I like things to be tight. Joseph Simonet, a tremendously skilled, thoughtful martial artist with a terrific sense of humor, said in one of his instructional videos, “In martial arts, like in everything else, tighter is better.” Those of us who know Joseph know what he meant by that. It’s the same thing writing fiction: you want to cut out extraneous words and have your characters move the plot forward through their actions. Nothing wasted. That’s tightness.
As great as a tightly-written story can be, too much tightness can choke the reader. This is the case with the Korean urban fantasy drama Black, available through Netflix. Compelling, well-produced, and hopelessly over-complicated, everything in every episode is connected to something else, turning it into the television version of a Klein bottle with about seventy-seven openings.
Describing the story is simple, but the plot gets so convoluted that it defies explanation. It’s about a young woman with the ability to see who’s about to die, and, if she gets close enough, how. She meets a detective who is murdered, gets possessed by a Grim Reaper (a Grim Reaper is a ghostly being who escorts newly-disembodied souls to the afterlife), and spends the rest of the 18-episode run trying to figure out who killed him and why.
Ara Go plays the death-seeing young woman Ha-ram with workmanlike competence. Physically she fits the role well, but invests little into her performance. The stand-out is Seung-heon Song as Black/Joon/the Grim Reaper 444: he starts with appropriate amorality and arrogance, and over time develops enough humanity to turn him into a sympathetic, understandable character. Both are likable, as are the dozens of side characters who attain admirable depth; you care about what happens to all of them. After over twenty hours of the show, you have no choice, really.
Black‘s complexity forces you to pay attention to everything; its attention to detail leaves you with no room to breathe. This minor figure turns out to be a major figure who is tragically killed off just when he gets interesting, but you see what he was up to in flashbacks involving other minor characters, who end up becoming much more important characters later on because of things they did in other flashbacks. With so many people running around, the names can get very confusing; this is a South Korean show, after all, and names like Man-shik and Woo-sik don’t stick in the American memory the way Frank and George might. Can’t be helped.
During the show, the character Black is occasionally helped by a pair of Grim Reaper colleagues whom nobody else can see. They always steal the show, mixing gravity, pathos, and humor in entertaining ways.
In tone, Black is all over the place, which can be jarring, even off-putting. Slapstick humor sits cheek by jowl with brutal violence, and at times you’re not sure if you should laugh or not. Certain scenes are extremely hard to watch: stuff that wouldn’t get past American censors. It isn’t the violence, but who the violence is occasionally performed upon that can be disturbing. As is typical for the K-dramas I’ve watched, familiar themes of suicide, familial relationships, and government corruption figure prominently throughout. Children in Black are abused, abandoned, adopted, and even murdered; even though it’s clear that death is not the end of existence, it’s still tragic and to be avoided. The attempts at romance between characters fell flatter than a lead dirigible. There’s chaste and discreet, and there’s distant and awkward. Black fell into the latter category.
The last episode is extremely bad. Particularly the last ten minutes. People familiar with the production say that Black was intended to be a 20-episode show, but it had to be cut to 18, and the original writer couldn’t/didn’t do the final wrap-up. Everything got hurried. With so many moving parts, several issues were left unaddressed by the closing titles. I can only judge the output, not the intentions. So the ending was the kind of failure that leaves you writing the finale in your head later on and pretending that’s what happened.
I enjoyed watching Black, but I don’t know if I can recommend it. Binge-watchers who want to turn their brains on instead of off will dig it and overlook the final episode’s shortcomings. If you decide to give it a try, just know that the slapstick humor does start to taper off in the early episodes, and it gets quite dark later on.