The Pied Piper – Episode 1 Metacap

피리부는 사나이 (THE PIED PIPER)

Episode 1 Metacap

The Pied Piper Metacap Image of Shin Ha-Gyun


There is a brief scene in tvN’s new genre offering 피리부는 사나이 (The Pied Piper) that, more than fancy explosions or any other display of budget prowess, might turn this deceptively simple show into a promising dark horse. It’s a moment that will likely strike a chord with Koreans who went through the democratization process of the 1980s, with all its many human highs and lows. If events like the Gwangju Massacre so vividly depicted in 모래시계 (The Sandglass) will forever be inked in the minds of Koreans young and old, something like the Ji Gang-Heon Incident might be a little less romantic to narrate, and too uncomfortable to remember; especially in light of what it says about income equality and how little our often disarmingly modern Korea has changed when it comes to certain social tendencies.

Instead of repeating myself, I’d like to quote something I wrote a decade ago (!) on Twitchfilm which still holds true today. This was part of a review for the film 홀리데이 (Holiday), which stars Lee Sung-Jae as exactly the same Ji Gang-Heon we just mentioned.

From the outside, 1988 might be known as a very prosperous year for Korea: they hosted the Olympics, ranking an impressive fourth in the final standings; the first ever non-military president, Jeon Du-Hwan puppet and 하나회 (Hanahoe, Jeon's military clique) member Noh Tae-Woo, was elected; and, if you allow me to get a little closer to home, Lee Myung-Se made his debut in Chungmuro with the masterful, crazy and glorious 개그맨 (Gagman). But as it's always the case with things that seem to shine a lot on the surface, there were some skeletons in the closet, things the government tried to hide, lest foreigners might have actually realized not everything was right in the country. And that's when things like 有錢無罪 無錢有罪 (유전무죄, 무전유죄) started becoming a little more than a proverb in Hanja. It literally means “If you have money you're innocent, if you don’t you're guilty.” No matter how big or small the crime actually is.

Those were some of Ji Gang-Heon’s final words, one of the names most Koreans from the 386 Generation will remember. The 보호감호법 (social protection law) [he was subjected to] made over 13,000 victims, but people like him and Jo Se-Hyung (a sort of 'Robin Hood' of modern Korea) ended up giving a voice to all those people who had to suffer in prison even for petty crimes, while the big sharks in the government and chaebol were getting a slap in the wrist even when billions were involved. While the 'Miracle on the Han River' was taking place, people like Ji Gang-Heon were rotting in prison for crimes that would make most people laugh. But such was the reality of the country's 'justice' system back then. So Ji, along with 12 accomplices, decided to find a way to speak out, to scream their anger at a society which wasn't listening and didn't care. Even when he asked for a last song, Bee Gees' Holiday, soldiers misunderstood and played Scorpions' Holiday. The devil was in the details, after all.

I say this cautiously, knowing how overpowering CJ E&M’s brand marketing tendencies are, and how often they end up shaping what look like eclectic shows on paper into glitzy yet vapid one-source-multi-use business ventures. But there are moments of clarity in young veteran Ryu Yong-Jae’s writing here which might hint at the same effective blend of genre conventions and thematic consciousness that made 라이어 게임 (Liar Game) quite a passable alternative to the cookie-cutter nature of most of cable TV’s genre offerings. Ryu might have his shortcomings, but the idea that there are still writers who try to package a story around a unifying and underlying message is very reassuring. It is also a continuation of sorts for the thematic consciousness displayed in Liar Game, as a thinly-veiled commentary on Korea’s social strata that Ji Gang-Heon’s famous maxim so aptly summarizes to this day.

This ties in interesting ways to the other inspiration for the story, which is a lot more obvious given the title: this is certainly not the first time that German legend The Pied Piper of Hamelin becomes the starting point of a film or a drama. One interesting example is Kim Gwang-Tae’s 손님 (The Piper) from last year, which gives a horror and gore-drenched spin to the proceedings. And that’s because social inequality and the abuse of power by those who wield it is at the core of the famous tale from the Lower Saxony village in the Middle Ages, just as it is likely to play a major part in this show. Both Shin Ha-Gyun and Jo Yoon-Hee met with a professional negotiator before starting the show, and commented how the experience wasn’t exactly like what they had come to expect thanks to years of sensationalism created by US TV. More than snappy dialogue and psychological techniques bordering on hypnosis, what they witnessed was a lot of good old listening skills, of empathizing with and acknowledging the concerned parties’ feelings.

