One Ordinary Day review: Kim Soo-hyun stars in Korean court and prison drama that is easily one of the year’s tightest shows

Kim Soo-hyun in a still from One Ordinary Day.
PHOTO: Viu

This article contains spoilers.

4/5 stars

One Ordinary Day, the Korean adaptation of British legal drama series Criminal Justice (which HBO remade in 2016 in the critically acclaimed The Night Of), will go down as one of the tightest K-dramas in what has been a year packed with stand-outs.

With only eight episodes, this Kim Soo-hyun-led drama — which is serving as the launch series of fledgling local service Coupang Play — falls in line with other big-budget streaming offerings from Apple TV+ and Netflix this year, such as Dr. Brain and Squid Game, all of which fall in the range of six to nine episodes.

Without any action set pieces, One Ordinary Day didn't quite hit the sensory highs of some of those other series.

Unlike them, though, it was an evenly paced production full of quiet triumphs and crushing setbacks, throbbing its way to a satisfying whole. Much like Kim's washboard abs, which get an extended cameo during his character Hyun-soo's prison intake scene, there was no flab on this lean machine.

Kim Hyun-soo is an ordinary university student who steals his dad's taxi one night to go to a party. On the way, he accidentally gets an attractive fare, but rather than force her out, he embarks on a nightlong odyssey fuelled by booze, drugs and sex with her.

The best night of his life soon turns into the worst morning when he wakes up with a spotty memory and the girl's lifeless corpse upstairs. In a panic, he flees the scene but is soon picked up and accused of her murder.

Hyun-soo attracts the attention of third-rate lawyer Shin Joong-chan (Cha Seung-won), who takes on his case despite a mountain of damning evidence — but Hyun-soo's nightmare has only just begun.

Refused bail as he awaits trial, he is sent to prison, where he must share space with people only too happy to terrorise their new cellmate.

The case becomes national news and draws the attention of the top Bumhan Law Firm, which offers to take on Hyun-soo's case pro bono. Joong-chan is equanimous in the face of rejection, but his instincts prompt him to continue meddling in the investigation regardless.

Kim Soo-hyun in a still from One Ordinary Day. PHOTO: Viu

When Hyun-soo is manipulated during a lie-detector test by detective Park Sang-beom (Kim Hong-pa) and prosecutor Ahn Tae-hee (Kim Shin-rok), with only Bumhan's out-of-her-element junior lawyer Seo Soo-jin (Lee Seol) by his side, Joong-chan jumps to the rescue in a thrilling scene.

With another unsolicited assist from Joon-chan, Bumhan manages to score a manslaughter plea bargain for Hyun-soo, but in court he refuses the deal and maintains his innocence.

The senior partner at Bumhan who took on the case washes her hands of the affair and Joong-chan is able to step back in a joint defence team with Soo-jin.

Given the media attention, the strong prosecution case and his ordeals in prison, Hyun-soo begins to lose hope, which leads to a climactic scene in episode six when he takes the stand, crumbles under Tae-hee's questioning and professes that he is no longer sure whether he committed the crime or not.

Following several setbacks and under the watchful eye of the stoic prison kingpin Do Ji-tae (Kim Sung-kyu), Hyun-soo begins to harden in jail.

He does this to survive but, as the trial wears on, his demeanour changes, which doesn't do him any favours. His shirts become darker, he loses his youthful locks and he even yawns in court.

Whether Soo-hyun is innocent or not, the system has changed him - much like how a minor juvenile offender becomes a prison crime lord after years of incarceration in the masterful French film A Prophet.

Cha Seung-won in a still from One Ordinary Day. Photo: Viu

The prison scenes — full of tough-as-nails cons, ever-present plumes of smoke and endless macho posturing — don't always gel with the rest of the show.

Yet Kim Sung-kyu, from Kingdom and The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, manages to keep these sequences grounded with his intense and magnetic performance as Ji-tae.

Beyond Kim, One Ordinary Day is full of scene-stealing performances, from the stolid Kim Hong-pa as the grizzled detective on the cusp of retirement to a fiery Kim Shin-rok — who is having a great year after Beyond Evil and Hellbound — as the relentless prosecutor.

Kim Shin-rok in a still from One Ordinary Day. PHOTO: Viu

Veteran star Cha Seung-woo is also a delight to watch with a lived-in and highly idiosyncratic performance as the schlubby yet genial Joong-chan, though it occasionally threatens to be a little too mannered.

The star of the show is of course Kim Soo-hyun, who delivers one of his best performances. It's a solid and convincing turn from the global superstar but one that tends to be overshadowed by his more impressive co-stars.

Besides a handful of localised details, One Ordinary Day seldom deviates from the excellent template it is based on and while it can't reach the superlative highs of The Night Of, it is a more than worthwhile adaptation that does credit to everyone involved.

One Ordinary Day is streaming on Viu.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.