Beyond Evil (2021) Episodes 13 and 14
*Beware of spoilers
Recent episodes of Beyond Evil over the Easter weekend brought ideas that were already gestating to the forefront of my mind. A couple of days ago a non-religious television broadcaster happen to make the point that Easter is the holiest day of the Christian calendar which set a train of thoughts in motion that will make up the bulk of this post. Afterall, Easter could arguably be thought of as Christianity's answer to the intractable problem of evil.
In our time the word "evil" seems to be reserved for heinous crimes and unthinkable atrocities committed by genocidal figures, serial killers and any kind of psychologically unbalanced individuals. It's not so in Christianity where evil is something far more ubiquitous, less visible and lies within the very heart of every individual and community dysfunction. It is personal, communal, systemic and even spiritual.
The brilliance of this drama for me is in the way evil is depicted in every strata and strain. It eschews villainous stereotypes and instead explores the complexity of the human soul in profound and also disturbing ways. The doings of the people of Manyang is a parable of how evil is born and gives birth to tragedy. Before there is a Hitler or Stalin, the conditions have to be right. Human beings are... to use old language... sinners. We are capable of misdeeds, deception and horrific violations. Breaking the law is our default position. The fact that someone wears the uniform and carries the badge does not mean that they are above committing crime. The fact that someone is a police officer does not mean that they are incapable of crossing the line over to the dark side. According to the drama what distinguishes the "good guys" from the "bad guys" is that thing called conscience. The unmistakable inner voice that causes one to feel guilt, shame and regret when laws are broken and moral codes transgressed.
A character like Han Gi-hwan exists in this narrative as the personification of evil in the guise of social and professional respectability. One some level this aspiring Commissioner General of the country's preeminent police force feels familiar -- gradually revealed as the typical corrupt political heavyweight that we've grown accustomed to. He's the played the game to perfection and feels entitled to take the top job now that it's offered to him on a silver platter. For 21 years he's hidden a terrible secret that now threatens to bring down this house of cards he's built ever so meticulously through the years. To ensure that this closeted skeleton remains buried, he has been party to one act of cover-up after another. Of course a man harbouring such high ambitions is clever enough not to get his hands dirty so he has other people clean up after him. People who have as much to lose as he does. He isn't exactly wracked with guilt despite the fact that the unsolved crime has caused so much heartache and tragedy over the years. With no lack of irony, his insatiable greed for the top job has made him unsuitable for it which is to say that he forfeited the right to it long before the drink driving accident. What the accident and its aftermath proved is that he lacked the most important qualification -- character.
A man who thinks that perfection is all about what you present publicly to the world can't be trusted especially in law enforcement. Getting involved with Lee Chang-jin and Hae Do-won was a terrible idea from the start. But then his own dubious moral compass made him desperate enough to throw his lot in with them.
The fact that the original case with Lee Yu-yeon's disappearance was closed in unseemly haste under his watch, fingered him as a possible suspect. There was something more than arrogance at work. Moreover, his relationship with his co-conspirators always hinted at something sinister and far more explosive. Clearly he didn't care for their company while they assiduously courted his. A part of him believed he was better than they were. Yet, he would eventually succumb to their demands despite the obvious contempt he held for them. An ugly secret had to be holding them together because they were a threesome of strange bedfellows indeed. Greed and distrust unites them in the same way friendship unites others. They are shackled together for better or for worse by shared secrets.
Han Gi-hwan wears his cloak of respectability with finesse as evidenced by the fact that his lifelong goal is now within reach. Lee Chang-jin might have left his gangster days behind him but he hasn't left his thuggish ways. Both will do "whatever it takes" to get what they want even if it means taking lives. In the fourth chapter of the book of James in the New Testament, the author might have been saying this of the two men,
"What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passions..."