So look at the two examples we’ve used so far, both the Ji Gang-Heon Incident and the tale of the Pied Piper: aren’t they both instances of failed negotiation? Of one party purposely ignoring the other’s feelings and prerogatives for self-serving reasons? You’ll agree that that kind of starting point has quite a lot of potential, if you’re trying to make a point about how powerful and dangerous a weapon negotiation can be.

But time to delve into the show now.

Seong Dong-Il in a scene from The Pied Piper


A lot of genre shows on Korean TV try the in media res prologue expedient as a sort of introductory business card: here’s what you’re going to get, let us make a great first impression. That usually means explosions, fancy car chases, over-edited action. Basically sensory overload, in most cases. Without much in the way of narrative meat to back it up. This still happens despite the technical and creative maturation the industry has gone through, and it’s probably the biggest difference someone approaching this industry for the first time after coming from an American cable TV viewing background will experience. Things almost never happen for one isolate reason, but there is still one major, underlying force driving all this: lack of confidence in the product’s impact. It’s a complex matter, but let me try to make you a quick example, and see if we can simplify things a little.

Remember how The Sopranos started? The late, great James Gandolfini, staring at a sculpture of a naked body, perplexed; in silence, waiting for his first appointment with a shrink. A mafia boss, meeting a shrink. Mamma mia.

Silence. Awkward stares. Fidgeting. More stares.

[Tony puts his hand forward trying to stop the insinuations] “They said it was a panic attack.”

Bang. That counts as one explosion. Of characterization. Subtle, but there you go.

What all that quiet, those awkward silences and stare-downs told us was essentially that this was a show that was confident about its narrative means. This was only a pilot, mind you. David Chase was certainly no spring chicken, what with having worked on Northern Exposure and The Rockford Files. But it was only a pilot, and in 1999 HBO wasn’t exactly the juggernaut it is today. The whole thing could have failed miserably without even registering a blip. But he still went out there and gave us one balding, pot-bellied, middle-aged Italian-American male sitting in the waiting room of a shrink. Trying to sell it as a gangster drama. Now imagine if this were a Korean drama. We’d get the most Scorsesian car chase in Scorsesian aping history, perhaps with Claudio Villa playing in the background; a dramatic shootout with doves flying all over the place, fruit exploding in the streets of Little Italy, and portly matrons eye-gouging their way out of a crying spree, while closeups indulge on bailing children. And then, maybe, after ten minutes of bombastic action, we’d get our Kimchi Soprano sitting down in front of his shrink. Who would most likely be his long lost sister or his first love, but I digress.

Why would that happen? Why are Korean dramas so eager to, pardon the French, blow their load right away? Because, supposedly, failure to register as an event right away can be detrimental to the show’s future profitability. Because if you don’t tell the audience right away what exactly you’re going to be, they will be perplexed, and ponder changing the channel; they will wonder whether you’ll give them an artsy-fartsy “mania drama.” Or, even worse, one of those wishy-washy shows nobody ever talks about. Because, just like when they started in the 1960s, the most important aspiration of Korean dramas is becoming the catalyst of a social event. Because if there is no buzz nobody talks about you. And if nobody talks about you, you’re making no money. Then you immediately realize why daily dramas throw at the viewer car accidents, attempted murders, abortions, cases of mistaken identity right after the opening credits of their first episode: they need to qualify themselves in the eyes of the viewer. In this case almost immediately, given how short they are. So here’s my business card: I’m a makjang drama that will have no scruples as long as I entertain you. For a genre offering like this, and something of a more procedural nature, things are a little trickier.

We begin with a violent riot ensuing, as a child reads The Pied Piper from Hamelin on the rooftop of one of the buildings involved, as the camera tracks down. Her book falls down, and instantly catches fire, leading to a competently made opening sequence.

I don’t mind the voiceover, but putting the child there is a little too over-the-top and unnecessarily stylistic. What works, though, is that everything happening here is topical:

  • The voiceover basically summarizes what this “pied piper’s” role was in the original legend, and how it might apply to this story
  • We immediately qualify the show beyond its ordinary genre underpinnings, and focus on thematic consciousness. This will be a story about a modern pied piper not getting their due reward and retaliating against those who wronged them. What do we get to see in the first 15 seconds? Ordinary people protesting against the self-serving expedients of a conglomerate (Group K)

That’s it. There are explosions. The tracking shot with the child on top is a little garish. The editing gets a bit too cute, but it’s a given (this is a Kim Hong-Seon drama, remember). But nothing we see here is there just for the sake of throwing a flashy business card at us.

