K-drama The Devil Judge: Slick and slimy dystopian courtroom drama is in session

Ji Sung (centre) in a scene from courtroom K-drama The Devil Judge.
PHOTO: Viu

The worlds of jurisprudence and high society collide in the deliciously overblown The Devil Judge , a new Korean drama that takes place in an alternate reality where the downtrodden are ruled over by a decadent and dastardly elite.

Not seen since Doctor John two years ago, Ji Sung returns to screens, cutting a fine figure with his chiselled features and courtroom robes in the title role. He plays Kang Yo-han, a dashing judge who has been chosen as the head jurist of a live courtroom show that will nationally televise all its high-profile tribunals.

The programme is backed by a coterie of slimy aristocrats, ranging from fat-cat bureaucrats like the cackling and oratory-prone President Heo Joong-se (Baek Hyun-jin) and the self-serving Justice Minister Cha Kyung-hee (Jang Young-nam), to members of the Social Responsibility Foundation such as the creepy Chairman Seo Jung-hak (Jung In-gyeom) and the mysterious and oleaginous lobbyist Jung Sun-ah (Kim Min-jung).

The show kicks off in a near-future dystopia after a devastating pandemic has swept through the land, a crisis that led to civil unrest and eventually the so-called “Gwanghwamun Riots”. After suppressing these protests, the government now leads the poverty-riddled society through empty promises and political theatre.

In cahoots with the beloved but clearly very shady Social Responsibility Foundation, the government seeks to offer an opium of the masses through their live court show. A handsome social media star, Yo-han, is the ideal choice to lead the bench and his penchant for theatre delivers strong ratings, but can this unpredictable judge be controlled by the powers that be?

The show takes place in a flashy courtroom adorned with jumbo screens that are blazoned with a viewer-voted guilt-o-meter that swerves up and down depending on the turns that take place on the floor.

Though courtroom shows do exist, such as the long-running Judge Judy in America, this fictional show shares more in common with the gladiatorial combats of Ancient Rome, designed to placate the plebeians of the time. If a semblance of true justice is served on TV, then maybe the masses will forgot the manifold injustices that plague their daily lives.

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But Yo-han has an adversary on the bench. He is flanked by a pair of junior judges, the vain Oh Jin-joo (Kim Jae-kyung) and the idealistic Kim Ga-on (Park Jin-young).

Ga-on, an orphan who beat the odds through hard work to reach his station, is clearly very suspicious of Yo-han. Fanning his suspicions is his former professor Min Jung-ho (Ahn Nae-sang), who convinces him to spy on Yo-han.

Ga-on doesn’t know what to make of Yo-han at first, and his actions make it even harder for him to fathom what’s really going on beneath his cool exterior. One day a disgruntled man drives an empty school bus toward the court and Ga-on dashes onto the tarmac to shield a young girl. The bus careers out of the way and crashes, but only after Yo-han himself grabs an assault rifle from a soldier and fires at it.

Park Jin-young in a still from The Devil Judge.
PHOTO: Viu

During their first case, concerning a group of sick villagers suing the CEO of a company they claim knowingly polluted their water supply, Ga-on tries to grill an expert positing that the water wasn’t dangerous.

Yo-han reprimands Ga-on and lets the expert sit down, having some water brought to him. He then asks, as the man puts his lips to the bottle, if it wasn’t accidentally mixed with the contaminated sample, prompting the man to spit it out.

Though humiliated by Yo-han live on television, Ga-on is further confused by the judge’s sneaky tactics, which prove far more effective in coaxing public outrage than his straightforward interrogation.

The character of Yo-han belongs to a breed of skilled and suave manipulators that have emerged in recent K-dramas that are fun to watch and whose moral ambiguity we are expected to forgive, since their targets generally deserve to be punished. The Song Joong-ki vehicle Vincenzo comes to mind as one of the latest examples.

Kim Min-jung in a scene from The Devil Judge.
PHOTO: Viu

But what is Yo-han’s true intention here? Given his “devil judge” nickname and the way he wantonly breaks the law while also bringing about justice, the show wants us to suspect his motives, particularly as we are seeing him through the young and innocent eyes of Ga-on.

Even if his methods are questionable and his manner typically aloof, there’s little doubt that deep down Yo-han has good intentions. However, whatever his grand scheme turns out to be will go a long way toward determining where he falls on the morality spectrum and likely the success of the show in general.

Given his position of power and the adoring public he creates through his skilful manipulation of the media, not to mention his shaky alliances with the big wigs who put him there, there’s every chance he’ll use his court as a pulpit to galvanise the masses into revolution. The public reaction to one of the surprisingly medieval sentences he lays down suggests as much.

Ji takes the lead role in The Devil Judge.
PHOTO: Viu

With style to burn and an appealing cast of slick miscreants, The Devil Judge is off to a good start.

The Devil Judge is streaming on Viu.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.