Signal: A Review

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This is by far the best drama I have seen since the beginning of 2016, and this review is a bit overdue. It’s better than Cheese in the Trap. But this drama is not for the faint of heart. This is really a gritty crime drama, and the best drama Kim Eun Hee has ever written. I’m so proud of her I have to dab tears from my eyes. And yes, this review will have spoilers because it’s a bit unavoidable…

Let’s talk briefly about the plot shall we?

 

Lieutenant Park Hae Young (Lee Je Hoon) finds himself in possession of an old, inoperable walkie-talkie that links him to the past – 2000 to be exact, when the walkie-talkie originally belonged to Detective Lee Jae Han (Jo Jin Woong). With the walkie-talkie, he learns that he has been in contact with Jae Han through some weird loop, except our present Hae Young doesn’t realize he’s in such a loop. Their first case is about a kidnapping that happened to Hae Young’s classmate when he was a child. It was an unsolved case, and in the present day the statute of limitations was ending. Hae Young encounters Jae Han at the point where Jae Han is about to die, and in the process manages to help solve the kidnapping case.

However, before the real culprit can confess to the crime, the statute runs out and the culprit can go free. Until… they realize that they can arrest the culprit for murdering her boyfriend since that statute hasn’t run out yet.

 

Armed with this success, Hae Young joins a team with Detective Cha Soo Hyun (Kim Hye Soo), Kim Gye Chul (Kim Won Hae) and Jung Hun Gi (Lee Yoo Joon) to form a new cold case squad under the Superintendent’s “dog” Ahn Chi Soo (Jung Hae Kyun). The point of this squad is to hopefully make them a public laughingstock, where they can’t solve any other cold cases and thus can be dismissed quietly. Why dismissed? Because the Superintendent, Lee Bum Joo (Jung Hyun Sang), hates the fact that the police department and he were embarrassed for their failure in solving the kidnapping case.

 

Hae Young then discovers that he can connect to Jae Han again, this time meeting an even younger Jae Han back in the 90s. Together they begin solving major unsolved crimes, whether they manage to catch the criminal in the past or in the present. In some way they manage to change the past, but it also affects other things – if they save a life that was supposed to die, someone else dies instead. It makes Hae Young fearful of how much he can or should tell Jae Han, even noting that he can’t tell Jae Han that he will die.

Only Hae Young has a memory of a past with and without Jae Han’s help. Everyone else has their memories changed accordingly, especially with Soo Hyun, who once was a rookie under Jae Han and was in love with him. It isn’t until Hae Young discovers that his own brother’s suicide was actually a cover for murder, and that his brother was swept up in a corruption scandal, that Hye Soo learns Hae Young’s connection to Jae Han. It happens late in the game, but at the most crucial part because her involvement and interaction with the walkie talkie starts to affect the past in a different way. She was never supposed to talk to Jae Han in some looped version of the past, but now that she did, she manages to change Jae Han’s actions just enough that he lives long enough to die another day. When that “day” is… well, it’s up to you to watch and find out.

Thoughts on the writing

This is probably the most outstanding piece of writing to come from Kim Eun Hee. She has really specialized in the action/crime/thriller genre, and sometimes they’re great and sometimes they’re not. But I love how she approached this drama. There are probably a few plot holes in this, and not every question is answered; I wondered how Jae Han managed to notify and/or convince his fellow officers to come find him and save him from being killed by Ahn Chi Soo, or how he managed to survive an attack from twenty gangsters and only end up in a coma. But at the end of the day, I’m okay with having these questions left unanswered. It left me with the hope that there will be a season 2 (though I doubt it) and also with the chance to keep rethinking about the series and the interactions between Jae Han and Hae Young. Because as suggested in the end, Jae Han could have started up a conversation with someone else in the future and there were infinite loops and infinite interactions to be had.

Towards the end of the series it becomes clear that every conversation between Jae Han and Hae Young was carefully planned out by the writer. We meet these characters during one loop of the past and present weaving together, but there are suggestions that they have spoken to each other before, that they have failed in resolving the crimes, but they continue meeting each other in some way to try and fix the past. It’s not explained how they can talk to each other. It’s not magic, it’s not because of some weird weather or the Aurora Borealis (like in the film Frequency, of which this drama draws some similarities), it’s not time travel. But it doesn’t matter. What connects the two men is their pursuit of justice, and this drama really makes that relationship shine.

I love how Kim Eun Hee really plotted out every case, every interaction, every detail from the past to the present. Why do they talk at 11:23 every night? Because that’s the hour and minute Jae Han died. Why does Soo Hyun always fix the same watch? Because it’s the one that she broke while chasing a criminal, and Jae Han saved her but got shot in the process for her. And then he gifted her the fixed watch. There are so many little details – even during the cases that Jae Han and Hae Young work on. And you know the details before you find out the “why” behind those details, which makes me really appreciate how she set it up. She was giving you the payoff at the right time. It’s almost like in Harry Potter where you learn about the significance of certain actions and words later on in the series and when you go back to re-read it you think, “Oh yeah – this is really major!”

