K drama Villains

Spoilers for Vincenzo

Clearly I’m watching far more dramas than I ought. I excuse myself a little because I’ve been coming to terms with some health issues… not particularly life changing… and I’ve been given unprecedented justification to take things easy. (Meanwhile our entire abode looks barely livable.) As a result drama watching has inadvertently dominated the landscape. Out of curiosity I began a few different shows that are enjoying/have enjoyed rave reviews. The verdict seems to be I’m out of sync with a lot of popular opinion. Maybe it’s the hype around each one that I reflexively protest against. I must be developing into a reactionary from the whiplash that I suffer from when I watch shows with glowing reviews/comments and my conclusion is that there are better shows out there that do the same thing. The truth is I don’t watch dramas to criticize them although it might seem that way from the way my postings are going these days. I used to only post about shows I like but because of the extra time, I seem to have turned unusually garrulous online.

I feel that I must be in some kind of slump because apart from Taxi Driver, most of the current crop of dramas while entertaining don’t present much of the wow factor for me. It’s true that I never used to watch this many dramas at any given time until the first wave of Covid lockdowns were imposed so what’s resulted is in all likelihood a jaded response to a monotonous stream of the similar that pervades my current viewing habits. I don’t think anyone is humanly capable of watching this many dramas while retaining their sanity… er… I mean objectivity.

So what do Do Hak-sung from Sell Your Haunted House, Jang Han-seok from Vincenzo and Kim Yang-min from Taxi Driver have in common? Which one is not like the other?

Avaricious CEOs who buy power with the almighty dollar never used to bother me but now it feels like it’s now Kdrama staple churned out through an ever-expanding production line. I suppose I’m up against a popular cultural stereotype that’s hard to shake and everybody who has been downtrodden at one time or another wants to sock it to The Man. Vicariously of course.

I used to be someone who seldom put too much thought to how villains are characterised and portrayed. I’ve been a Marvel fan before it was trendy to be one and have followed every incarnation of Spider-Man. I used to say that it was all about the protagonist(s) for me. But lately, I’ve been noticing what other people have been saying for years that a good villain does make a world of difference in enriching the storytelling. It seems to elevate the conflict and gives the characterization (of both sides) more depth. More than some psychopathic rich guy who whacks people that get in his way would at least. That’s been done, redone and overdone. Especially in Kdramaland.

This is why Vincenzo though barrels of fun doesn’t rate that highly with me. Even though Vincenzo is a great antihero on some level and he has a merry assortment of trusted companions, the villains end up resorting to rinsing and repeating bad countermeasures in the latter part of the drama. Jang Jun-woo who started well with his dual identity in the end basically turned into an unimpressive snivelling brat. Choi Myung-hee didn’t fare much better. She went from bad to worse, taking all the wrong lessons from her time in the prosecutor’s office. I can’t believe she (supposedly an intelligent, ruthless woman) would hitch herself to the Babel wagon so completely, putting all of her eggs in that basket with no alternative exit strategy. These two, it seemed to me were reduced to foils for Vincenzo in order that he could act out his darker impulses in order to prove somehow that he is the biggest villain of them all.

Do Hak-sung from Sell Your Haunted House is arguably the least interesting of the recent lot and feels purely like an overused plot device. I suppose we have him to thank for two of the show’s biggest action sequences but other than he doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table other than the usual muahaha moustache twirling menace creating obstacles for the protagonists. Fortunately the drama showcases individual hauntings that includes a variety of baddies in certain settings. However it does show up the shortcomings of Do Hak-sung as the primary villains. The show is at its best to my mind when dealing with exorcism of the week rather than protracted angsty big arcs.

Multiple villains on the other hand work a lot better for Taxi Driver for instance. It feels more grounded despite the more flamboyant elements of the show. Baek Sung-mi might be the meanest of them all, Kim Yang-jin gave a good run for her money. She however knew the Rainbow Taxi crew and was a shady custodian of their pickings. It was always easier for her to turn the tables on them and play on their weaknesses.

Two years ago the hierarchy of villains was well set-up for the Doctor Prisoner (Namgoong Min) who had an endlessly cut-throat cat and mouse with Sun Min-shik (Kim Byung-chul) and Lee Jae-joon (Choi Won-young) via bottom feeders of the food chain. There’s even a bit of a redemption arc from one of the lower tier scoundrels as he crawls his way out of the gutter. When I think about how the mind games are played tit for tat in this show, the schemes of Vincenzo’s antagonists feels like amateur hour or at the very least it does nothing particularly special.

Speaking of Namgoong Min, there’s also last year’s truly underrated Hot Stove League which gave the impression initially that it was going down the road of evil CEOs causing problems for the protagonists but does a nice little change of heart for a key antagonist. It has to be said that Jang Han-seo from Vincenzo has a similar journey but even then it isn’t enough to ensure a happier more fitting end for him.

Of course villains aren’t really necessary for every single story much less big, flashy ones. Hospital Playlist’s success is a testament to that. Human beings are sufficiently flawed enough that they are their own worst enemies whether they are the chairman of a large corporation or a wage earner trying to save for a deposit on an apartment. We do a good enough job creating our own conflicts because of our ego and our greed. Dark Hole with all its faults, at least does a good job illustrating that.