The influence of Korean culture around the world, in Asia especially, is massive. People sing and dance to Korean Pop songs, albeit not understanding what the lyrics mean. The fashion styles from the East Asian country has also easily become the world’s fashion style, too. So it’s no wonder why the country’s drama series found its way into households around the globe as well. We just can’t help it. The global Korean wave has hit everyone to the core.
So whether you’re a Korean drama series aficionado or a closet fan, chances are, you have heard about Black. The series, a fantasy-slash-thriller-slash-romance drama, was aired in 18 episodes from October to December last year in South Korea. It’s first few episodes showed strong viewership, but it fell short in sustaining their audience’s attention and loyalty. Here’s why. Spoiler alert.
Black follows the story of a Grim Reaper who comes into the world of the mortals and finds himself falling in love with a woman who can foresee death. Their lives, even without the romantic part, are inextricably intertwined by circumstances that happened two decades before they met again.
Black debuts with a series of accidents and crimes that introduces the main characters and how they live their lives. Han Moo-gang (played by Song Seung-heon) is a new detective who, outrageously ironic but effectively funny, can’t handle the sight of dead bodies and pools of blood. Kang Ha-ram (played by Go Ara) is a woman who can see shadows of death and can foresee how and when people die.
Ha-ram, having been tagged as weird and cursed in her childhood because of her bizarre ability, decides to avoid seeing the shadows by wearing sunglasses. She then meets Detective Han who tells her that her ability is not something to be scared about. Ha-ram and Detective Han decide to work together to save lives. But just as when they were set to start their mission, Detective Han is shot dead.
This is where the Grim Reaper comes into the picture. Grim Reaper 444, one of the underworld’s most unsympathetic soul collector, takes over Detective Han’s body and makes him rise from his death bed.
With a new soul on his body, Detective Han becomes cold hearted, ill-tempered and gutsy – all that the original Detective Han was not before a bullet hit his head. Grim Reaper 444, of course, did not bear the detective’s memories. The fact that he survived what was believed to be a fatal shooting did not baffle everyone around him. The changes in his behaviour did.
Grim Reaper 444 partners with Ha-ram again for a mission only he knows. With Ha-ram’s ability, it would be easier for him to catch another Grim Reaper who ran away. It is hard for Grim Reapers to detect fellow soul collectors if they are inside a human’s body.
The story of the new Detective Han and Ha-ram slowly unfolds as the scenes progresses. And this is where things get messy. Very messy, in fact.
Writer Choi Ran and director Kim Hong-sun, who both have good reputations on screenwriting and directing, surely did a great job in making Black a thrilling series. They have effectively established how the collapse of a shopping mart 20 years ago still lingered on in the memories of those who were affected by the unjustified deaths of their loved ones.
But just as when you start believing that the deadly accident was the foundation of the main and supporting characters’ stories, the writer and the director would give you flashbacks you wouldn’t be able to comprehend at first.
Scenes telling off a history of child prostitution and a government official’s hunger for power would be inserted in between confrontations of the characters, probably with the pure intention of letting the viewers understand the pain and awkward gestures of the characters towards each other.
Stories about Grim Reapers always have a “stick with me” vibe all Korean drama fanatics can attest to. Remember Goblin? These personified forces of death in Korean myths have innate charisma that people tend to forget that they are, well, forces of death. Maybe because we often romanticise death and the theatrics that happen before and after it. Or maybe because Korean dramas utilize good-looking (okay, this is an understatement) actors to portray the role.
But Black took too much advantage of the Grim Reaper’s established fame. They made Detective Han/Grim Reaper 444 be the sole character to untangle all the mysteries behind the present-day injustices, political chaos, chaebol issues, gruesome crimes, sickening child prostitution and painful suicidal attempts. He was a detective, that’s given. But it seems to have been too much for one character to be the sole solution provider of all the problems in the world he was not originally part of. Until the story reveals that he actually is.
Detective Han deviates from his initial mission to find another Grim Reaper and delves instead into solving decades-old puzzles. He then discovers that he was Han Moo-gang’s half brother, Joon, who was presumed to have died from a hit-and-run accident. As things get clearer, at least in the Grim Reaper’s perspective, he learns that he was accidentally shot by the child Ha-ram and his heart was taken by Han Moo-gang’s mother.
But instead of giving justice for his still undiscovered death, Grim Reaper 444 decides to save Ha-ram from learning her own mistakes. The Grim Reaper returns to the underworld and faces the Death Squad for a capital punishment.
Ha-ram’s memories of Grim Reaper 444 are all then erased from her mind, letting her live normally. Her ability to foresee death is also revoked. The 18-episode series’ finale shows Ha-ram’s new life (or the life that she should have had without the interruptions of the shadows of death) and how she grows as a happy old woman who listens to a story of a grim reaper and a woman with a unique power. After Ha-ram’s death, her memories return and she is reunited with Grim Reaper 444. The lovers then journey into eternity.
So, what’s the essence of the prostitution, shopping mart collapse, power greed, and business snags in the story of Grim Reaper 444/Detective Han/Joon and Ha-ram? I am not quite sure, too.
The series could have been summed up to less than 10 episodes if the writer and director excluded the unnecessary and terribly confusing back stories. They probably had headaches themselves as they made the series, trying to weave everything into a masterpiece worthy of their actors’ undeniable talents. But it looked like more of a prolonged agony for everyone.
Surely, Black has the charm unique to Korean drama series. The actors are physically gorgeous; cinematography is superb; showcasing of wealth is well established; arguments between lovers are cute. And it is evident how the production team tried to be more than just that. The fact that they tackled mature and serious social and ethical issues that have been sidelined in other series is truly commendable. They were so brave to go beyond the common cutesy romantic K-drama. But Black just got lost along the way.
Black is still worth-watching despite its loopholes. So if you want to try it out this weekend, the series is available on Netflix.