K-dramas often come armed with big budgets these days but, for the most part, there’s still a fairly clear distinction in production quality between Korean film and TV. Every so often, however, something comes around that blurs those boundaries magnificently.
Despite having a smaller budget than most of the primetime K-dramas launched in February, Beyond Evil, a slippery and dread-fuelled new serial killer drama from JTBC, is the most cinematic K-drama we’ve seen so far this year.
Shin Ha-kyun plays Lee Dong-sik, a washed-up detective now working as a substation cop in his hometown of Manyang, a small rural community. He mostly completes his work without any hassle, but every so often he gets a mad glint in his eye and goes a little off the rails.
Last seen as a lead in Hotel Del Luna, Yeo Jin-goo plays Han Joo-won, a young hotshot detective who is also the son of a ranking captain that is widely expected to be the next chief of the National Police Agency. He is transferred to the Manyang substation, much to the surprise of his new colleagues, given his credentials. But he has an ulterior motive – he’s working on a covert case with the Foreign Affairs office.
Joo-won is partnered with Dong-sik, and not long after his arrival they search for a local elderly man with dementia wandering around a field. But the man is not all they find; they also come across a corpse protruding through the soil.
The murder has echoes of crimes committed 20 years ago, when Dong-sik was a young layabout in the village. At that time a young woman was killed and his over-achieving pianist sister also disappeared, leaving behind only her 10 fingertips for her distressed mother to find one morning. Dong-sik was suspected at the time but nothing came of the investigation.
Mirroring the events from the past, another local girl, the daughter of the local supermarket owner, who looks after Dong-sik’s mother in hospital, soon disappears. What look to be her fingertips are found in the morning by Dong-sik and Joo-won.
Beyond Evil clearly calls to mind Bong Joon-ho ’s enormously influential crime classic Memories of Murder with its countryside serial killer investigation, the team-up between frazzled local cop and hotshot city detective, reed field murder sites, and images of women disappearing on dark country roads.
However, the show also leans heavily into other Korean cinematic influences. The creepy country vibe and descent into madness recall Na Hong-jin’s thunderous horror The Wailing , while the waltz tracks that pervade some of the most engaging scenes are reminiscent of the work of director Park Chan-wook, notably Oldboy.
Shin’s presence as a lead has a similar effect, as he was the star of Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, while his basement lair here reminds us of the Gangwon Province basement in which his character tortured people in Jang Joon-hwan’s Save the Green Planet.
But enough of these comparisons to Korean genre classics. Does Beyond Evil hold its own as a chilling tale of murder or is it merely an ode to the cinema greats that came before it?
The show starts off slow, affording us plenty of time to get a feel for the village and meet its many characters. These include the grizzled yet genial substation Chief Nam (Cheon Woo-jin), the butcher shop owner Yoo Yae-ji (Choi Sung-eun) and the various officers that populate the local Munju Police Station, a bigger bureau that takes over the murder investigation.
But most of all we spend a lot of time with Dong-sik and Joo-won. Shin is in his element playing Dong-sik, a gruff and wily character who betrays a warm heart, but can appear unhinged at unusual moments, even turning into a grimacing maniac.
At first glance, Yeo, as the well-dressed and Mustang-driving Joo-won, seems to be playing the cocky handsome hotshot. He has money to burn and hefty daddy issues, but there’s also something niggling away at him under the surface. He is always on edge and quick to anger, which means he’s prone to rash judgements, but something we haven’t been let in on yet seems to be driving him.
The big mystery of Beyond Evil will of course be: Who killed these people and why? Are we dealing with the same killer for the past and present crimes, or could there be two murderers? Red herrings are par for the course in these narratives, but so far, Beyond Evil really wants us to suspect that Dong-sik is the killer.
He was a suspect in the past and becomes one again in the present. Beyond that, in the four episodes aired to date, the title of the show always appears on his darkly lit face. Given that the Korean title of the series is “Monster”, this is more than a little suggestive.
It takes a little time to get going, but after a few episodes Beyond Evil has turned into a moody slow burn that steadily gets under your skin with its strong imagery and ghoulish twists. The next six weeks should be very interesting.
Beyond Evil is streaming on Viu.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.