Mawang was my first true love. Delightful Girl Choon Hyang (reviewed here) was a mere trifle, a bitty flirtation with a spot of flimsy fun. With Mawang (also known as The Devil or Lucifer, KBS 2007), my affections were seriously spoken for. The show grabbed me and made me contemplate committing for life. Merely for the chance of watching another gem like Mawang am I now willing to endure (and have in fact endured) hours of forgettable k-drama.
In my more enthusiastic moments I think everyone must love Mawang. What’s there not to love about a gripping, well-acted, impeccably executed and thought-provoking show with a stunning soundtrack? However, I have to concede that I’m sometimes spectacularly out of alignment with popular opinion. So, I’ve devised a little test for Mawang viewer compatibility:
Is Mawang for You?
1. People quote from Dante’s Inferno, and the show is sprinkled with images from Rodin’s Gates of Hell and references to Greek mythology. The show dares to ask questions about redemption and forgiveness. Do you…
(a) Run for the hills, screaming, “No! My brain hurts!”; or
(b) Fall on your knees and thank the drama gods that there is still intelligent life on television.
2. Pretty much from the start of the 20-episode show, you know that this is not going to be delivering the easy, pretty, rainbow-wrapped ending where everyone hands out facile forgiveness and lives happily and romantically ever after. Do you…
(a) Hit the “stop” button and reach for your Boys Over Flowers DVD; or
(b) Settle down and gleefully anticipate a challenging journey to an interesting place.
3. A show doesn’t have very much romance or laughs. In fact, it is almost guaranteed to make you feel sad, if not stricken. Its tone is dark and foreboding. Would you rather…
(a) Re-watch Coffee Prince for the seventh time or check out the latest Hong Sisters’ bag of giggles; or
(b) With a happy sigh of anticipation, check that your tissue-paper box is at hand and press “play”.
4. As you watch, you have a hard time figuring out what is black and what is white. And, after a while, even who is the hero and who is the villain. Do you feel…
(a) Like someone is messing with your head and you Don’t Like It; or
(b) Delighted that a script dares to be sophisticated and that a writer is not talking down to you.
If your answers are mostly (b), all systems are “go”!
The Suspense. Oh, the Suspense.
When I watched Mawang for the first time, something quite extraordinary happened. I felt scared. I felt a real sense of dread on behalf of the people in the story. And this is remarkable because I have the type of mind which tends to be objective and analytical. While watching a drama, even when moved to tears one part of me is standing at a distance analysing what is going on. But with Mawang, I was sucked into the story and into the lives of its characters and was on the edge of my seat as to how things were going to pan out. Partly because this was still only my seventh k-drama ever (and my first non-romcom) so I didn’t know how deep and dark the conventions of k-drama would let this go (answer: quite far deep and dark). And partly due to the sheer brilliance of its water-tight plot-building and character development.
The flip side of being as plot-driven as Mawang is that re-watching is never as jaw-dropping a ride as virgin marathoning. (Which is not to say that a re-watch doesn’t yield any dividends – Dang! This show is SO GOOD!) There’s something very compelling about watching a train about to crash and not knowing how or when or if anyone will step out of the smoking wreckage. But it’s not even as if there are dazzling twists and turns. Clues are very liberally scattered along the way, there isn’t heaps of mystery, and right from the start everyone knows it will all end in tears, one way or another. I think it takes a particular type of brilliance to make a story and its people matter so much that your attention is held in a vice grip for episodes on end with no let-up in the tension.
The Gripping Moral Dilemmas
And the question of where the show was headed was not just one of “where are the script-writers going to take this plot?” but also one of “where is this show going to come out on the moral dilemmas?” This show is for sure a revenge thriller. But more than that, it is a philosophical exploration.
When one has done wrong, should one be punished in proportion to blameworthiness, or in proportion to the suffering that resulted from the wrong? At the other end of the equation, when one has been wronged, to what extent is inflicting punishment justified, and where is the line drawn between justice and malicious vengeance? When evil has been irreparably done, is there hope for redemption? What is redemption anyway? Does forgiveness dilute justice? Can there be healing after terrible wrong? Does revenge bring healing or does it prevent healing? What price does vengeance exact on the soul of the avenger?
These are profound and weighty questions of life (and death). Some might say, even, the ultimate questions. Who would have thought that a mere tv programme would be inviting us to ponder these questions more deeply.
The Role Ambiguity
When the show opens, Kang Oh Soo is set up as the hero of the piece. He is the righteous, loyal, straight-talking, scruffily down-to-earth police officer. Oh Seung Ha is the traditional lawyer villain; clever, painstaking and masterful, he is quietly frightening as he engineers ill events which are intricately conceived and killingly loaded with poetic justice and irony.
