The K2 (2016) A Retrospective

This happens to be one of those shows that I caught some time after it aired. I’ve liked Ji Chang-work as an actor since Healer but for one reason or another his drama choices haven’t always aligned with my interests or the timing hasn’t been right. I was leery of getting on board with K2 for some time because it seemed to be surrounded by a storm of controversy while it aired. So a couple of years ago after I had embarked on a Ji Chang-wook marathon, I scratched my head afterwards baffled by all the fuss that was generated.

The premise of the show is this: A soldier of fortune while working in Iraq not only loses the woman he wants to marry (a local interpreter) but is then framed for her death. He does a runner and eventually returns to South Korea where he becomes embroiled with the head of a prestigious security company and her politician husband. After a series of encounters, he becomes a key member of her security detail in exchange for information that could help him clear his name.

It’s not a bad show. Quite good for the most part, in fact. There are even flashes of brilliance sprinkled about particularly in the first half. What seemed particularly enjoyable to me was the political theatre on display for public consumption and the behind-the-scenes wrangling that flew in the face of what the world was allowed to see. All of that was masterfully written and performed by seasoned veterans of the screen. In the most tangible ways, the machiavellian seniors dominate the story’s landscape with their machinations and under the table shenanigans. Their world is their stage to do what they will, consequences be damned. Onto this seedy platform steps K2, Kim Je-ha, former mercenary who will rock the boat until it overturns.

From what I had read it was largely the romance that people objected to. That was where the controversy arose. Apparently the expectation on the part of some viewers was that Ji Chang-wook should fall for the dubious and far more complicated Choi Yoo-jin (played brilliantly by Song Yoon-a) that he clearly mistrusted. From what the show does and the story it tells, it makes little sense to me that anyone could think that because Ji Chang-wook’s character, Je-ha, has a certain known history to draw on. It isn’t just that he’s attracted to a very specific kind of woman but also his general, undisguised suspicion of the rich and the powerful. There would be no way on God’s green earth a man like him would ever be romantically interested in Choi Yoo-jin, no matter what she felt for him because at the end of the day he could never wholly trust her to do anything unrelated to her self-interest. Anna (Yoona) notwithstanding. As far he was concerned, theirs was a transactional relationship based on mutual expediency. It didn’t matter how sympathetic the audience was to her plight, in his eyes, she was a dubious figure who used her power for her personal gain in all kinds of unsavoury deals. The lady locked up her step-daughter in the wonderful tradition of Grimm’s tales. I don’t doubt she responded to his inherent sincerity but she was his employer, not someone he could ever think of in that fashion. He’s certainly not interested in playing any kind of games that sees Yoo-jin refereeing. In fact, he thumbs his nose at all their antics.

Anna is depicted as an innocent, a particular type. Cloistered away (in effect imprisoned) for most of her life from any family because of a contract between her father and step-mother. There is no guile in her. It does make sense, given Je-ha’s inclinations as to why he is drawn to her. She’s the helpless underdog who has no one. A breath of fresh air in a world where every man, woman and their dog has an agenda. She just wants to be free, to live and to have choices. Now that is something that Je-ha can completely relate to. She’s a pawn like he is. A pawn he can’t help but want to protect. That is in his nature.

With all its obvious fairytale allusions, the drama plants its feet firmly within its melodrama roots. The older generation plots and schemes to build empires (or steal them) because… I don’t know… it’s their vengeance on a cruel world… or is it because they feel entitled to a piece of the action. Their rationale seems irrelevant. Of course if anyone plays that game long enough, there’s no getting out of that unscathed. Je-ha clearly doesn’t belong in that world. He stumbles into inadvertently. He unequivocally doesn’t want to be there. Who can blame him? He is figure that is above the fray untainted by all the hand soiling that goes on behind closed doors. Moreover he is the appointed incorruptible princely character that rescues Snow White from the clutches of Maleficent.

Choi Yoo-jin is undoubtedly a fascinating character study wonderfully fleshed out in the story and during the performance. It’s not surprising that she elicits some measure of sympathy. But she’s not a figure of romance because power is her default weapon. It was drummed into her by her father from a young age. She craves affection undoubtedly and there might be some suggestion that her bid for power is really a cry for love. Could she have done a U-turn? It’s hard to say. Once a person goes down a particular path, there will be a moment from which there is no going back.

Anna is the obvious contrast. She’s a simple-minded, child-like creature. She has nothing, know nothing about wielding power. All she ever wanted was Daddy’s love and to be loved. In the end, the show does suggest that she and Yoo-jin both really wanted the same thing and they both get it only by giving up everything.

For me this is unabashedly a makjang morality tale. I’m not an avid watcher of the genre as a rule but when well-done it can be hugely entertaining and even addictive.