Voice 4 (2021) Heroes and villains

Spoilers for all existing episodes… but I don’t reveal the identity of the Circus Man

The franchise’s perpetual preoccupation with questions related to nature vs nurture continues unabated. It’s there writ large right out of the blocks when a lad is compelled to tie up his grandparents in fairy lights, torture them and kill them. We wonder why. Apparently there’s a creature who calls himself Circus Man running amok responsible for this and another equally grotesque household killing. In both situations the seemingly ritualistic killings are tied to accusations of family dysfunction. The gruesome and horrifying deaths are the Circus Man’s sadistic way of pontificating good o’l family values. So what’s his/her problem? And why the obsession with Kang Kwon-joo, star of the Golden Time team, the mainstay of the emergency rescue operation and the protagonist with the superhuman hearing? The Circus Man isn’t just bored with life it seems but he or she obviously has a grievance and has something to announce to the world in defiance of laws, conventions and general good manners.

The Circus Man is the latest in a manifestation of a trope that’s worked for Voice in the past. A cunning serial killing egotist with deep-seated psychological angst most likely brewed in the cauldron of a misbegotten childhood. As an antagonist, he or she is two or three steps ahead of the protagonists in a battle royale of sorts. The cat and mouse game is undoubtedly a theatrical ploy to lure very specific individuals or types of individuals to a well-staged arena in order to push as many emotional buttons as possible calculated to demonstrate some kind of moral and/or psychological superiority. In short the Circus Man represents a kind of satanic character. Like the master that s/he’s beholden to, s/he is not only a murderer but a liar and a thief. S/he whispers things to impressionable minds, tempts them and causes them to dance like puppets on a string to his melody. Of course the Circus Man is shrewd enough to know that outright lies aren’t as effective as half-truths and tantalizing but cryptic soundbytes. S/he has dangled the proverbial carrot knowing full well that the beast of burden zealous for public safety will follow in due time.

Dragged kicking and shouting into this rowdy shindig is Derek Cho (Song Seung-heon) whose sister accidentally falls prey to the Circus Man’s skullduggery. He might be the one variable… the anomaly that will be the villain’s undoing. As a whole Derek Cho is a good fit for the 112 dispatch team. He is an experienced cop with leadership experience and was on the LAPD’s Olympic taskforce. He has a useful set of know-how and most importantly, he is quick on his feet. But it’s clear that even if he’s a sharp operator in most instances, there’s a hothead at the core. I don’t entirely buy into it but I accept that it’s par for the course in a K drama which features a man with a traumatic childhood who overcomes his past to wear the badge with honour. By any criteria, Derek is a success story. However success can often be a cover for festering wounds or an excuse to avoid dealing with psychological distress. The fact that he’s a native of Vimo Island suggests that he is being set up as the Circus Man’s primary (but unannounced) adversary differently to Kwon-joo. Perhaps it’s intentional although that seems unlikely because Derek’s been living in the US for decades but because of the baggage he brings, he will be instrumental in bringing down the Circus Man. At the very least he will act as a counterpoint to the Circus Man’s claims to any sympathy. He is someone who knows suffering first hand and can face the devil’s spawn in his playground.

Vimo — a fictional tourist locale in all likelihood a stand-in for the world renowned Jeju Island — is riddled with contradictions like the Circus Man. It is a place where modernity and traditions merge… and even in many instances collide. On the one hand, there’s the state of the art police station with all of the latest bells and whistles, populated by skilled and trained individuals who can deploy them effectively. Then there’s a more mystical side drawing on age old shamanistic customs which fill a spiritual vacuum that more contemporary policing methods using tech and profiling can’t. In fact, the new arrivals are seen as being recklessly intrusive. It’s no accident that that same contrast is made with regards to the second case featuring abalone divers and drug runners. The abalone divers appear to be a dying breed of women who hunt for the prized delicacy the old fashioned way. The youngest Ga-eun has been nurtured in the old ways by her grandmother to continue the family business but the constraints of living under those conditions are taking a toll on her young restless impulses. The generation gap is clearly symbolic of that past-present dichotomy at play all throughout the drama thus far. As the two women reconcile and talk through their differences, they navigate their way to some kind of middle ground or compromise, a way to acknowledge the validity of both perspectives. The show also highlights the fact that diving as an ancient art has also evolved over time both occupationally and now more recreationally. Furthermore modernity with all its technological benefits has a darker side which includes the easy propagation of illegal substances and the insatiable demand for them. The temptations to fall into crime are arguably more widespread.

Furthermore Gong Su-ji’s prosecutor father consults the island’s most prominent shaman via the island’s richest man to locate his missing daughter. In doing so, he shows a distrust of the Golden Time team and looking for alternative (and time honoured) way of dealing with an intractable problem close to his heart. Perhaps it’s also him wanting a bet each way since the cops are already involved in the investigation in some fashion. It’s deliberate that Gong Su-ji’s descend into substance abuse is deliberately paralleled with the case involving the drug runners. Because she was onboard the earliest flight back to Vimo, she was initially fingered as a suspect for the Circus Man case but on further probing it is found that she was hiding an addiction to stimulants which she’d bought from the States.

The return of Shim Dae-shik from the first season promises something of a redemption arc here. Dae-shik left his detective position after being embroiled in a corruption scandal during the Jang Hyuk era. Apparently he went to Vimo Island to find himself and became a scuba diving instructor to pay the bills. His local knowledge and natural detective instincts makes him an ideal addition to the inundated dispatch team. There’s no rest for anyone as one incident after another propels them into action. Dae-shik is reluctantly co-opted but as Gwang-soo notes, he still has what it takes. He is immediately drawn to helping people and takes the sorts of risks you’d only expect of law enforcement officers. Perhaps this is a chance for him to atone and make peace with the turmoil in his own soul. Heroes after all are not perfect people… just flawed ordinary people appearing at the right time and right place doing the right thing. The message in his case could be that forgiveness and restoration is possible.

Judging from Derek’s hostile reaction to Chief Yang Bok-man, I’d venture a guess and say that the island has plenty of buried secrets of its own just waiting for the Golden Time team — outsiders to boot — to unearth. There’s plenty to be suspicious about. It would certainly explain a lot of defensiveness from people on all sides. In a place where everybody knows your name, the stranger that rides into town might just be the one to clean it up.