As the drama progresses, however, the assigned roles shift disconcertingly. Kang Oh Soo doth indeed protest too much, for he is not up to the righteous moral standards he champions. It seems he is a policeman because he needs to purge himself of guilt and is driven to embrace the light of justice in order to flee from the darkness within himself. At the same time, cracks start showing in Oh Seung Ha’s wall of ruthlessness and before long you are astonished to find yourself feeling sorry for the man in whom dwells a hurt and lonely little boy. As he eventually confesses, he just can’t step out of the tunnel.
So, who is the titular devil? Who is the hero and who is the villain? Who is more culpable? Or are they both victims?
To me, the whole point of the show is that there is no straight answer to the question “Who is the devil?”. If obliged to answer this question, I would say, “Neither man. And both men.” And I love this. For isn’t this life? Are there straight-forward wrongs or rights, heroes or victims, in this crazy, complex and amazing life of ours? Dig deep enough into any hero and you will find blemishes, and dig deep enough behind any failed human being and you will find betrayal or a hurt soul.
This is a thinking drama. But not in a tedious, turgid or overly self-conscious way. There is plenty of basic human drama (revenge, murder, intrigue) to keep you entertained and zip you along at a clipping pace. And it doesn’t lecture you. But if you care to pay attention, its thoughtfulness is breath-taking.
One of my favourite moments first appears in Episode Four. Rodin’s sculpture The Gates of Hell (which includes the famous “thinker”) has already turned up as a motif. Oh Seung Ha stands silent before a reproduction of the Gates of Hell in a train station, doubtless contemplating justice and punishment. It is an effective if unsubtle moment, and it reappears in subsequent episodes. But then it dawned on me: Each time this scene is played out, the camera carefully pans to include shots of people moving up and down escalators… Oh my word! It’s the levels of hell! And suddenly, Dante explodes into modern life.
This show is just so smart. And technically (directing, editing, camera work, …) it kicks all kinds of ass.
A psychological thriller is very dependent on its cast being able to plumb the debts of the soul. And here I feel the show really shines.
Uhm Tae Woong is such a pro, he appears to assert no effort being Kang Oh Soo. He swaggers with confidence, then he is tortured by self-doubt. He is defensive, then he is vulnerable. He is adorably inapt in love and heart-breakingly transparent in pain. He makes you know him and care about his character; you fall for his charm, then you are disappointed with him, and then you fear for him and you weep with him.
I was smitten by Shin Min Ah here. Even though I recognized that her character was a cipher – a moral, forgiving, strong-hearted paragon – I nonetheless fell for it. (It doesn’t hurt that she is radiant here.) I readily bought into the whole construct of a beautiful woman with a pure soul who lives simply and virtuously, and in true saintly fashion always has the perfectly wise thing to say on every occasion. I didn’t see her as the plot device she undoubtedly was. I’m usually allergic to two-dimensionally angelic women in the saved-by-the-love-of-a-good-woman set-up. But I felt that Shin Min Ah brought enough earnestness and depth to her role to avoid preciousness.
I’ve never seen her in another role I like as much – A Love to Kill was unbearable and in My Girlfriend is a Gumiho I thought she was cute but I couldn’t connect with her – so Seo Hae In remains my favourite Shin Min Ah incarnation.
Joo Ji Hoon was a revelation here. Purge your memory of him clumsily eeking out constipated expression from his poser Prince Shin in Goong. In Mawang he takes on a conflicted character and turns in a performance that would make a veteran proud. In the early episodes he makes controlled use of his screen presence to convincingly convey sinister menace. And just as you think he is merely a revenge machine, he starts to waver and we glimpse the damaged soul and the beating heart inside the implacable avenger. It’s quite a trick. Watch Beautiful Bot Boy flip, on a dime, between Diabolical Mastermind and Little Boy Lost!
The rest of the cast was likewise excellent, realizing a range of characters from righteous to reprehensible and every ambiguous shade in between. Aided by a thoughtful script and careful character construction, they brought to life a complex web of lives which could otherwise easily have been little more than impersonal pieces on a chess-board.
To this day, this is one of my favourite soundtracks. I love the use of the harpsichord and how it hints at ancient and timeless moral hazard. I was intrigued by the novelty and effectiveness of using the waltz as a sinister motif (though I now realize that this is a common k-drama musical trick). Sometimes I lingered on my DVD menu just so as to savour the evocative and haunting music a little longer.
Sample for yourself, the magnificent opening credits
The Supernatural (alas)
Mawang may in some quarters be advertised as a show about a woman with supernatural powers. But this is misleading, because while this slots into the plot, it is neither the focus nor a determining factor in the playing out of events. Our heroine Seo Hae In does indeed have powers of psychometry, which means that she can supernaturally “see” things connected to objects she touches. But her powers are limited – she only sees very selectively and she can’t control how much she sees.