This show is properly introducing itself.

What happens after the flashy incipit is dealt with, generally? Dramas settle down. They do so because of the same, aforementioned lack of confidence in their means. Be it two minutes or 15, once you’ve qualified yourself in the eyes of the mainstream, it’s almost mandatory to settle down and let them catch a breath. Some shows go back to the two leads’ childhood (and now that they’ve made their first impression have free reign to lazily stroll through the first week or month of episodes), some introduce a moment of light-hearted serenity before the next escalation of tension – look at the toy gun incident in 태양의 후예 (Descendants of the Sun) for a good example of how mainstream dramas artificially shift moods. This one instead goes straight to the point: a hostage situation. A group of Korean workers is being held hostage by terrorists at a construction site in the Philippines. The site obviously belongs to the same Group K we were previously introduced to. The terrorists demand $5 million to solve the crisis, so who does our Group K decide to send? Their negotiating ace, someone who successfully handled their most recent M&A and is therefore best suited for the task. The idea of using a news report as narrating voice-over and throwing these huge chunks of subliminal characterization at us is very clever.

Characterization? Already?

Yes, Sir. These people (Group K) are dealing with a hostage crisis, a huge international accident waiting to happen. Who do they send, a criminal profiler? A skilled diplomat with experience in dealing with such tense situations? No, a merger and acquisition specialist. Connect the dots, and here’s your indirect profiling of what kind of people we’re dealing with: they want to achieve the maximum result (curb the PR nightmare that is about to ensue) with the least effort (in terms of expenditure).

“오오이, 주프로! 비행기 새로 뽑았는데 탈만하지예?”

(Here’s my man! So how’s my new plane, decent ride?)

Ryu Yong-Jae wrote 개와 늑대의 시간 (Time Between Dog & Wolf), and you see similar vibes at play here. A lot of the dialogue is very functional to the characterization, without excessive fluff. Chairman Seo couldn’t care less about the tense situation, and the fact some of his employees could be murdered. In fact, he asks his ace what he thought of his new shiny new private plane. Note how this differs from the usual ostentation of riches daily drama writers use in a desperate attempt to qualify their characters – because they believe that status symbols are all there is to affluence. What that ostentation does here, instead, is pointing fingers at the character and his identity. It indirectly qualifies him, in a quick but effective instance of characterization. The key piece of information this scene between Seong-Chan and the chairman establishes is one command: make sure we give the press the impression that every possible effort has been made to conclude the negotiation amicably. There are bits of exposition qualifying the terrorists, Seong-Chan’s skills, the chairman’s personality and more, but they’re thankfully kept to an organic minimum. What matters is that we’ve effectively established that a few human sacrifices would be perfectly fine for the chairman, as long as the right PR is the outcome. But is Seong-Chan fine with that?

Despite their overachieving partnership, I always thought Ryu Yong-Jae and Kim Hong-Seon would be a tough match. Kim was groomed by KBS, but was one of the first to move to cable, back when it was nothing more than a producer of thinly-veiled excuses to throw cleavage at the screen. They seemed like a tough match exactly because of the functional dialogue tendencies Ryu exhibited before, whereas Kim tends to have a more bombastic approach to filmmaking (and inevitably be prone to indulging in excessive editing tricks, visual composition and use of music).

Check out how Kim Jin-Min introduces Thailand to the story in Time Between Dog & Wolf (just to repeat, it's the same writer). See how functional everything is, despite not giving us particularly crucial information? Now compare it with how Kim Hong-Seon decides to linger on the sights and sounds of the Sinulog Festival in Cebu, theater of our negotiation. The scene only lasts 30 seconds, but Kim manages to throw his now mandatory multiple split screens at us, turning this moment into more of an exercise in top of the line editing and camerawork than a quick and functional segue giving us geographical information. If Kim wanted to use the split screen, why not start off with Seong-Chan on one side, a larger cut of the festival in the middle, and the terrorist contact on the other side? That way, you'd avoid breaking the flow of the narrative, make the split screens functional, and still get your dose of pretty sights.

You’d say, “Why all the fuss for a few seconds?”

This is still the prologue, the real drama hasn’t even started. Anything that makes this part swell up narrative wise needs to be carefully balanced. Linger on 10 seconds here, half a minute there, add a cute insert on top of that scene, make that other one a minute long. Suddenly, you find yourself at the 15-minute mark and you still haven’t gotten yourself out of the introduction.

And your drama is already bloated.

