I always try to live my principles instead of just bleating about them. And while hypocrisy isn’t the great sin of our age that our betters in mass media proclaim, it’s silly to proffer advice without taking that same advice yourself. If the dishes are dirty, you clean them. If there are people in need, you help them. And if you think Hollywood is a cesspit of degeneracy, pedophilia, horrible political activism, sexual assault, and institutionalized prostitution, you stop funding it. So I’ve eschewed all Hollywood-produced media made after 2000. I’ve opted out. It’s a lot easier to do than you might think.
It does leave a gap in my entertainment time, however; I’m a storyteller, and I find it valuable to not just read fiction, but watch it on the screen. And, let’s face it: who doesn’t like movies and TV?
So, like I’ve advised ad nauseam in this space, I’ve gone indie. And foreign. There’s a lot of outside-the-box material being produced away from the Hollywood machine; programs that are different not just to be different, but because the writers and directors aren’t bound by a formula that you can see coming before the starting titles flash across the screen. Not only that, but the focus on plot over diversity/ideological box-checking is refreshing.
Foreign television programs, particularly ones made by non-Western countries, provide valuable insight into storytelling that you won’t get through Hollywood. The differences make you look at plot and the unraveling of complexities in different ways. Despite our cultural differences, all human beings like a good story, and if something’s popular across the ocean, it’s probably going to strike a chord here in the States.
One example is the South Korean legal drama Stranger, available on Netflix. Starring Seung-woo Cho as prosecutor protagonist Si-Mok and Doona Bae as police detective Yeo-Jin, it’s a lengthy, complex thriller that handles several themes well, with characters that are entirely likable. Even the antagonists. The setup is that as a child, Si-Mok suffered from an ailment that gave him frequent sensory overload; after brain surgery, he was better able to function, but his ability to experience emotion was significantly lessened. What differentiates him from Star Trek’s Mr. Spock is that there’s no suppression of natural human reactions on Si-Mok’s part, nor are there slips into occasional emotionalism; he’s simply a man with a handicap. It’s the other characters’ reaction to his lack of affect that’s a sticking point in his day to day life. Seung-woo Cho plays this role with admirable subtlety, turning the character into a real person instead of a gimmick.
Yeo-Jin plays against Si-Mok’s straight man with required humor, but she doesn’t come off as comic relief. Once she gets used to him, her attempts at drawing him out of a shell from which he’s physically unable to leave become poignant; she doesn’t know that his coldness is an immutable characteristic. What’s remarkable about their chemistry is that it doesn’t move into romance or even longing. It simply isn’t an issue, despite that both characters are young, attractive, and single. They achieve a kind of friendship that Yeo-Jin insists upon at first, but becomes necessary to Si-Mok as the show progresses. How Doona Bae makes the character warm and funny without being childish and cute is a feat most actresses need to learn from.
The plot is complex without being complicated, involving murder, graft, and government corruption that reaches to the highest levels. Much of the action moves from character to character, giving the viewer a full picture of the story. The antagonists’ motivations are understandable despite their criminality; they’re real people making sometimes terrible choices in a dirty world.
There are some clumsy parts; the Dune-style insight into some characters’ thoughts gets to be a little over the top, and there’s so much detail that certain plot elements can get lost if you’re not paying very close attention to everything. This, however, seems more a function of South Korean television than an issue peculiar to this show, as I’ve noticed it in other K-dramas.
The acting is superb, and it’s fascinating to get a glimpse of how South Koreans portray themselves and their country on television. I suspect life in Korean cities isn’t all soju tents and Hyundai sports cars. Nevertheless, if you want to see a different culture’s form of storytelling with a fascinating narrative, you need to take a look at Stranger.