Since “Signal” ended more than a year ago, no other Korean drama – not even the wildly popular “Goblin” – had caught my eye until “Stranger (Secret Forest)“ came along. Incidentally, all three dramas are the works of tvN, which has become the de facto standard for quality drama productions.
“Stranger (Secret Forest)” – hereinafter referred to as “Stranger” – is a crime and legal mystery thriller where a prosecutor Hwang Shi-Mok, played by Jo Seung Woo (“God’s Gift: 14 Days”), teams up with a police investigator Han Yeo-Jin, played by Bae Doona (“Cloud Atlas”; “Sense8”), to solve a murder.
Hwang had brain surgery when he was young, and that left him unable to express his emotions. He is being seen as a cold and unfeeling person, thus a misfit and outcast among his fellow prosecutors. In contrast, Han is affable and has a strong sense of justice as well as passion for her work.
Despite their differences, they share a common goal of wanting to rip out corruption by the roots and restore justice to the society, so they decide to put trust in each other and work together. They end up getting entangled in a web of deceit and lies where they uncover gross misdeeds within the higher-ups in their organisations and powerful conglomerates.
I had refrained from recommending this drama prior to its final episode, for fear that it would not live up to my expectations that had been set so high by “Signal”. After all, many crime dramas produced in South Korea had fallen flat and fizzled out after a promising start. Thankfully, after having watched all 16 episodes, I am happy to say that “Stranger” has officially overtaken “Signal” to become my all-time favourite Korean drama.
The writer of “Stranger” cleverly weaved both real and fictitious events into the storyline with plenty of references and allusions to the reality, which resonated with the South Korean public weary of the political situation in their country for a long time. The director made shrewd use of colour tones and angles to give the scenes a cinematic feel. The cast interpreted their characters well and performed their roles with understated subtlety and depth. Even the music accompaniment throughout the drama was carefully chosen like an underlying narrative to the story.
It is difficult to go into more details about the story without giving away spoilers that may affect viewing. Suffice to say, many people and happenings are not what they appear on the surface, and navigating through the dark, treacherous forest requires more than just courage or resolve. A character who was told that “regular people just go where their lives take them” gave this golden reply, “What if going with the flow like that takes you to a place you don’t even know?” When people choose to close an eye and go along with the flow, they may end up going down the wrong path of no return before they realise it.
The reviews of this drama have been highly positive, and I’d say that the hype and acclaim lavished on this drama are totally justified. It will be a long time before South Korea can come up with another comparable masterpiece. Little wonder that reviews had declared from now on Korean dramas will be divided into two eras: pre-“Stranger” and post-“Stranger”. That’s how iconic a status and reputation that “Stranger” had carved out for itself in just 16 episodes.
Watch all 16 English subbed episodes of “Stranger”: