Beyond Evil (2021) First Impressions
Last year JTBC gave us The Good Detective which I had a lot to say about and it put a different spin on the ever reliable police procedural. I bring this up because there are things about this new production from the broadcaster that reminds me of its predecessor. Beyond Evil which stars the always reliable Shin Ha-kyun is less of a cop show than it is a show about cops. Not trying to split hairs here. Honest to goodness I'm not. The difference in emphasis is a point of differentiation which takes the show in a different direction. (I wasn't trying to play a game of morphology with "different". Really.) Even though murders have been committed (although there are no bodies that can confirm that) and the boys in blue make reference to these grizzly finger mutilations as their mission, that's largely window dressing. In fact at the heart of this is a fascinating (so far) study of guilt and suspicion as it touches a smallish, everybody-knows-everybody regional community.
The set-up sees the protagonist, a veteran cop of considerable experience, being at the centre of the whodunit of deaths/disappearances 20 years earlier. He's never been able to shake the tag of No. 1 suspect. Making matters worse for himself Lee Dong-shik does little to dispel the pervasive suspicion directed towards him and he drags a ton of baggage around including guilt for the tragedy that befalls his entire family as a result. As soon as news of his sister's disappearance breaks, he's fingered as the prime suspect. On top of that his father freezes to death along a railway track waiting for said sister to return. Mother unable to take one blow after another loses it completely. What's surprising and despite the tragic pile on is Dong-shik's enlistment as a police officer, a career spanning all of his adult life. He has a reputation for being a "psycho" developed from being something of a maverick in the force. His current supervisor, Chief Nam, is backhandedly sympathetic but outwardly frustrated. To him, Lee Dong-shik is an exhausting creature who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. His guilt over the deaths/disappearance is palpable but never definitively determined. Even Dong-shik himself has doubts about his innocence.
Shin Ha-kyun is an actor who brings his A game to the party. He is particularly known (from what I've seen) for playing idiosyncratic, troubled, brooding characters. And why not? He is rather good at it. It is a credit to an actor of his chops that he's able to flesh out all the aspects to Dong-shik. Through his performance we are quickly acquainted with the many and even contradictory aspects to the character's personality. Despite being a figure of suspicion, there is something immensely likeable about this tortured soul. While he's instinctively intelligent, he can't be sure about anything about his hometown, his friends and himself. He does his balancing act while playing cat and mouse with the newcomer to town, Han Ju-won a former Foreign Affairs bureau investigator who was working on illegal immigrant homicides. Frankly Shin Ha-kyun's performance is so good that I wouldn't mind it if he was the culprit although there's always a part of me that prefer if he is largely misunderstood.
Yeo Jin-goo's character, on the other hand, I find less likeable. Not because he's a somewhat arrogant humourless mysophobic cop from the Big Smoke but because he thinks the solution to the problem that's haunting him is a lot simpler than it probably is. The certainty and aloofness in which he enters this unfamiliar world arouses suspicion very quickly. It doesn't help that he's a fish out of water. He's not fooling anyone but he's keeping to his cover story for now because as his ambitious father keeps reminding him, there are political ramifications for poking around hornet's nests. But Ju-won is a zealot and he's certain he's got his man except "his man" seems to be a walking talking contradiction that leaves him scratching his head. It's clear too that his personal agenda and him being a man with a mission clouds the issues surrounding these crimes. One gets the feeling that he's in it because of guilt too. A woman in all likelihood died because of him. Or at least he thinks she did. So it wouldn't surprise me if he's trying assuage some personal guilt and atone for his sins.
There are people in the neighbourhood who are obviously hiding secrets and/or have agendas of their own. Everyone feels like they're perpetually living on edge. They are less concerned about the truth behind the mysteries and more about the fallout. This is also a story about community and what keeps people together. Often it is about friendship and common values but at other times, it is about tragedy and secrets forcing people together in negative, dysfunctional ways. Even in these early days, one already has an inkling that something is rotten in Denmark... or Munju as is the case here. For instance Dong-shik's longtime friend Jeong-jae, also a cop and son of a city official piques my suspicion radar from his odd antics and cryptic talk. He also knows enough about the law from his capacity as archives manager to get away ... quite literally... with murder.
After 2 episodes I sense that this is something I could end up liking a lot depending on where the writing takes it. As well as being laser-like in its focus, there's scope for more character development. It's not a straight up police procedural but the mysteries are sufficiently well presented to keep the audience guessing about what happened and what's happening. The show isn't necessarily about chasing up clues or interrogating suspects but about getting inside the headspaces of each person who could have a reason for doing away with the women in question.
The psychological impact of crime on a group of people is an interesting subject to be sure. It can be potentially divisive as it has been well-documented but it could also be a cause to unite them especially when a variety of self-interests intersect. Evil takes different forms in all their subtleties. It isn't just about egregious murder and mayhem but it begins from a much deeper quieter place and without the usual external restraints, it can go in any direction.