Frankly I’m not very sure why this supernatural stuff is in the plot at all. The story could easily have worked without the supernatural component. Maybe that element had to be thrown in to convince stupid television executives? (“It’s got tarot cards! And mind-reading! It’s like the Twilight Zone or the X-Files, and you know that’s very trendy!”) Oh well, at least its nod to myth enlarged its theme to the timeless and universal, and I suppose it added a certain frisson to have supernatural unpredictability thrown into a web of tightly orchestrated events. Personally, I’m fine with the supernatural aspect even though I think it was superfluous, because I don’t think it was over-used as a plot device.
Proper Police Procedure (Hallelujah!)
If you read my Prosecutor Princess review, you may recall that I got inordinately irritated by that show flouting criminal procedure and proper legal process. Oh, chill out, you may say, it’s only a show! Since when did any tv show get criminal procedure right anyway?
Since Mawang. In Mawang, you need a warrant of arrest to apprehend a bad guy, and you need substantive evidence before you can get that warrant. In Mawang, a policeman can get into serious trouble for threatening suspects or busting into premises without a search arrest. Police investigation work is laboriously meticulous and proper. And autopsies are left to the forensic pathologists. See, folks, it can be done! You can have a perfectly exciting plot without having to break all rules of proper police procedure. Clever and law-abiding Mawang, I love you!
The Meta Mystery (and injustice)
Mawang was written by Kim Ji Woo and directed by Park Chan Hong, the pair of whom had a winning partnership going. Two years prior to Mawang they wrote and directed Resurrection, another critically acclaimed revenge thriller also starring Uhm Tae Woong. Some like Resurrection better but personally I didn’t find Resurrection as slick or the characters or story as compelling as Mawang’s. In any event, the pair of them were clearly on a roll. Why haven’t they written or directed a thing since? Now there’s a mystery for you. Or, perhaps, not quite so much a mystery. For while Resurrection managed to exceed 20% ratings for its final episode, Mawang sadly (and inexplicably) languished in single-digit ratings.
I have to mention Maou, a Japanese remake of Mawang. Not because it is any good, but because it is so very bad. Which just goes to show that Mawang is not just about plot. Because Maou stuck fairly faithfully to the plot, with some inevitable condensation to get it from 20-episodes to dorama length of 11 episodes. And it was incredibly, stupendously, outstandingly boring. It was so boring I never made it past the first few episodes, even with fast-forwarding. I watched just enough to see that, yes the plot runs along the same rails and, nope, it ain’t workin’.
I don’t know much about film craft, so I can’t tell you exactly, technically, what the (vast) difference is. But it seems to me that when you take away the awesome mature actors and replace them with a couple of Johnny’s boys and a vapid young actress, when you lose the superb directing and editing, when you replace thoughtful depth with cheap sensational suspense, and when you take away the elegant soundtrack and replace it with (*gag*) Arashi numbers, what was one of the best and most absorbing tv shows I’d ever watched was reduced to an affair of mind-numbing mediocrity. Yes, my friends, it is more than a plot that maketh a show.
I felt quite satisfied with the ending. What, you say? Am I mad? Our heroes die deaths which could have been avoided. And die simultaneously and tragically. And our heroine is left standing alone, devastated. And I was satisfied?
Well, not satisfied emotionally, of course. I cried, of course, and my heart broke a little. But satisfied intellectually and philosophically. By a certain point in the show, you know that things can’t end well. So much ill has happened, and there has been so much wrong done and so much wronged against, it was impossible for everyone to just chill and have a nice cup of tea, calm down, forget about everything, and settle into normal life. A happy ending would have lacked integrity.
The way I read the ending, both men had come to forgive the other and, to some extent and more importantly, to forgive themselves. And that was the best outcome anyone could have hoped for. At least they didn’t perish in bitter hate. The outcome wasn’t all that bleak considering that things had gotten to the point where even Oh Seung Ha wasn’t in control anymore and had become practically a helpless passenger on a train of events and moral consequences he had set in motion and could not stop. Or had he in fact deliberately created a whirlwind which he knew would sweep him up along with all the other protagonists and destroy them all in an almighty conflagration? In any event, it seems to me that death, for them both, was a blessed release.
End of Spoiler
A Final Word
Finally, the last word has to go to the brilliant creators of this masterpiece: I must tell you about my Limited Edition DVD set. If any of you owns this and hasn’t broken it out, or intends to purchase it, stop reading right now.
For the rest of you:– The Limited Edition DVD Set is one of these box affairs, with four plastic DVD holders tucked tightly in the box. When I neared the end of the series, my mind deep in the world of the show, I pulled out the fourth DVD holder… and a red envelope fell out of the DVD box!!!! I nearly had a heart attack. For a split second I thought, “OMG, I’m going to die!” (In the show, every time someone receives a red envelope containing a tarot card, something very terrible befalls the recipient.)
In case you are wondering, my red envelope contained three playing cards, each with a picture of one of the lead actors. And, of course, it must have been carefully inserted into the box so that it fell out with the last DVD holder, not the first. So clever, right? Sigh. That just about sums up the show. So clever.