Samseng Zhabor

By Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor

Don’t Look Back: The Legend of Orpheus, or Shark, or wow that was a lot

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Samseng Zhabor
I’ve been thinking about what this newsletter is supposed to be. I started it with no idea and no real plans except for it to be a secondary newsletter where I can write about things that aren’t related to my work, thus allowing myself to indulge in writing as a hobby and sharing fun things. So far, this means that the newsletter has been pretty haphazard, lurching from family things to drama to cats to random musings. I’m not sure if this is what people really want to read!
I’m thinking of tidying it up a bit to keep this newsletter mostly about drama/books/cats, rather than the personal musings and reflections that could just go on the blog on my website, or be expressed through writing about dramas or books or cats. What do you think? Feel free to hit reply with feedback/ideas!

I’d originally assumed that one needed light, fluffy rom-coms to unwind and destress, but sometimes a really intense melodrama can do the trick too.
I hadn’t intended to start watching Don’t Look Back: The Legend of Orpheus (or Shark, which is a translation of its Korean title), but clicked on it on a whim one night because I really like the lead actors, Kim Nam-gil (who I loved in The Fiery Priest, which I should write about for this newsletter one day), and Son Ye-jin (of the glorious Crash Landing On You). I figured that since they’re both so good at their jobs, how wrong could I get?
Damn drama sia
Damn drama sia
Fortunately, this isn’t another “a super effed up drama I watched” issue of The King’s Woman variety. To be honest, I wasn’t pitching my expectations very high; I figured that Don’t Look Back would probably be some makjang melo like The Innocent Man, which was an off-the-hook ridic revenge rollercoaster.
There was still a lot of high drama, like a character getting stuck with a poison syringe by a hitman while crossing the road, and an assassination attempt that involved driving a massive truck into a phone booth that appeared to be, for some weird reason, free-standing on the road. But it wasn’t just a never-ending soap opera like The Innocent Man; there was a mystery at the heart of this show that got slowly revealed as layers were peeled back episode by episode.
Revenge, served cold
Our story begins with the blossoming friendship (and perhaps more) of Han Yi-soo (Yun Joon-suk playing him as a teen, Kim Nam-gil as an adult) and Jo Hae-woo (Kyung Soo-jin as a teen, Son Ye-jin as an adult). Yi-soo’s father is the personal chauffeur of Hae-woo’s grandfather, a self-made man now presiding over Gaya Hotel group, and the Han family has moved into the servant’s quarters in the Jo family’s huge compound, while Yi-soo has transferred into Hae-woo’s class at school. She starts off a troubled, angry poor little rich girl, but warms up to this quiet but steady boy.
This can’t last, of course, because where would the 20 episodes of intense violin background music come from otherwise?
Han Yi-soo and Jo Hae-woo during the good times.
Han Yi-soo and Jo Hae-woo during the good times.
Hae-woo’s father, the Gaya Hotel empire’s failson, is involved in a hit-and-run while drunk-driving. A man from an NGO who visited Hae-woo’s grandfather ends up murdered that same night. Yi-soo’s father, to his disbelief, admits to the hit-and-run, but is murdered the next day on the way to the police station. When Yi-soo digs into the case to clear his late dad’s name, he stumbles upon another dark secret related to Hae-woo’s grandfather, and whammo! someone tries to take him out by running him over with a truck. By the time Detective Byun (Park Won-sang) gets to the scene, the phone booth Yi-soo was in is a shattered wreck, his blood is everywhere on the road, but the boy is nowhere to be found.
Pretty much everyone assumes that Yi-soo is dead, which is understandable because the odds of Truck vs Human aren’t in his favour. Hae-woo, haunted by this sudden loss of her best friend/childhood sweetheart, gives up her art school plans and becomes a prosecutor, intent on uncovering the truth behind his disappearance.
It’s a good thing someone’s still on the case, because Yi-soo isn’t dead; he was rescued just in the nick of time by a mysterious Korean-Japanese hotelier with back alley yakuza links (lol), and ferreted off to Japan where he recovers from his serious injuries — which alter his appearance; only in the drama universe do you get hit by a truck and wind up looking like Kim Nam-gil — and plots his revenge.
I'm assuming lots of plastic surgery was done after Han Yi-soo was hit by a truck but come on, that's still damn good (except for the stupid moustache).
I'm assuming lots of plastic surgery was done after Han Yi-soo was hit by a truck but come on, that's still damn good (except for the stupid moustache).
12 years later, Yi-soo returns to Korea as Kim Joon, heir to the Japanese Giant Hotel group. In the early hours of the morning, Hae-woo receives a mysterious call claiming to have the answers she’s been looking for. When she rushes to the scene, though, all that’s left is the corpse of a crooked ex-cop who’d been involved in covering up the hit-and-run blamed on Yi-soo’s dad.
From then on, Hae-woo and Detective Byun are fed clues that push them to uncover, bit by bit, what really happened. But what is the truth that will be uncovered at the end of the day, and what will the fall-out of such revelations be?
The premise is like Nirvana in Fire (although that drama is still far superior to this one), where a wronged protagonist returns, unrecognisable and with a new identity, to expose past misdeeds and avenge murdered family members… except this time it’s with corrupt hoteliers. (People drink in hotel bars a lot.)
I have 🤨 Thoughts about the ending (which I won’t spoil), but overall I liked the themes of dealing with past guilt, and how mistakes can reverberate across generations, especially if one refuses to accept responsibility and atone for the harm that’s been done.
Han Yi-soo/Kim Joon was broody and mysterious and cold, but Kim Nam-gil also managed to make me feel for the character, who’s ultimately someone who lived half his life desperately lonely and consumed by pain. Son Ye-jin’s Jo Hae-woo was remarkably dogged, even though I had a hard time really seeing her as a prosecutor — the outfits that the production put her in just don’t make sense. You don’t wear three-inch heels and short skirts/shorts to pound pavements and investigate crimes! You just don’t! (Also, considering how they emphasised that she was doing much of this investigating off-the-books, she doesn’t seem to do any of her actual work. No one seems to notice, except me.)
I’ve got problems, but at least I haven’t been hit by a truck
I don’t usually watch Korean melodramas because I have this impression of ridiculous and repeated tropes, and far-fetched circumstances that often introduces drama for drama’s sake. This impression has so far not been disproved, and I doubt I’ll be consuming that much more melodrama, but with Don’t Look Back I’ve found quite a good use for them.
Similar to going to a sauna to make oneself sweat it all out, watching a high-intensity drama like that actually turned out to be very effective as a way to escape from the real-life stressors and pressures that I’ve been feeling — even more effective in helping my brain tune out than if I were watching happy sweet shows. Perhaps there’s some measure of schadenfreude? Or the opportunity to project one’s anxiety on to something completely disconnected with real life? I mean, I might have problems with authoritarianism and work and capitalism-induced guilt, but at least I haven’t been hit by a truck, brought up by yakuza to work in a corrupt hotel business, and forced onto an all-consuming path of revenge while growing a stupid moustache.
Thinking like this is, for some reason, comforting.
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Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor
Kirsten, the Samseng Zhabor @kixes

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