This gripping and highly addictive OCN crime melodrama, Watcher (2014), directed by Ahn Gil Ho of Rooftop Prince fame, forced me to keep my Thinking Cap on for the entire series. It was not your routine revenge drama, or your typical crime whodunit, but rather a complicated morality play that made me feel like I was entering a giant maze: how does one use one's noggin' to cleverly break through all the layers of impediments of possible suspects in order to find the real killers, the real kidnappers, the real illegal drug dealers, the real corrupt cops, or the real secretive administrators / politicians who wanted to keep the audience stuck in the maze, unable to find their way out to see the truth of various criminal cases? At certain points in the drama the writer made me suspect that everyone was corrupt, and then just an episode or two later I would find I was mistaken, and I'd have to re-adjust my way of thinking about certain characters, some who were perhaps not as dark or foreboding as I had suspected at first, while other characters who seemed trustworthy and honorable in the beginning were actually the exact opposite.
I love K-dramas that keep me guessing like this from beginning to end! So much more involving than all the teen dramas they seem to prefer to produce today because they are cheap and easy to make. I prefer to THINK while watching Korean dramas, not just FEEL. Watcher challenged me to do exactly that! It was a real brain workout!
The superlative cast had a lot to do with the drama's intensity and addictive qualities: I initially watched for actress Kim Hyun Joo (In Soon Is Pretty, Boys Over Flowers, Sparkling, Partner, Glass Slippers, Into The Sunlight, etc.) whom I was thrilled to see again in a major role, and veteran actor Han Suk Kyu (whom I had seen previously in films like the darling classic Christmas In August, White Night, The Royal Tailor, Shiri), and last but not least Seo Kang Joon (Cheese In The Trap, Cunning Single Lady, The Suspicious Housekeeper, Roommate), a young thespian I've been enjoying for several years now but mostly in fluff or secondary roles. This drama was his chance to finally grow up on screen as a major character, and show real maturity in a challenging, highly dramatic role. I thought he acquitted himself brilliantly! This is definitely his best performance so far in his career. Perhaps working alongside these great seasoned acting veterans rubbed off on him and he learned a lot from them.
The Story: The lives of police investigator Do Chi Gwang (Han Suk Kyu), rookie cop Kim Young Koon (Seo Kang Joon), and female lawyer, formerly prosecutor, Han Tae Joo (Kim Hyun Joo) were all seriously impacted by the presumed murder of Young Koon's mother when he was a boy. Due to the fear of witnessing his mother's tragic death, the identity of her presumed killer became erased in his tender mind, though eventually his own father, Kim Jae Myung (Ahn Kil Kang), also a cop and friend of Do Chi Gwang, was charged with the crime. Jae Myung goes to jail for fifteen years despite professing his innocence. Young Koon grows up to become a cop to try and find out if his father was really the killer of his mother, or if his father had been set up to take the fall by someone else, perhaps someone in the very police department he works in.
All three become members of an internal affairs investigation team for the police, appointed by a female chief officer named Yeom Dong Sook (Kim Soo Jin, above), and they try to dig up the truth on who was really behind the death of Young Koon's mother, plus taking over other shady crimes that are currently taking place in the city, some which may involve corruption in the police force itself. Dong Sook always looks so squeaky clean that from the beginning you suspect she just might be hiding secrets of her own, though she really doesn't give off any clues -- at first.
Joining with them soon enough (appointed by Dong Sook to spy on Do Chi Gwang's activities, though he's well aware of it!) is a bright female rookie cop and computer expert named Jo Soo Yeon (Park Joo Hee), who often adds a bit of levity to such a depressing job dealing with uncovering stubborn cold cases and possible gang-related crimes in the city, and within the police force itself. This team of four professionals start to do their jobs so well, in fact, that it's not too long before they seem to be targeted by unknown individuals who wish to stop them ... by any means possible ... including assassination.
Because of the danger of their work they bond closely to one another, and Tae Joo in particular almost seems like a mother substitute for the rookie cop Young Koon on many occasions. Or at least an older sister. I loved Kim Hyun Joo's performance here showing compassion, patience, and in her own way love for those she works with on the force.
