Sometimes confronting our demons is the only way to move forward.
South Korea has had a complicated modern history that belies the current position it enjoys as a global cultural powerhouse. While sun-dappled K-pop videos and tales of wistful romance are undoubtedly central to its cultural appeal, equally important have been the narratives in which storytellers grapple with their country’s painful history.
Films such as the drama A Taxi Driver , set amid the Gwangju Massacre of protesters against military rule in 1980, and the political protest drama 1987: When the Day Comes invited a formative generation to come to terms with their collective trauma.
But the latest sensation to grip the country, D.P., hits home with a story that spans the past and present, as it acknowledges that yesterday’s problems can still be today’s.
Netflix’s latest Korean original production is a youth-centric tale set in an army barracks and starring Jung Hae-in (Something in the Rain ) and Koo Kyo-hwan (Peninsula ).
The series was adapted from a hit webtoon of the same name by its original writer, Kim Bo-tong, and series director Han Jun-hee, who previously made the female-centred gang saga Coin Locker Girl and the action thriller Hit-and-Run Squad .
Young men in South Korea complete 21 months of mandatory military service and, while everyone’s experience is different, the Korean army is notorious for hazing and rigid hierarchical structures which form lifelong, hard-to-break habits.
Bullying is common and can be so extreme that young recruits are traumatised for life. There have been many cases of soldiers dying during acts of hazing, while others have taken their own lives. Others still have cracked under the pressure and gone on murderous rampages that shocked the nation.
D.P. follows Ahn Jun-ho (Jung Hae-in), a young pizza delivery man who begins his military service and, after a gruelling five-week basic training camp, is assigned to the military police. Thrown into a barracks with a mix of new and senior recruits, he experiences hazing first-hand.
Jun-ho proves very fortunate when a vacancy in the D.P. unit needs to be filled. He is interviewed by Park Beom-gu (Kim Sung-kyun) and by chance is able to impress him and land the position.
D.P. stands for Deserter Pursuit and Jun-ho’s job is simple. He is paired with a senior recruit and together they must catch deserters. This means they can spend time outside the camp and, as a result, Jun-ho largely avoids becoming a target within the barracks.
He is first paired with Park Sung-woo (Go Kyung-pyo), but when assigned to catch a deserter in Gangwon province things go horribly wrong. Sung-woo is dismissed but Jun-ho gets a second chance when he’s paired with the veteran D.P. member Han Ho-yeol (Koo Kyo-hwan), who has just been discharged from military hospital.
The gregarious Ho-yeol teaches Jun-ho the ropes and together they chase various deserters across the country. Meanwhile, Beom-gu locks horns with the ambitious Captain Im Ji-seop (Son Seok-koo), who has just been assigned to the camp.
The formative experience of military hazing will be familiar to many South Korean viewers, but D.P. stands out among its peers as a story that captures the voice of a new generation.
The director, who is still in his mid-30s, has said his intention was to channel the feelings of Korea’s disenfranchised twenty-somethings. He succeeds in doing so, crafting a tale that encapsulates much of the anger and frustration of today’s male youth, yet never tips over into an apologia.
Like other Netflix Korean originals, D.P. has strong production values, which here bring the military vividly to life. The cinematography is frequently arresting, evoking a nostalgic sensation through the use of striking hazy filters. It’s a clever choice that softens the blow of the show’s hard-hitting setting and themes, and positions the story as a dark, but necessary trip down memory lane.
Each episode focuses on specific deserters, and while the mileage varies with these individual stories, the overall story of the dynamics within the army barracks is frequently captivating. Central to the show’s success are Jung and Koo, who are terrific as Jun-ho and Ho-yeol, sharing electric chemistry and acting as perfect foils to one another.
Yet while the show occasionally meanders in its first four episodes, it soars in its final two, in which all the tensions within the camp converge. Machismo rages within several different factions and, as they are all forced into the same confined space, an explosive and gripping finale is inevitable.
D.P. is a story about Korean men. It understands them, it empathises with them, and though it shakes an accusatory finger at the society that made them what they are, it also refuses to let them off the hook. Complex and cathartic, the show succeeds precisely because it is the voice of a new generation.
D.P. is streaming on Netflix.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.