Shin Ha-Gyun in a scene from The Pied Piper


Speaking of style over substance. Seong-Chan enters what looks to be an expat bar. Out comes the barman, a big Australian dude who looks to be about three shots short of a bar fight.

“Hi. What can I get you?”

“Bloody Mary, with Balkan.”

“No, no such thing.”

(Was Absolut Vodka one of the sponsors?)

“One million a shot.”

Obviously just a code message to find his way in, after which follows a quick shot of him being taken to the hostage hideout while blindfolded, right as his voiceover explains his negotiation style. Albeit a tad too 1980s Dolph Lundgren action flick inspired, Ryu here presents us with a solid genre convention, narrative-wise. But the execution does very little to add verisimilitude to the situation or maintain the tension level. And that mostly happens because of Kim’s directing tendencies, but also because Shin Ha-Gyun will overact to a dangerous extent whenever the situation demand introspection that isn’t emotionally motivated – look at his performance in classics like 지구를 지켜라! (Save the Green Planet) to see how well he can emote given the right directions.

I think this can be explained only through faulty interpretation of what TV drama acting is, because Shin is generally very proficient on the big screen, but the same can’t be said for the majority of his drama performances (all a little too centered on manufactured gravitas). A lot of good film actors who transition into TV acting make the mistake of thinking that this industry was built on the over-the-top pantomime and frivolous theatrics of makjang and trendy dramas, and that subtle acting is not part of the requirements. So someone like Moon So-Ri, understandably considered by many to be one of the country’s most talented actresses, makes her eagerly awaited TV drama debut and treats it like a throwaway stroll in the park, giving her laziest performance. (Twice in a row, actually.) Even an award-winning beacon of acting prowess like Jeon Do-Yeon treats dramas like quick and easy pay-checks, giving low-key and flimsy performances in her sporadic forays into small screen acting. And Shin, a Park Chan-Wook regular for very good reasons, tends to play a low-rent version of himself most of the time he ventures in this neck of the woods. Why, you’ll ask?

That his English is appalling throughout this scene and the hostage faceoff is not much of an issue. After all, second language proficiency at best is all the situation would require. But he almost sings his cringe-worthy one-liners as if he was Luciano Pavarotti screaming out Verdi’s Nessun Dorma at Milan’s La Scala theater. He adds pantomime to every line, deliriously frowning and smirking his way through what’s supposed to be a tense situation to be handled with poise and empathy. It instead becomes a scene straight out of a Hulk Hogan cereal commercial, his smarmy punctuation putting even more emphasis on how awkward the English dialogue is. And then he continues to be operatic in his voice-over (thankfully in Korean), which kills any flow the interesting opening montage might have established. To add insult to injury, when Seong-Chan is waxing lyrical about the eternal dilemma of the negotiator, PD Kim wanders off shooting virtuoso pieces straight out of a Michael Bay flick.

The lesson here is that voiceovers are dangerous and to be used sparingly, because a moment that on paper looks like honest character foundations can in the wrong hands become a distracting punctuation that takes you out of the flow of the narrative, rendering Ryu’s efforts futile. I say “efforts” because the writing here, slightly haphazard English dialogue aside, is not bad at all. Look at the big picture: what did we need to establish in this opening 10-minute prologue?

  • Chairman Seo’s ruthless, Machiavellian attitude towards this crisis, seeing it as nothing more than a potential case of bad PR. I think that was handled fine.
  • Display Seong-Chan’s ability as a negotiator. The denouement is a bit muddled because of Shin’s acting, Kim’s attention-deflecting visual bling, and to a lesser extent by the English dialogue. But we do get a sampler of how many tricks this guy has up his sleeve, even at gunpoint

I want to go back to the toy gun incident in Descendants of the Sun to prove a point about how different the writing in the two shows is, actually. In Kim Eun-Sook’s case, the scene does have narrative ramifications but they feel like an artificial insert to justify what comes later. What happens to Dae-Young and Shi-Jin as they’re playing outside with toy guns is certainly not impossible, but it’s most likely improbable. But what happens here is completely within the realm of probability: a capable negotiator is sent to handle a situation that is only tense on paper, because the only outcome Group K cares about is damage control, and not the safety of its employees. He deals with it in a satisfactory way, but the sacrifices he’s all too happy to make will have serious ramifications throughout the course of the show, organically connecting most of the major characters’ trajectories. You’ll agree it’s not the same thing. 10 minutes have passed, and we’ve indirectly established a villain-in-waiting almost effortlessly, and an anti-hero with a fatal flaw ready to be exploited. I’d say it’s a pretty decent return on investment, despite the few pitfalls the directing fails to avoid.