I also loved the risk Kim Eun Hee took in episode 6 where they killed off Soo Hyun. In any other drama, Soo Hyun would have come out of the blast badly injured. She would have been able to jump out just in time, but get knocked into a coma or something. But no – this drama straight up killed her off, giving Hae Young the motivation to really change the past but also forcing him to behave cautiously too. He now understands that a price must be paid for changing the past too much. It’s not that easy. On a writing level this drama took a great risk in killing off a main character to help drive the story and a character forward. It wasn’t meant to just shock – it really added something to the drama and made it even more amazing.

Thoughts on the acting

 

The cast overall did a splendid job in handling this drama, with a standing ovation for Jo Jin Woong. This man had to pretty much carry one storyline by himself as he was the main character you followed in the past timeline. He was charming, somewhat bumbling around women, and most of all focused. He was motivated in his pursuit of justice, and it hurt to watch him go through periods of self-doubt and guilt. Jo Jin Woong may not look like your typical leading man, but he sure won my heart.

On the flip side, I felt that Lee Je Hoon overcompensated in his acting. There were moments in the first couple episodes where he seemed to be trying too hard and had too much energy and intensity. He was really trying to convince you of his desperation when you needed no more convincing. I also felt there was something where he kept trying to convince the viewers that he was a profiler; it’s okay, we believe you’re one. You may look young but you’ve proven your worth. Thankfully his acting toned down after a few episodes and it wasn’t so hard to watch him.

Kim Hye Soo was also fantastic. I didn’t really know what to expect from her, but she really handled her character well being that she is the only female character who appears in both timelines. She really deftly handled the two sides of Soo Hyun: the naive side who was clearly in love with Jae Han in the past, and the jaded, hardened team leader of the present. On the other hand I was really disappointed with Jang Hyun Sang for portraying yet again a villainous character. This particular one did not have as much depth as I would have liked as he was just plain nasty and greedy. I don’t think we needed to understand him very much; greed is enough of a motivation for a man like him when there are more criminals in the world.

I could go into all the other characters but I think you get my drift – everyone was just solid in this drama.

Thoughts on the Directing

 
Okay really it’s just one thought – who thought it would be okay to film the past scenes in a different aspect ratio? It looked like it needed some letterboxing, which would have been fine but broadcasters did not play it with letterboxing. So what happened was the past scenes were all stretched vertically and everyone looked skinnier than normal. Stylistically it was clear that we were in the past timeline, but the sepia undertones also helped in showing that.

I would have liked it if the broadcasters showed the episodes the way it was intended to be, or if the director chose to do away with changing the aspect ratios. It can get a bit jarring in certain scenes where it’s so glaringly obvious.

But beyond that, I think the director did a fine job in navigating through the script. In worse hands it could have been very confusing. It goes hand in hand with the writing as well – I believe Kim Eun Hee provided a good foundation for the director to work with.

All in all, it’s really one of the best dramas of 2016. I hope no one forgets that fact since it aired so early in the year.

Verdict: 10/10 – I can’t think of a more worthy rating than that.

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One thought on “Signal: A Review

  1. Definitely 10/10 for this show; its writing and storyline are simply amazing. There was nothing predictable in this drama, plus the storyline was logical and didn’t have any loopholes. I liked how the plot progressed as we discover more of the truth. Every episode is intense as it can be, and the minutest details are well thought out by the writer. Even though it is a time travel drama, it all adds up in the end!

    Character development is evident in all the characters– Soo Hyun changes from a love-struck, naive girl to a more jaded and responsible team leader after her sunbae’s disappearance; While Jae Han silently looked after Hae Young in the shadows after discovering that Sun Woo’s death was a set up; And Hae Young took changing the past more seriously and began to treasure Soo Hyun more after her death in the blast. (However, he still is as hot headed and emotional as before.)

    The only thing that I was slightly annoyed with was the ending (or the last episode), which did not give enough closure to the story, and did no justice to Hae Young’s death(??) in the previous episode!! I liked the fact that Jae Han survived was an important node to change the future, so much so that they all live very different lives. (really happy that Jae Han’s parents are alive and his family is intact, but sad at the same time that his former colleagues don’t remember him; and happy that Soo Hyun and Jae Han finally managed to go on a date!) But how Hae Young and Soo Hyun ran around searching for 15-year-missing Jae Han was a bit annoying as it brought us back to the 1st episode. So all in all, the story ends by going full circle and poses us with the unanswered question of WHERE IS THE 15-YEAR-MISSING JAE HAN once again.
    But still, it has answered most of our questions, and gives us hope that Jae Han is alive. So this cliffhanger isn’t too bad after all; it closes the previous story and opens new possibilities.

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