TV Series Review: Black (2017)
A man possessed by death. A woman who can see death. The earthly and the afterworld collide dangerously.
Black is my first introduction to this new generation of Korean dramas. My last binging of K-dramas occurred over twenty years ago on pirated videotapes without subtitles, and I don’t speak Korean. I’d sit with my best friend’s mother and watch videos from her homeland. The videos made the rounds through the Korean expat community. We’d eat kimchi and rice, and she’d give me the gist of the plots. I missed a lot of the finer nuances and details and plot twists, I am sure, but I did learn to love kimchi and my friend’s mother. I still love that woman and miss her. And I was definitely missing her kimchi, as I watched Black. Alack, I had nothing to sate my Korean food appetite.
And Black does indeed whet the appetite. Black is a recent supernatural thriller TV series – it aired from October to December 2017 in South Korea – which Netflix picked up for worldwide streaming after the end of its Korean television run. Broadchurch meets Meet Joe Black meets Ghost meets The X-Files meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Black is an epic, intricate, gripping whodunit, full of twists and turns and layer upon layer of mysteries, family secrets, conspiracies.
Thrown into this mix is the fantastical element of the show’s dynamic duo: a Grim Reaper in human form and a woman who can portentously see the shadows of death. They team up and things unravel/snowball from there.
Death in a Borrowed Body
Nr. 444 (Kim Tae-Woo) is a Grim Reaper, one of many. Reapers are either creatures, who’ve never experienced mortality, or mortals, who took their own lives and now must learn the value of life by being Reapers. They maintain their mortal memories. Reapers are invisible to mortal eyes. They are neutral observers of death – not intervening in, initiating, stopping or precipitating death. They follow the fated mortals and lead their souls to the afterlife. A few – so longing for life – go AWOL, hopping into a dying mortal, possessing the bodily shell.
Nr. 444 has never been mortal and has nothing but contempt for humans. He is renowned for brisk, heartless efficiency; his cold-hearted, no-nonsense coolness is legendary amongst the other Reapers. When his own partner goes AWOL, he is livid and responsible for finding him and delivering him for disciplinary action. In order to capture a Reaper in human form, Nr. 444 decides that he too must borrow a body, despite this contravening otherworldly codes of conduct. Yet, the body he borrows, and the subsequent human identity he assumes, complicate rather significantly what was supposed to be a straightforward find-and-deliver operation.
Nr. 444 ends up in the body of police detective Han Moo-Gang (Song Seung-Heon), a sensitive, boyish, seemingly incompetent greenhorn detective, who was shot during a hostage situation. But maybe Moo-Gang wasn’t as incompetent as first thought. Maybe he was investigating something bigger and badder and more far-reaching than anyone suspected. And now all his knowledge, memories, insights are wiped out, as a Reaper, with nothing but contempt for humans, occupies his body. Moo-Gang’s apparent amnesia, personality changes, and behavioral aberrations are put down to the bullet lodged in his brain. But it’s 444. It’s Black, as he now calls himself. And Moo-Gang is now arrogant and condescending and belittling, often exasperated with and contemptuous of the humans around him.
The Girl Wearing Sunglasses at Night
Kang Ha-Ram (Go Ara) can see the shadows of death. And if she is close enough to touch the shadows, she sees the specifics of the deaths. She’s had this ability since her youth. It frightens her, as it did her family. Her mother deserted her. She’s been an outcast always – feared, teased, avoided, branded bad news and crazy. If she wears dark sunglasses, the shadows disappear. Past attempts to stop the shadows, to stop approaching death, have failed miserably. So, she shades her eyes and keeps to herself. She’s scrappy and feisty, headstrong and kind-hearted, often running headlong into situations. She’s sad and lonely.
Yet, she meets Moo-Gang – pre-Nr. 444’s takeover – and he believes in her abilities, so much so that he enlists her aid and she his. Yet, her premonitions do not save Moo-Gang from that bullet to his brain. But the post-bullet Moo-Gang – Black – finds himself greatly in need of this shadow seer. He can only see Reapers. He cannot see Reapers possessing bodies, but Ha-Ram can. She can see the darkness in a body. Moo-Gang dresses in all black to mask his own shadowy form from Ha-Ram’s eyes.