We then go back to my introduction, and the famous Ji Gang-Heon scene – they actually show footage from the real incident. I love this scene more than anything else on the show, for a variety of reasons. To use a real life event and organically integrate it into your story is already a difficult feat as it is, but to actually extrapolate a message that can be connected to your thematic consciousness is downright brilliant. And then there’s Seong Dong-Il.

You know him as the perennial comic relief in a myriad of films and dramas, the 응답하라 19XX (Reply 19XX) franchise in particular if you’re a new fan. But Seong is a theatre-trained actor who went through almost a decade of anonymity and paying his dues with bit roles, before a lucky character – the infamous Jeolla Province-dialogue speaking “Red Sock” Yang Jung-Pal in 1998’s 은실이 (Eunshil) – changed his career. I’m not sure people are aware of how versatile he can be, perhaps because he spent most of the last decade playing lightweight characters thanks to his affable charisma and quick wit. Here we get the Seong Dong-Il of yore, in a tremendously effective cameo in which he plays a rare straight face character, the negotiation unit leader Oh Jung-Hak. His character asks a very important question: was the Ji Gang-Heon accident a case of successful negotiation, or a failed one? One of his recruits gives him the answer most pragmatic, result-driven young Koreans would be driven to give him: “the hostages were brought to safety, so wasn’t it a success?”

“글쎄,” he says.

Geulsse. I remember the many times that word drove me insane in my subtitling days. It’s one of those rare terms that can convey a million facets, and yet can’t be easily translated if not in a contextual way. It expresses a rhetoric sense of indecision towards a question, throwing it back at those who asked it. Was it? Was it really a success? Jung-Hak tells his recruits of how the spin-doctored rhetoric of the late 1980s conveniently painted Ji Gang-Heon as a heinous offender, whereas he and his followers were nothing more than petty criminals. He points out how the brother of a “prominent politician” embezzled 10 billion won and only got a seven-year sentence (that would be Jeon Gyeong-Hwan, brother of president Jeon Du-Hwan), while Ji Gang-Heon was sentenced to 17 years in prison for stealing a mere 5 million won.

“That’s what enraged him. The unfairness of it all. Ji Gang-Heon never made any formal request for money or political favors during this incident. He merely wanted the world to know about this outright unfairness he was subjected to.”

The same recruit, again playing the pragmatic modern Korean, goes straight to the point. “And what benefit did he get from telling people that?”

“Negotiation is no magic, folks. But there is one thing we can do with it.”

“살자, 살아서 이 엿같은 세상 같이 견디고 버텨보자. 우리가 밥솥으로 밥을 하다보면 맛이 있을 테도 있고 없을 테도 있어요. 근데 밥맛이 없다고 밥솥을 터뜨리면 그게 해결이 될까? 정말 화가 나고, 억울하고 분해서, 김이 막 펄펄펄 끓어. 근데 이 엿같은 밥솥은 어디가 막혔는지, 폭발 직전이야. 그게 이렇게… 이 밥솥에 김을 빼주는거. 그게 우리 일이야.”

“And that’s to live. To go on living, and together try to endure this goddamned world we live in. Not every time we use a rice cooker to cook things go right. But does blowing up the cooker solve anything? I know we’re angry, fed up and fuming about the whole thing. Steam is coming out of our every pore. You wonder what’s wrong with this goddamned rice cooker and why it wouldn’t work, to the point it’s about to burst and explode. There you go. [Jung-Hak point at Ji Gang-Heon holding a gun]. Taking the steam out of that rice cooker. That’s our job.”

Ohhh… Ryu Yong-Jae. That. Is. One. Hell. Of. A. Scene.

But even PD Kim lets the dialogue breathe, without getting in the way with his invasive visual bling. Seong is brilliant here, harking back to his theatre roots, and putting emphasis on the right words at the right time. That “together” at the beginning of the sentence, the final hesitation, the expressions he surrounds all this with; it all comes together perfectly, in something you’d expect from a Jung Ji-Young film, and certainly not a TV drama.