Tae Joo had been divorced from an attorney named Yoon Ji Hoon (Park Hoon, below) after an insane killer with a mask on went after both of them and ended up cutting both their thumbs off in a torture session where they had been tied up and forced to watch each other be maimed! They had both survived and both had had re-attachment surgery, and while that covered the outward scars (they both wear thumb rings to hide their injuries), it does nothing to solve their inner turmoil and psychological damage after surviving such an horrific attack by a mystery assailant. In one key flashback scene it is revealed that Tae Joo had been so frightened that she fell into the torturer's trap of causing her husband to be cut first. When the ex comes back into her life years later he seems to have forgiven her, but it turns out he never has, and he wants retribution of his own. Can he be stopped before he becomes a monster too?
Another key player who seems upright at first, police chief Park Jin Woo (character actor Joo Jin Mo, below, from scores of K-dramas and the film Postman To Heaven), turns out to be heavily corrupt and possibly in charge of a secret group of police officers called the "Giant Gang", who had been frustrated at how justice was often delayed in their city for certain criminals, so to expedite cases they often came up with fake incriminatory evidence, to charge suspects they wanted to get rid off quickly and permanently. Apparently a secret ledger is stored away by Park Jin Woo detailing all the illegal activities of this "Giant Gang". However, could someone else have intercepted it, made a copy, and could it be used to finally convict the corrupt cops who had engaged in these illegal activities?
Then rookie cop Young Koon's father is let out of jail for the supposed murder of his mother years earlier, but not soon thereafter he is murdered. Could someone in the "Giant Gang" be responsible? Poor Young Koon is on the verge of an emotional and psychological break-down, having now lost both parents to murder. He begins to finally get his memory back to unravel the real circumstances behind their deaths. His restored memories lead to a suspect being arrested who is one of the head honchos in the city's police department, chief Jang Hae Ryong (Heo Sung Tae, Different Dreams, who has a perfect villain face you just yearn to slap silly!). This character had tried to go straight, creating a new family for himself, and nurturing two young daughters, but his inner demons keep re-surfacing, and when challenged he falls right back on old terror patterns that guarantee he will get caught eventually.
I loved the fact that in this drama Watcher we didn't see the characters as straight black and white, cookie-cutter villains or heroes, but that they all had shades of grey about themselves, which gave them all the possibility to change for the better, to become more upright, moral citizens by making newer, better choices about their lives. Not all succeeded, but enough did so that you have hope that this newly cleaned up police force will no longer tolerate corruption from within - even from any lingering members of the "Giant Gang" quietly waiting for their possible next POUNCE!
This drama had strong roles for both men and women in it, and that's enjoyable to see as well. None of the women here are shrinking violets, but strong and capable, leaders in their ranks. Overall though, I think the MOST complex performance came from actor Han Suk Kyu, above, who played Do Chi Gwang. He was unbelievably cool as this multi-layered, quiet, pensive cop who knew right from wrong but who couldn't always be counted on to make the right decisions on various cases. I thoroughly enjoyed every scene he was in. He seemed like a real person to me and not just a character in a drama.
Han Suk Kyu in Watcher and twenty years earlier in Christmas In August
I also loved to watch actor Seo Kang Joon grow up before my eyes in this, his most impressive performance so far. He had to portray a young man who lost both his parents to unfair deaths and it scarred him, but not irreparably so. I expect great things from Kang Joon in future now as well, perhaps even a season two of this same drama, if we're lucky and OCN decides to sign off on one! I shall miss his character a lot too.
I can't end the review without mentioning once again how much I love watching the stunning, classy Kim Hyun Joo in action, playing a lawyer again, but this time with more bite to it than her performance ten years earlier in Partner, which was more of a romantic comedy than legal drama, for the most part. Here she plays a woman lawyer who thirsts for real justice in cases, who is shown as mentally and emotionally fragile at times, but who knows how to seek the right help for herself so she can heal and prosper in life. I admired her tremendously! I should also add that I enjoyed her character's relationship with her young legal aide Jae Shik (Jung Do Hwan); they were so cute together but without one ounce of romance to their relationship. How refreshing! At times I thought maybe he might end up being a baddie, but he never was, thank goodness. He was simply sweet, normal, and funny. Can we clone him so I can have a copy as MY assistant? :)
A Rare Moment When Jae Shik Isn't Wearing Sunglasses :)
If you love a great legal drama then don't miss Watcher. It's a suspenseful and brilliant mental challenge to keep up with, instead of a routine cop / legal show to fall asleep on. There's even a surprise epilogue after the end credits roll that in the grand scheme of things is really quite ironic, even funny. Some characters just won't give up their revenge, no matter what!
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