This article contains spoilers.
There’s been no shortage of lovebirds, period royalty and upper crust elites in Korean drama series this year, but the breakout character has undoubtedly been the vigilante. From Vincenzo to Taxi Driver and now The Devil Judge , dashing, angst-ridden men have cut a swathe through all manner of colourful villains, meting out retribution on behalf of their victims when the law can’t, or won’t, lift a finger.
Early on in The Devil Judge , the show presented a brief question mark as to whether Kang Yo-han (Ji Sung) was friend or foe, but as junior bench member Kim Ga-on (Jin Young) steadily got closer to him, his eccentric behaviour was unmasked as the actions of a vigilante with a deep-seated hatred for the corrupt powers-that-be.
While Kang’s motives are ultimately no great mystery, Kim’s trajectory has been less predictable. He was initially Kang’s staunchly by-the-book opponent, but he’s steadily warmed to his cynical colleague. Yet even though he sympathises with Kang, he’s still left with a choice – oppose him or follow him into vigilantism.
Kim seems genuinely torn between these two options, but then Kang helps him track down the con man responsible for the death of his parents; after installing a patsy in his place in prison, he is living a happy life in the countryside with his family. At first he appears reformed, but when Kang sets his hidden cash and the building housing his family alight, the con man makes a choice that shows his true colours.
This is the final straw that pushes Kim into Kang’s camp, hook, line and sinker.
While Kang has steadily drawn Kim in, he has found a foe in Jung Sun-a (Kim Min-jung), the Social Responsibility Foundation secretary who has been secretly pulling the strings behind the scenes. It’s revealed that, as a girl, she was a maid in Kang’s mansion, which gives her a new dimension as Kang’s foil.
She also rose from nothing while despising the corrupt elite, but rather than make them pay for their crimes, she seeks to use them for her benefit. She achieves her revenge by ascending to a station above them, which she does by killing Chairman Seo (Jung In-gyeom) of the Social Responsibility Foundation and taking his place.
Yet Jung Sun-a’s rise is no mere power shift, as the events that lead to it prompt an ideological metamorphosis. To tighten his shaky hold on the reins of power, South Korean President Heo Joong-se (Baek Hyun-jin) becomes a full-on totalitarian strongman, stoking racial and social prejudice to distract the masses.
These character arcs and political shifts have added new dimensions to the show, but the highlights of The Devil Judge remain its heightened and cathartic Live Court TV cases, which sadly have been few and far between in the show’s midseason stretch.
Episode five gave us a deliciously chaotic case involving a smarmy celebrity who finds himself caught in a hot button #MeToo scandal. While his guilty verdict doesn’t take a great deal of imagination or engineering, his sentencing is another matter. Kang must weigh an unusual question as the public thirsts for blood – whether to sanction a public castration.
The case in episode 10 involving a YouTuber from the far-right Jukchang Group, which helps stoke President Heo’s prejudices, is much less explosive, but the way Kang resolves it produces a compelling piece of political theatre. Rather than villainise the accused and give him a proper sentence, he instead infantilises him and turns his rabid base against him.
When he is freed on his own recognisance, the outside world proves to be much worse than a prison cell.
Outside the courtroom, there are far fewer fireworks, but the show’s sexy mise-en-scène makes even its slower moments a pleasure to watch. The suits and sets are seductive, and some of the imagery is memorable. A notable example is when Kang has a nightmare in which he crouches bare-chested on his bed in a room engulfed with flames while Kim gazes at him from the other side.
Another visually striking element of the show is Jung, who slinks around with a deeply arched figure in eye-catching dresses. Kim Min-jung’s performance is strangely hypnotic, but there’s occasionally a disconnect between her showiness and her actions, to the point where it’s hard to tell if she has a clear grasp of her character.
Following a strong start, the middle stretch of The Devil Judge has been full of ups and downs as the story meanders between fun moments and finger-twiddling lulls. However, with the end game approaching, there’s time yet for the show to sharpen its focus and end on a high.
The Devil Judge is streaming on Viu.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.