Yoo Joon-Sang in a scene from The Pied Piper


Functional introduction part 3. We’ve given Seong-Chan a nice, ambivalent incipit, highlighting his skills but also the quasi film-noir like aura of moral ambiguity around his character; we’ve designated at least one of the potential villains of the piece, and now we need to introduce some of the other major players. We could have done it through throwaway scenes. But Ryu, who so far has shown an admirable penchant for functionality and no-frills storytelling, decides to introduce us to Myeong-Hwa through a simulated hostage situation. Of course, we’re not told it’s a drill until it becomes obvious, but the scene is shot aptly enough to give us the benefit of the doubt. This is when someone like Kim Hong-Seon can come in handy: he shoots some of the shootouts like an FPS game, with tight but effective editing, and above average action choreography. You can tell your Director of Photography can shoot action well when he focuses on topical information (I only cut to show new information, not for the hell of it) over “tropical” information (the cuts randomly assault you with no seeming rhyme or reason and out of nowhere, like in a tropical downpour). It’s quality over quantity filmmaking.

Myeong-Hwa is questioned for her reluctance to “shoot” the culprit in the previous drill, and something you don’t see too often in Korean dramas happens: the trait which qualifies her character is not used as a shortcoming (i.e.: she’s a sweetheart who couldn’t possibly shoot people, woe is me, wait for Prince Charming to come and save the day), but as a building block of her characterization. She didn’t shoot because she thought dialogue was still an option. She thought that because she’s interested in negotiation. And because she wants to join the negotiation unit.

Ryu even makes good use of her shortcomings: Jung-Hak comes in while SWAT leader Han Ji-Hoon scolds her (Incidentally, that’s the name of the writer who worked on Time Between Dog and Wolf with Ryu. Har Har.) But he doesn’t join in on the kindness shaming; he actually says that his team is exactly looking for people who have the ability to listen, and who don’t cut off others in mid-sentence every step of the way like he does. Myeong-Hwa actually stops a fight between the two before it can get physical, as they discuss the merit (or lack thereof) of their respective units.

SEE? It’s not that difficult. Make every apparent shortcoming useful, topical, and not just a lazy way to attract sympathy and create forced affinity with the viewer. Who cares what are the underlying reasons for her predilection for dialogue. Maybe she indeed is a softie. But in this case, her decision not to shoot, her lack of perfection is a great qualifier for the character she’s about to embody. Obviously this is still a Korean drama, so one moment later we get to know Jung-Hak and Myeong-Hwa weren’t exactly strangers – which puts the previous scene in a slightly different perspective. But I guess we can’t have them all, and Kdramas will be Kdramas.

The “our team is so lousy, they gave us the basement” shtick which follows is something straight out of season-based Japanese procedural dramas, the kind of show that needs to add artificial quirkiness to ingratiate itself with the viewer, and then forcibly give the protagonists an edge (since they will be the saviors who will come to save the day). Actually, the entire scene is almost complete fluff, although still borderline functional. Ryu still tries to throw in some characterization in the midst of this “cool down phase,” such as Jae-Hee’s made-for-Tinder profiling skills. Thankfully this rag-tag negotiation team is made of decent young actors, Jang Seong-Beom in particular (who bears a striking resemblance to Chinese actor Hu Ge), so it could certainly be worse.

Much better is the scene which follows, for a simple reason: more than focusing on taking some of the steam off the initial tension the opening few scenes built and give the viewers a breather, it naturally settles into a neutral, almost placid mood, and still builds on the details organically, without stopping the flow. What we witnessed before was almost a tonal shift, this is closer to the kind of effective transitional scenes you see in superior dramas. Jae-Hee adds fuel to the fire, telling Myeong-Hwa that the life of a negotiator isn’t exactly what you see on TV series; it’s mostly about filling reports, writing guidelines, and doing repetitive tasks. The action is only sporadic, and after copious groundwork leading to it. This is the kind of setting where you can safely throw some exposition into the mix, explaining the tasks and peculiarities which will become an integral part of the characters’ trajectories. And Ryu takes full advantage of the opportunity. All that is left now is introducing the third lead, the investigative reporter and TV news anchor who will prove to be quite the watchdog for Seong-Chan. And in this case, casting Yoo Joon-Sang is the perfect choice.

I love the Korean language for a variety of reasons, but the idea that even a loanword can become a status symbol is one of the most interesting social phenomena of what’s perhaps the most socially-conscious of all languages.