Ha-Ram wants to save souls from death. Black – even in human form – must abide by his Reaper rule of never interfering in the inevitability of death. They make quite the pair.
He’s snarky, she’s snappy. He is inhuman, disdainfully awkward with social niceties, increasingly unsure of how to deal with human feelings in his own body. She’s yappy and irritatingly tags along and doesn’t take no for an answer. She gets under that gruff exterior, and tenderness starts to slip out of that hard-edged Reaper.
A Dense and Intense Tapestry of Suspense
I cannot even begin to summarize the plot of this piece. Black is so tightly and sharply written. No detail, no side comment, however small or brief, is superfluous. You really have to be on your toes while watching. It’s not a show for multitasking. It demands your complete and undivided attention, and it holds it. Bodies pile up. There’s insurance fraud. A psychopath is on the loose. A father is dead. A childhood friend is lost. Family secrets abound. Cabals of corruption cover-up continually. Child prostitution rings and a collapsed shopping mall from two decades prior factor into current crimes. And factor into Moo-Gang and Ha-Ram and perhaps even Black’s own pasts. Twists and connections weave together into one gripping and thrilling tapestry of suspense. It’s whodunit heaven!
Yet, while having some of the grit of the noir, gumshoeing genre, Black balances all that intensity with bouts of cheesy humor and dry wit, with a burgeoning connection between a Reaper and a mortal. A connection that compels Black to protect this woman, Ha-Ram, at all costs.
Black boasts some fine acting. Go Ara and Song Seung-Heon, as the two leads, are very endearing characters and have lovely chemistry. The supporting cast is great, especially the bantering policemen of Moo-Gang’s unit. The baddies are bone-chillingly villainous. The musical scores are fabulous – very emotive – without being overwhelming – building and supporting the dramatic themes. But it really is the titular character who steals the show.
Not only is Song Seung-Heon rather beautiful to behold (he is!), but he plays to near perfection the part of the gruff, disdainful Black/Moo-Gang, struggling with his emotions, with how to proceed, with how to plot the right course. Watching his character development is a pure pleasure. It feels as if Song Seung-Heon really had fun with this role, getting to play a wide range of emotions from taciturn to endearingly silly to brusque to heroic to tragic to heart-wrenchingly romantic. He’s worth the watch alone. And he wears black very well! Very well!
Oh No, They Didn’t! Oh Yes, Unfortunately, They Did – The Ending! – SPOILERS
Black could very well spontaneously combust from all the high praise heaped upon it. I so wanted to give it a full 5 corsets. It is good, really good. Unfortunately, it couldn’t maintain the sharpness and the tightness. It combusted on its very own. The ancient Romans called it deus ex machina – when dramas suddenly dropped in a god to contrive a convenient, if illogical and inconsistent, solution. Some nowadays might call it pulling a Bobby-Ewing-in-the-shower, an allusion to the infamous Dallas trick of making an entire season of the show a dream. Yes, the last two episodes of the 18-episode series were sloppy, slipping into a self-indulgent, maudlin mess. The sharpness dulled and the tightness loosened. The tapestry started to show its holes. And the ending, oh, it just didn’t fit. So unfulfilling and disappointing.
There is much talk that the writer and the director/producer had a falling out about the ending, about how it all should go down. I’ve also read that – with initial rave reviews – two extra episodes were added to stretch the series. So, maybe those last two episodes are suffering from that on-the-fly writing and lackadaisical editing. I don’t know. But that ending almost ruins the whole series. It really does. Ugh.
But the initial disappointment does wane, and Black remains a gripping and engaging tale. It’s whetted my appetite for more. And I sure could use some of Mrs. Kim’s kimchi right about now.
Content Note: Mature thematic content with brief bouts of graphic violence and strong language. There is gore and carnage on occasion, especially involving an über creepy, knife-wielding serial killer and some other baddies. Underage prostitution, pedophilia, multiple suicides and murders, torture, rape, abuse, death, drug use, drunkenness – yeah, there is definitely disturbing content. But anything graphic is usually kept to a minimum, with no lingering, horror shots. So, it’s kept in moderation, well balanced by humor and heart and good ol’ gumshoeing. No skin or sex.
Where to Watch: Netflix.
“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My
feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me
to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
Have you seen Black? What did you think of that ending?!