One Saturday evening, while watching a live Premier League football match, which was being broadcast on a Cambodian television network, I switched to the KBS channel during the half-time interval. On it, I discovered a Korean TV drama with English subtitles called “Justice”. After ten minutes I was hooked and did not return to the football match. The courts and the media in Cambodia are not independent, so it was interesting to see how a Korean drama deals with corruption of a similar type in a much more democratic and free society.
One recent example of this media-control in Cambodia was in a headline tweeted by The Phnom Penh Post recently. The words used were “Three Supreme Court-dissolved CNRP activists have been placed in pre-trial detention…” which clearly imply that these men are criminals. The Phnom Penh Post knows fully that the Supreme Court is not independent and has been used by the Government to suppress the legitimate legal opposition party. Yet the newspaper simply chooses to ignore this truth and portray innocent men as criminals. So much for truth in the press.
So the Korean drama seems exceptional in many ways. It tells the story of a disillusioned and corrupt lawyer, Lee Tae-kyeong, who works for a rich owner of a building company, Song Woo-yong. The violent death of his younger brother seven years previously pushed Tae-kyeong into the company of Woo-yong who deliberately sets out to corrupt his “soul”. This friendship turns into bitter animosity. Meanwhile Tae-kyeong’s former girlfriend, Seo Yeun-ah, has become an incorruptible prosecutor secretly working to solve “cold” murder cases of vulnerable young women. In a plot to help his powerful business partner, the psychopathic Tak Soo-hoo, of Jung-im Electronics, Woo-yong asks Tae-kyeong to defend the innocent victims of methanol poisoning at the Jung-im factories with a view to abandoning them all later.
Woo-yong’s network includes powerful judges, media owners and politicians for whom he provides both bribes and high-class call girls. His power is thus immense. The opulence of the wealth of the rich elite is stunning but their moral degradation is even more stunning. Woo-yong is clever at using lust, greed and the desire for “status” as bait to trap the powerful into doing his bidding. He underlines the consequences of personal choice many times.
However despite the intricacies of this Korean plot, the décor in which the significant conversations take place are large rectangular rooms reminiscent of Greek architecture. While the drama is obviously about Korean society, its import is universal. The question of the corruption of the human soul by passions and by greed is discussed explicitly in the early stages of the drama. At first the thirst for justice seems more like a thirst for revenge for injured family members. Gradually the theme of true justice emerges largely due the fearless and honest Seo Yeun-ah. Is justice possible in this world or does it exist at all? How will we know? Socrates argued at his trial that one lie or unjust act harms the soul irreparably.
The drama could have created scenes of gory violence given the number of murders involved. It could also have included graphic sex scenes given the number of sexual favours provided by high class call girls to Woo-yong’s business associates. However the drama is coldly sober in all its scenes. Even the subterranean love relationship between Tae-kyeong and Yeun-ah is never expressed in a physical gesture, not even a kiss or a hug. This sobriety allows the friendship between them to deepen into a “communion of souls” like Aristotle’s idea about perfect friendship.
Each of the three main characters is passionately devoted to a family member; a young brother, son or father. While this attachment seems to cloud calm judgment and allow passions to trouble the soul, in the long run, it is corrected by the truth that emerges in the search for justice. For much of the drama, the search for justice is so clouded by passions that it appears the new world will only be a hellish new version of the old world. This is where the drama resembles the Greek drama of Antigone who cannot find a way to respect both her dead brother and the state.
However the drama allows this tragic world to be suddenly brightened by the simple genuine humanity of the smaller people in the story so that in the end it is the love of the crippled but honest son of Woo-yong, Song Dae-jin and the courage of the traumatised actress Jang Yeong-mi who allow justice to be found and confession and forgiveness to be contemplated.
The figure of Tak Soo-hoo epitomizes in the fashion of the Joker, the possibility of absolute evil or the “no soul” person. If he is mad, he is human, but if he is not mad, what is he? This question is also fairly posed but not answered.
There are minor irritations in the drama when each second episode ends on some mystery note to make sure that you want to switch onto the next episode. There are some minor leads which go nowhere and are never tied up. However the acting is in all cases superb, as if each person knows their role in what appears as an ordinary Korean soap-opera but is much more a Philosophical drama in the style of Ancient Greece. The ending is a little bizarre given the extent of evil inflicted and suffered by the participants. It is not karmic.