At the press conference, Seong-Chan is not referred to as an ordinary 협상가 (negotiator in Korean, obviously), but with the English loanword “negotiator,” which is rarely (if ever) used in Korean. Scarcity means prestige, right? That little detail immediately turns him into a VIP in his line of work, qualifying him and the company who chose him in the eyes of the public. The entire scene is aptly depicted as an overt publicity stunt on Group K’s part, which is a very functional way of throwing Hee-Seong into the mix. An aura of PR façade around Seong-Chan is built: the questions are perfunctory and almost rhetorical, the banter is cheeky and condescending, almost ignoring the fact that that 무사귀환 (safe return) banner was built on the blood of an innocent hostage. So Hee-Seong, tired of this affront against journalistic integrity and the truth, simply gets up and in the most matter-of-fact way possible does what his colleagues failed to do: ask real questions. The murder of the hostage is covered up as a natural death because of endemic conditions, but Hee-Seong doesn’t believe it one minute, wondering whether it wasn’t as a result of failed negotiations.

Yoo is fantastic here, in the simplest of ways. Unfortunately, PD Kim doesn’t believe in his actors enough to let them create drama on their own, so he surrounds them with over-the-top and rather invasive musical choices, but the scene works on the strength of the functional writing and the good acting. (Even for what concerns Shin, who is now more acquainted with the smarmy professional he embodies.)

“그 사과… 진심입니까?”

“Is that apology sincere?”

And that’s how you organically create conflict, without resorting to external forces. Hee-Seong is interfering in Seong-Chan’s PR campaign (not only that of Group K, but also his, as our VIP “negotiator.”), and Seong-Chan is insulting Hee-Seong’s intelligence and integrity as a journalist. The two can’t help but butt heads. It’s plausible, realistic, effective. It just works.

Shin Ha-Gyun in a scene from The Pied Piper


What’s equally Korean is the need to make professional issues personal in any given drama – with due exceptions, thankfully. The idea is that this way, even when you’re dealing with a genre, historical, medical, or courtroom drama, you can still make sure the largest possible audience will relate to your subject matter. It also paints everything in shades of mediocre familiarity, rendering those issues into little more than thinly-veiled excuses to vent about failed relationships. Sure enough, even in what so far has been quite the proficiently written show, we get the mandatory pillow shot of sad sack theatrics. Seong-Chan dines at a fancy restaurant, and calls the chef to complain about his dish… because Miss Chef turns out to be his (occasional?) significant other. For a while, anyway. Seong-Chan unnecessarily qualifies Ju-Eun with lots of on-the-fly exposition – do we really need to know about her Michelin 2-star pedigree, given the caliber of the restaurant/hotel she’s working for? But the scene, and the short-lived character itself, is not entirely useless: it’s the only instance when Seong-Chan lets his guard down, takes off his negotiator mask and behaves like a vulnerable human being. Especially when she tells him that she doesn’t really know who deep-down this Seong-Chan really is, eliciting a rather embarrassed look on his face, and a request to take things to a more private setting.

In general, I’m not a huge fan of the fateful coincidence as a narrative device – it’s a rather convenient and lazy way of connecting the dots. But I like the fact that our prospective suicide bomber starts his tirade by saying “listen to me.”

What did that professional negotiator Shin and Jo met before the show say, again? That negotiation is about empathy, understanding the people you’re negotiating with, and especially being a good listener. If you interpret the entire scene – and its tragic ramifications – as a humbling process for Seong-Chan, then even this fateful coincidence can become a decent plot device. It’s a bit forced, but not completely born out of the blue (since the suicide bomber has a valid motive in theory, and could have easily done some research on Seong-Chan). And most importantly it brings our leading duo’s connection together in rather dramatic, but effective fashion. Again, not an ideal lead-in to have Myeong-Hwa and Seong-Chan meet (losing loved ones because of a failed negotiation process). But it could have gone much worse. And what’s even better, PD Kim handles the tension of the situation in a surprisingly restrained way, keeping the cuts functional and the music to an acceptable level, without trying to dictate emotions.

There is obviously one major narrative objective here, showing our master negotiator being affected, perhaps even swayed by the involvement of someone he (possibly) loves. Can he continue to keep his cool and act like a professional when her life is on the line? Asking for the release of the kid is the most obvious answer. But delve even deeper and you’ll see how this entire episode was a sort of, as I mentioned before, humbling process. He starts the show as this one-liner flamethrower who even had time for 30-year-old Ballantine’s and smarmy jokes at press conferences. But now the entire castle of cards he built his PR persona around is beginning to crumble, with attacks from multiple directions. What’s more, now that the situation has gotten emotional, Shin is beginning to flex his acting muscles. When he’s asked for introspection that’s not directly connected to an emotion – like in the case of a voice-over, which essentially involves him sitting in a recording studio and using method acting to interpret the dialogue – he’s never been an ace. But now that he can connect the tension and gravitas to something he can project first-hand through interaction with his peers, things work just fine. Hell, he does a very good job in these scenes, to the point that he actually bruised Jo Yoon-Hee’s cheekbones and nose during the scene while he tries to get out of the bus as she holds him. That’s dedication to your craft. Or, err… dangerous immersion into your character, I guess.

