One of the best, most iconic Korean drama came to an end last week, but was unavailable with English subtitles for almost another week. Hence my review is exceptionally late. Set in a Foucault-inspired Panopticon, that is Seobu penitentiary, the story is a unique one, given such a depressing place as a constant set for the drama. Since the setting was so intense, I believe narrating the story would be a better idea.
The story opens to show us a renowned baseball player, Kim Je Hyuk (Park Hae Soo) casually visiting his sister’s apartment. While climbing the stairs, he hears a shout from his sister, who is being sexually assaulted. Upon seeing the man, he chases him across the neighbourhood and while in a physical brawl, he ends up hitting the assailant with a glass trophy that leaves him brain dead. This leads to Je Hyuk’s trial, who is convicted for attempted murder. Later, when the actual criminal passes away, Je Hyuk is forced to stay in prison one entire year. Park Hae Soo’s acting was absolutely phenomenal and he really brought his character to life by the way his face expressed him
In the prison, he runs into a long lost friend who he used to train with as a teenager. This friend is Lee Jun Ho (Jung Kyung Ho), who works as a Corrections Officer at the facility. The fact that they meet again as a criminal and his jailer makes for some fascinating dynamic. I must commend Jung Kyung Ho as an actor, here. This was my first drama of his and I was blown away. Not only is he a handsome face but his dialogue delivery was incredible and I loved how nuanced his character was. Furthermore, he had some amazing chemistry with Park Hae Soo and both played best friends to the tee.
Other than the two main characters. There were far too many supporting characters that individually left great marks on the storytelling going on in the drama. Krystal as Kim Ji Ho truly shined. Her role as Je Hyuk’s on and off girlfriend was delivered so realistically. Her every nuance was so well defined and she played her smallest quirks incredibly well, especially the constant nail biting when in stress. Her flighty nature in terms of their relationship was acted with great ease. Same goes for Lim Hwa Young as Kim Je Hee, Je Hyuk’s younger age. Last I saw her was as the absolutely annoying Oh Gwang Sook in Chief Kim. The way her character took such a massive turn in this drama makes me a witness to how talented she is as an actress and I cannot wait to see more of her.
Following the only two women in the story, were lots and lots of prisoners in the penitentiary. First off, here’s a shout out to Kang Seung Yoon as Lee Joo Hyung. Since each inmate had a nickname earned from fellow inmates, Joo Hyung was called Jang Baljang, inspired by Jean Valjean. Watching him act was quite exciting since it’s my first time seeing him like this, and even though he was only in the show for a few episodes, they were all thrilling to watch. Another important character was Choi Moo Sung’s Kim Min Chul, whom Joo Hyung called ‘father’. Again, the flip from the diabolical Yoon Seung Ro in Lookout to a murderer honestly serving his 22nd year in prison was delightful. Especially because he was the one character who genuinely reflected and corrected himself. Park Ho San as Kang Chul Doo, or KAIST was another great character, particularly memorable for his impaired speech that quite often made for comic fodder at the hands of the resident comedian, I will mention next. Lee Kyu Hyung, who played Yoo Han Yang, or Fool, was convicted on account of drug abuse. The phases he experienced while suffering from withdrawal symptoms made for great hilarity, as he would make it a point to make fun of the way KAIST spoke. This resulted in regular beatings from the other one, even though they were never incredibly violent. Another person he regularly got into fights with was the wrongfully convicted murderer, Captain Yoo Jung Woo played by Jung Hae In. Both made a great Punch and Judy team where the Captain was always the one trying to act rational and mature in front of the loony wreck that was Han Yang. One character that I have not mentioned here is Jung Min Sung as Go Bak Sa, another one wrongfully accused for financial corruption by his employers. The fact that he obeyed and respected all rules of this institution he was caged up in was thoroughly impressive. One could see how his fatherly and calming influence was a huge reason for Min Chul to become a more reformed man. Lastly, I must mention, Jung Woong In as Assistant Chief Paeng Se Yoon, who embodied the father figure, while being on the other side of the law. The way he openly cursed the inmates, while internally empathizing and silently rooting for all of them was a beautiful juxtaposition.
Your captor or jailer may not be as bad a man as you think he is. He may be looking out for you. Similarly the inmates may not blindly be placed in the category of ‘bad people’, since there are so many other things that matter; love for family, loyalty, respect for human life, etc. I loved how each character had a cross to bear, had guilt and regrets, and yet they hoped for the day they could step out into the real world again. Even the correction officers were shown as anything but saints, as all of them fought their inner battles every single day. Furthermore, the way such a dark, and utterly lonely setting was being cut by humour made for a good comfort in an incredibly difficult story. It was difficult to watch and sometimes emotionally harrowing. It was the quirks of individual characters that really kept this drama going. Other than that, I was definitely taken up by how Je Hyuk acted as mentor and guide for so many of the inmates suffering from an existential crisis. His advice to every single one of them was heartfelt and empathetic. Hearing him talk about his struggles and his sacrifices throughout his life made me question so many things about my own life. Kim Je Hyuk may have been a fictional character but he was an absolute inspiration to watch. Wise Prison Life was an inspiration.