Mo Ne declares that she plans to marry him. It’s quite funny to see Jae In’s reaction as she giggles a bit in confusion: “What are you saying, Mo Ne? He’s your brother!” Um, sorry about that, this isn’t my brother; I was just calling him Oppa the way we Korean women all seem to call our boyfriends Oppa.

At first Jae-In is furious that she was throwing herself at the wrong man, but eventually she and Gun Wook form a strong friendship that has an undercurrent of deep attraction. They both have their own agenda, and are determined to pursue entry into the Hong family, yet they share a genuine connection of concern and trust.

Gun Wook, a shell of his former self, with Tae Ra,
who is only discovering herself for the first time

Both Jae-In and Gun Wook eventually get to know the real Tae-song. He is intrigued by her warmth and spirited nature and soon he is very much interested in her. However, she is still drawn to Gun Wook, even though she knows little about him. He in turn is busy using his bedroom eyes and sexy manner to seduce the Hong’s older daughter, Tae Ra, who resists him at first but eventually cannot help falling for him. I found Tae Ra to be a sympathetic character, tied to a loveless marriage, and trying to do the right thing by not engaging in an affair. However I defy any woman to be completely immune to Nam Gil Kim when he turns on the heat.

Another character I was particularly drawn to was the initially spoiled and thoughtless Tae-seong, who matures into a young man of real character and kindness. At first he flails around like an overgrown child hoping to get the attention and acceptance he never received from his family, where he began as and remained an outsider. Jae-wook Kim’s performance is subtle enough to reveal that there is a good heart underneath all the posturing and Tae-song emerges as one of the most likeable characters in the drama.

For more about the twists and turns that unveil in Bad Guy, please read Jill’s excellent review of this series. For the remainder of this review, I am going to switch to discussing Nam Gil Kim’s post-military revenge drama, Shark, which I loved, and which deserves a greater audience that it received when it originally aired.


SHARK Review

Why did I love Shark so much and was only lukewarm about Bad Guy? They are both revenge dramas featuring a charismatic hero and plenty of effective actors. Both keep the pace moving along nicely with villains you love to hate. Yet Shark resonated with me in a powerful way where Bad Guy did not.

One of the many phenomenally beautiful
images from the masterpiece Shark

First of all, Shark is beautifully written and photographed, and it unfolds like a good book rather than just a television show. It has the depth of a Greek tragedy (and in fact the drama references the story of Orpheus, who made the mistake of turning back as he attempted to bring his love Eurydice back from Hades. An alternate title for this drama is actually Don’t Look Back: the Legend of Orpheus). Shark takes its time to establish the back story of its hero and heroine, teenagers sincerely in love who are torn apart by a cruel turn of events that establish the revenge motivation.

Second, Shark had me hooked within its first few seconds, which reveal a teenage boy speaking directly into the camera, answering questions from an unseen young girl. That conversation replays over and over in Shark, and its poignancy becomes more and more touching when you see everything that happens. From that beginning we move on to a scene of a radiant bride on her wedding day who spies a familiar face and breaks away from her attendants to pursue him. Instantly you want to know more about these characters and what is going on.

The origin of the revenge plot takes its time to reveal itself (unlike Bad Guy which focuses on that pretty much right away). We get to know and care about major characters in their youth, and then follow them with interest into their adulthood.

The part of Han Yi-soo, the revenge seeker, is beautifully realized both as a sensitive, intelligent and idealistic teen by the wonderful Joon-suk Yeon (who played the autistic younger brother of the heroine in Shining Inheritance) and the peerless Nam Gil Kim. Yi-soo’s teen love interest, Jo Hae-woo (Soo-jin Kyung) morphs perfectly into her adult counterpart, an attorney played by beautiful and supremely talented Ye-jin Son, one of the best actresses around, period.

Yi-soo undeservedly loses everything he cares about – his father, his sister and most importantly Hae-woo, the young girl he vows that he would die looking for were she to disappear. He almost loses his own life, too, and everyone he cared about thinks he did die. What works so well about Shark is that we mourn his loss just as his friends and family do and are delighted to learn that he has in fact survived.

Yi-soo’s well thought out and carefully executed revenge against the people he (rightfully) blames for his losses is perfectly understandable, yet because it is so easy to feel for his character’s plight, it is difficult to watch him move further and further into the dark side. The tension between him and Hae-woo is amplified by the fact that she is representing the law, and he is determined to be a criminal. The granddaughter of the series’ main villain, Hae-woo eventually faces a terrible dilemma when she realizes the extent of her family’s own criminal behavior. She will also suffer similarly to Yi-soo as she slowly begins to uncover the mystery behind his supposed death years ago. She was not able to save Yi-soo years ago, and she is determined to save him now.

I won’t get into all the intricacy of the story, as you should read Jill’s fabulous review instead (if that doesn’t convince you to watch Shark, nothing will). Suffice it to say that every character in Shark is carefully drawn to reveal genuine human beings with their own emotions and agenda. You will be entirely captivated by the dark-eyed grace, gentleness and menace of Nam Gil Kim in this complex role (even though he does bad things, my heart broke for him). His leading lady is a perfect match for him in her exquisite and convincing portrayal of a compassionate, bright and brave young woman who serves as the moral conscience of the drama. The list of characters and performances I enjoyed extends to every single actor and actress in this.

Shark reveals its layers like a good mystery novel, and has many eloquent scenes, the most powerful of which often feature no dialogue at all. This is the perfect revenge drama, where there are so many victims, and yet the overall message is not really one of despair, but rather that love will triumph over revenge any day. It is the kind of revenge drama that haunts you with its inevitable tragedy – as opposed to Bad Guy, where I ended up shaking my head at the opportunities lost, and the rather ludicrous plot twists, chalking it up to being one more decent enough drama but certainly nothing special.

A final note for both of these dramas: They feature incredibly lilting and effective soundtracks, songs you won’t be able to get out of your head, and perfect “tension music.”  My hat is off to the composers who provide the musical themes for Korean dramas – it would not be quite the same experience without them. The only downside is that you’ll find it difficult to get the songs out of your head, at least until you watch your next addictive drama.

Alison's Shark Grade: A+
Alison's Bad Guy Grade: A-