Awaken (2020) and The Uncanny Counter (2020) Superhero Stories: A Study in Difference
I've been on the verge of dropping Awaken at least once but because of the subject matter and the presence of Nam Goongmin in it, I've hung on by the slenderest of thread. He's always fun to watch (no matter the production's quality) and the character he plays here has consistently been the most fleshed out (thanks in large part to him I expect). I have no doubt he took on this role because Do Jung-woo is potentially a great character -- a Loganesque superhero of a type. NGM with his history playing antiheroes, is undoubtedly the right actor to slip into those shoes.
While that's the case, the script thus far (we have reached the halfway mark at the time of writing) is to my mind, weak. Floating in the ether that is Awaken are some really good ideas. If you've read my previous post on this, you know that I've always maintained this. The origins of the White Night Foundation and the subject of experimentation on humans if handled well, makes for a great story. It won't be anything startling original but putting a Korean flavour to it would be something worth exploring. I wouldn't go so far as to say I have a love-hate relationship with but I am disappointed that most of the characters especially the ones supposedly on the side of "right" aren't very well written. There's been a bit of controversy about the women and how they feature as romantic interests or not. But to me that has always been more symptomatic of the wobbly script. I don't think the show knows what to focus on or to keep the main thing the main thing. To be frank, I don't know if Gong Hye-won is even a necessary character at this point except as a possible romantic interest or to create a conflict of interest for Jung-woo. All of that might make for compelling viewing if the writing could convince me that it's needed in this drama.
I'm unabashedly fond of crazy sci-fi. I've been watching crazy sci-fi long before I started watching Korean dramas. So it wasn't especially hard for me to see where the show was going with the White Night Village practically from Episode 1. I wasn't a hundred percent certain at the time but I felt that I was in the ballpark. True enough the parts of the show that I'm most attentive too concerns the ominous cabal known as The Foundation which was formed to finance experiments on children. To what end? Just to create a miracle drug? To find the key to longevity? Or something far more sinister... along the lines of Dark Angel or The Pretender perhaps.
The Foundation appears to be mysterious assortment of the wealthy and powerful. All male... as far as we've seen. But the chief scientist from when Jung-woo was living in White Night was a woman. Her absence in the present is conspicuous. The present cohort that make up the Foundation seem to me (at least) to have their own individual agendas. I don't think that they're one united group. The chap who is the president's chief secretary... who has recently been in the spotlight lately... seems to have his own angle that probably involves a member of his family.
I suspect most of us are in general agreement with Jung-woo that the Foundation and what it represents is an abomination. The moral and ethical implications alone are just mind boggling. I think by now we have a decent grasp of who Jung-woo, Jamie and Jae-woong are. The 3 Js as it so happens. Things were done to them perhaps even while they were in test-tubes. They were unique in that they survived. Two of them even managed to get away. Our curiosity is piqued: why did the rest die and why did they not only survive but become Korean versions of the X-men? I am supposing (presumptuously perhaps) that this is the part of the show that we're all really responding to because it is the most consistently coherent part of the drama.
In the morass of multiple moving parts including a serial killer case, politics and corruption, there is a superhero story that's gradually emerging. On the surface the show purports to be a police procedural although that doesn't fit comfortably. On some level that gives Jung-woo a context to do what he does and an excuse for some kind of romance between Jung-woo and Hye-won. Which I'm not a fan of mainly because the actors don't have that kind of chemistry for me.
In comparison we have The Uncanny Counter. It's clear even with the most cursory analysis, that the drama doesn't do anything startlingly original. To be fair, it doesn't pretend to. I can certainly see the comparisons with Mystic Pop-up Bar and perhaps even Missing: The Other Side. Two examples from this year's offerings. However, despite all of that, the show does what it does remarkably well. It is a reminder that though originality can be an asset, it is only an asset in the right hands. It's also a reminder that it's far more important to take care of the fundamentals... like storytelling, casting, character development and relationship building etc... and get them right before reaching for gimmickry and suspense for suspense sake.
Right off the bat we know exactly what the drama is. The intro says it all. It's unabashedly a superhero team-up story with fantasy elements. It starts off fairly predictable, formulaic even... following a superhero origins story almost to a T. Yet it is now breaking rating records for OCN. So predictability isn't necessarily a screen-writing sin. Neither does it represent a minus for engagement or widespread appeal.
What the show does well and often that's where others fall down is that it gets the balance right. It's the secret sauce. The show doesn't fall into the trap of meandering and giving more than it needs to because it knows exactly what it wants to be. The best part is that the show gives me exactly what I want even when I didn't know I needed it. It also strikes the right note with its comedic and emotional moments.
First and foremost, the women are done right here. And I don't mean that they are trained in martial arts and can go toe-to-toe with the baddies and strut their stuff. While that's great and wonderful on some level, what's even better is that they are well-fleshed out, have strength of character and their nurturing instincts remain intact. Perhaps it's just me and the kind of shows I've been watching lately but I have less and less patience for wacky, over-the-top female leads who use disproportionate violence, as a way of playing one upmanship with the male leads. Some of that may be played for laughs... don't know... but I'm finding it tiresome. In contrast, I love how Ha-na is written and portrayed as an older sister figure. She's an angry girl but there are other dimensions to her. I also especially love what Yeom Hye-ran is doing with Mae-ok. She's a take-charge, motherly character who can bare her teeth when that's called for. They both feel real. Not like caricatures. I have similar sentiments about Detective Kim Jeong-yeong. She's weathered many storms in the police department and she hasn't backed down from her principles. These are strong, smart women because they've endured much and been true to themselves without trying to be like men. Or trying to prove something for that matter.
Next, the cast chemistry is super good when you consider how diverse they are and the age differences. They've got a great group of actors that interact so well together especially as each of them mentors So Mun in their own way. Jo Byung-gu is himself a rising star but he knows how to be part of an ensemble without the need for overacting on his part. Even though there's apparently supposed to be no romance between Mun and Ha-na, the chemistry between them is good enough if the showrunners are keen to take their relationship to a different level at a different time. The show itself knows romance isn't needed the usual jokes are made about it. But there's no denying the chemistry between the pair.
And of course Mun himself is a great character. As I've said before Mun was standing up to school bullies and baddies well-before he had superpowers or had two working legs. He already had a hero's heart like Steve Rogers aka Captain America. What he needs to learn is to control his emotions, become stronger and choose his battles carefully but he has always been a good-hearted, gutsy kid who accords respect to his elders. Everything that the show does with him contributes in some way to his development and the overall storyline.
Finally the integration of all the moving parts appears seamless. Everything fits together really well. Sure, the gallery of rogues here aren't anything we haven't seen before, neither is the corruption angle ground-breaking stuff. There's even a serial murderer on the loose here. But it's so far well incorporated into the demon-hunting side of things and the characters' own individual trajectory. No one is wasted or is extraneous in the storytelling.
This is not to denigrate the achievement of Uncanny Counter because it should be given credit for its disciplined, tight plotting while managing to connect the audience with the characters and key character moments. It does just about everything right with the material because it never tries to pretend it is anything more or less than what it is.
Personally I think Awaken could have taken a simpler approach. The mystery within a mystery technique used to indifferent effect was supposed to create suspense and signal a darker tone but all that ended up feeling fillery because it was never the actual goal. The whole thing about using children as experimental subjects is already a dark subject with its own story potential with all kinds of political reverberations. Maybe it should have been a 12-episode drama. But then a good drama about the Foundation and its shady dealings could easily provide material for a 16-episode drama.