The ramifications of Seong-Chan’s humbling process continue, as the PR lie he was forced to tell pretty much seals Ju-Eun’s and Jung-Hak’s fates. It’s important that this make sense, because it allows the viewer to see the situation from every character’s viewpoint, and to if not condone at least understand their actions. Every character surrounding Seong-Chan can only act based upon the amount of information they have, which will obviously skew their interpretation.

  • Jung-Hak doesn’t know that the hostage who died was actually killed, so he unknowingly makes the mistake of calling him benefactor in the eyes of the brother who witnessed what happened
  • The “criminal” doesn’t know that, at the end of the day, Seong-Chan was only indirectly responsible for his brother’s death. Not only did he not pull the trigger, but you could argue that his hands were tied in some way by the amount of money Group K and Chairman Seo wanted to spend

All the narrative pathways lead to one crucial point: the need for Seong-Chan to control his image as a supposedly brilliant negotiator caused all this. He could have refused to comply with Group K’s guidelines; he could have been honest at least to the SWAT and negotiation team, even at the risk of attracting Hee-Seong’s attention. There is a good chance all of this could have been averted, had he not indulged in professional selfishness, and didn’t wait so long to confess the truth to the press. There is also a good chance that the collateral damage caused by this scene will not only affect the way Seong-Chan behaves in the coming episodes and how Chairman Seo retaliates to this unmitigated PR disaster (exactly the thing he wanted to avoid), but also influence his relationship with Myeong-Hwa – given who had to sacrifice his life just to keep Seong-Chan’s illusion of brilliance alive.

Ryu, who back in the Time Between Dog and Wolf days had shown quite the predilection for HK noir symbolism, goes all 1980s John Woo with this point when we get a flashback of Seong-Chan’s reaction to the hostage shooting outside the hut: in a brief shot, he looks shocked, with Christ on the cross right behind him.

And to point out how focused this script has been so far, look at what Jung-Hak asks our suicide bomber, before tragedy ensues:

듣고싶습니다. 그리고 알려야 될 부분이 있다면, 올바르게 세상에 알릴 수 있도록 제가 도와드리겠습니다.”

(I want to listen. If there is anything people need to know, I’ll help you get the word out the right way.)

And suddenly you’re reminded of Ji Gang-Heon, of how unfair his situation and this situation are. You’re reminded that negotiation is about listening. That storytelling is about driving home simple messages like this, framed within a focused, complex structure. And making sure those messages are conveyed effectively. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the “voice” yet, gimmick which generated quite a few headlines, because of its similarities with Park Jin-Pyo’s 그놈 목소리 (Voice of a Murderer). But there is no point in discussing a whodunit (or “whoisit”) at this point of the story.  What matters most is that, set aside a few “endemic” (Har Har) fallacies that will probably follow 99% of Korean dramas for the foreseeable future, what we have here is a well-structured show that’s competently shot, proficiently acted and – incredibly rare for Kdrama as a whole, let alone tvN – even has a healthy dose of social commentary.

Which means that you could do a lot worse than watching this.

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  • Jo

    Very interesting read. And I’m enjoying the show, of course – apart from an at least potentially exciting cat and mouse game, we’ve got a female lead who isn’t entirely helpless, and police who aren’t entirely incompetent.

  • missjb21

    Thanks for covering this, I might be watching it. it seems good. This is a drama replacing Cheese In trap, right? the rating is getting down it’s abit shame. I would be glad if you also covering Memory, wondering your though about this show ^^.. There is Lee Sung Min in it.

  • Gasenadi

    Truly appreciate this metacap. The best Saturday kdrama-related morning in a looong time: looking up movies, PD’s, writers, historical events, and appreciating the possibilities of one word, “geulsse”. It’s definitely added to The List.

  • thersites

    Good to have this kind of detailed critical analysis of K-drama again. Actually the promo pics of a dyspeptic-looking Shin Ha-Gyun had put me off (and I actually quite like Shin Ha-Gyun), but it sounds like The Pied Piper is doing at least a bit more to avoid the crap that Bad Guys wallowed in.

  • damn. whenever I’m ready to dispair about KDrama and say goodbye to them once and for all (not that I’d ever do this, really), something like this comes along. Yes, yes, it has its faults (what hasn’t), but for me, this is what I want Korean drama to be like.