Although they might be labelled the "axis of evil" here because their deeds all those many years ago had long-term repercussions for the town, they were also aided and abetted by others. It's ironic that Lee Chang-jin and Hae Do-won constantly speak of wanting to develop Munju when in reality all they've done is bring the entire region into disrepute. It's always other people's fault not theirs that the dark cloud of murder hovers over their city. When one considers how much Dong-sik and what's left of his family has suffered as a result of Yu-yeon's disappearance, all of the trio's actions to deflect suspicion off themselves are truly evil. And it's a corrupting evil that carries long-term consequences. It's like a toxic dump site that's leached into the water supply and causing cancer clusters. There are consequences even if the wheels of justice turn over slowly.
It seems to be the season of discovery for Han Ju-won. He came to Manyang riddled with guilt but full of grim confidence that he was on the killer's trail only to find out that things were less simple than he believed. Whatever his motivations were, finding the finger-tip killer was important to him. The longer he remains in Manyang, the more he realises that the problem of evil is much closer to home than he ever thought possible. He is a pitiful creature when the realisation that the man he calls "father" is a major villain in this drama rather than just an obstructionist. It will be the same with Park Jeong-jae when he finds out what his mother's darker secret is. The one most likely involving the deer farm and the bodies of women found there.
The two younger men born to some degree of privilege find out that the privilege they've come to enjoy comes with a high moral price tag. Mum and Dad have devouring ambitions that don't allow for obstacles posed by family and will use their children as stepping stones if needs be to manoeuvre their way out of trouble. Children and their role in this journey are a double-edged sword. A very unpredictable sword that can be wielded in any fashion especially when they have personalities of their own.
Despite all the evil that's about the moral universe underpinning this is fairly sound. Evil can't triumph. Whatever anyone reaps they sow. There's a force at work outside of the natural plain that's bringing about justice. Munju development has never been able to take off as a consequence. The serial killer has finally been caught. The children of the perpetrators are in revolt against the older generation. The brother of the missing girl is on the case. Han Ju-won, the son of Han Gi-hwan despite many mishaps is the catalyst to unlocking the skeletons in that closet. There's a fascinating exchange between Lee Chang-jin and Lee Dong-sik in Episode 14 over the phone. Lee Chang-jin bellows philosophically sounding off like a moral relativist,
"Good purposes, bad purposes... Who decides that? Does the law decide it? The councilwoman's son is a criminal so he doesn't have the right, I guess. Is the councilwoman to judge it? Hey, Lee Dong-sik."
In response, Dong-sik answers, "Oh Ji-wan will judge it." And the siren of Ji-wan's vehicle rings out in the distance. Oh Ji-wan, the ex-wife, the only one that Lee Chang-jin has any regard for.
Afterwards when Lee Chang-jin is taken in for questioning, Dong-sik, Detective Kang and his wife search his car without a warrant. Once again Dong-sik crosses the line and Ju-won makes the observation but in a non-judgmental way. He asks Dong-sik if he regrets tampering with Min-jung's finger-tips. Dong-sik tells Ju-won he is asking the wrong question. This time both men are in earnest. No more cat and mouse game. Dong-sik tells Ju-won that he should be asking him if he could go back in time, would he do what he did with Minjung's fingertips again. Dong-sik replies in the affirmative. She may be the only judge he fears.
Both men acknowledge here that the law that they work to enforce has limitations. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but how things unfold afterwards is not so easy to predict. One can second guess till kingdom come but that's seldom helpful. For better or worse Ju-won learns something from Dong-sik. Staging a piece of theatre no matter how illegal it feels is sometimes the only way to get answers when injustice is the order of the day.
There's a sense that universal justice exists even when there's plenty of reason to think otherwise when corrupt officials flout the law and cases go unsolved for over 2 decades. But bit by bit inconvenient facts come to light despite attempts by those involved to conceal unsavoury truths. The thing about the truth is as Ju-won is about to find out that it is often worse than one imagines. However that's necessary for the corrupted soil of Manyang to be cleansed.