Devil (a.k.a. Lucifer or its Korean title, Mawang, 2007).
I love the title. It’s so in-your-face, instantly conjuring up something that’s dark and evil. Yet it is also cryptic, because what does it mean? Is it referring to a character? Or a mastermind behind the characters? Who is the devil in Devil?
But before we ponder that weighty question, let’s get a few trifles out of the way.
First, isn’t life funny? I fled from his first drama after 30 minutes because I couldn’t stand his wooden acting. So what if you’re a prince? The tree you’re standing under has more life than you! I didn’t know his name then and didn’t bother to find out. Now that same actor is one of the main reasons why I love Devil. His acting here mesmerized me so much I became even more catatonic than his character in Goong. Uncanny how he can command the appearance of one solitary tear whenever it is most needed. Take a bow, Joo Ji-hoon. You were fantastic in Devil.
Second, Shin Mina is the female lead, and she’s the one with the psychic powers (as well as drawing skills I would kill for), but she is eclipsed here by the two male leads. If you told me two years ago that Joo Ji-hoon would one day out-perform Shin Mina in a drama, I would fall off my chair howling. (I’ll have the humble pie for breakfast, thank you.) But even if her role is less demanding, she’s her usual sweet and assured self. No underacting or overacting at all.
Third, Uhm Tae-woong is adorable (especially when he’s being shy or flustered with Seo Hae-in, Shin Mina’s character) and has the cutest lopsided smile. But you already know that.
Fourth, this drama is highly addictive, so cancel all appointments and hot dates because you won’t be able to tear yourself away from the screen. Don’t recoil in shock when you look at your reflection in the mirror because you’ll have eye bags the size of tea bags. But it’ll be all worth it. Why? Because 2007 was a year when kdrama addicts everywhere slipped on their own drool salivating over the sheer quality of the year’s offerings. And Devil was one of the best in that year.
Okay, now for more serious (and SPOILERY) musings.
This is one of those dramas that will divide its viewers. It pits two men against each other in a bitter struggle for revenge, truth and justice. As you watch, you will root for one and despise the other. Even when you watch a pivotal scene multiple times, your perception of that scene — of what really transpired in a scrap yard years ago — will depend on which of the two male lead characters you are rooting for and believe.
The first time I watched Devil I believed a murder took place in that scrap yard. Because my sympathies were with the lawyer character, I hurt for him and I processed the drama through his eyes. Then I watched Devil a second time, even a third (because that is how much I love this drama), and I was astonished that my perception had changed. I now believed the young man who died in that yard died because of an accident. No one killed him, and thus to pin the blame on the detective character and to plot revenge on him was simply the workings of a twisted evil mind.
How is it that I can watch the same scene — the most important flashback in the drama — many times and come away with a different interpretation each time? That is the marvel of Devil’s brilliant script, birthed by the same Kim Ji-woo who wrote Korea’s most perfect revenge drama, Rebirth. That is the wonder of her complex characterization, giving us two lead characters who are every shade of gray.
In Episode 1 we learn what drives Kang Oh-soo (Uhm Tae-woong). The world that he inhabits is divided very simply into two types of people: bad guys and those who catch them.
As a detective, Oh-soo’s mission is to catch the bad guys. Simple as that. It’s a tunnel vision of the world that he makes no apologies for. The abrasive and cocky way in which he goes about his work, catching crooks like Ssangkal, shows that he clearly puts himself on the side of the good guys.
What makes bad guys end up on the wrong side of the law? That bit does not seem to matter to him; he is just full of disdain for them. According to Oh-soo’s team leader, no one nabs more criminals than Oh-soo. He is truly a star detective.
When did that divide (good vs. bad guys) begin to crumble? At the crime reenactment scene with Jo Dong-sub. Like he did many times before, Oh-soo acted as the victim. But this time, something falls apart within him, as if a crack has opened up in the ceiling of a darkened room and the new light reveals previously hidden shadows.
As Jo Dong-sub reenacts Lawyer Kwon’s death, Oh-soo remembers how he had stabbed his classmate twelve years ago. That event and its ensuing guilt had been pushed into his subconscious mind all these years. He had poured his heart into his work as a keeper of the law. But now everything comes back to haunt him. With Yoon Dae-shik’s death, the good vs. bad divide crumbles completely and Oh-soo realizes the awful truth: he is himself a bad guy. He is the bad guy who killed Jung Tae-hoon and now he is the bad guy indirectly responsible for Dae-shik’s death.
Realizing what a hypocrite he has been, he submits his resignation. “I’m a bad guy. I don’t have the right to be a detective… I forgot about that, that I’m worthless, that I’m a bad guy, I forgot about it.” But the team leader rejects his resignation and instead gives him a tongue-lashing: “How bad of a person you were, how shameful you were, don’t forget it. And in order to not forget, keep living.”
As events escalate, Oh-soo makes a new vow: he will catch the mastermind even if it means following him to hell. So now the tables are turned. The bad guy is going to catch the bad guy. I find the tunnel analogy very interesting in this new regard because Hae-in tells Oh-soo that to overcome his feelings of guilt and worthlessness, he has to go into the tunnel. He has to confront his demons, so to speak.
But who is in that tunnel? The mastermind. The one manipulating everything and having the last laugh at Oh-soo’s expense. And without realizing the irony of it all (because she doesn’t know the truth yet), Hae-in tells Oh Seung-ha (Joo Ji-hoon) that he has to come out of the tunnel. But she doesn’t know that that tunnel (of despair, hatred and revenge) is where Seung-ha has lived, figuratively speaking, for the last twelve years.
As I watch Devil, I keep asking myself this question: Why don’t I dislike Seung-ha? He is clearly evil and despicable the way he causes the deaths of one person after another. I am especially uncomfortable with how he uses Sora and her mother to achieve his goals. He tells little Sora, “I will help you find your mom.” But he does the opposite, separating a child from her mother.
Yet instead of judging him, I side with Seung-ha from the beginning. Blame that particularly warm smile that Seung-ha gave Hae-in in their first scene together. Or blame a character flaw (mine) for making me all gooey-eyed in front of a villain who’s lonely and tormented. I must have a weakness for tall and lanky characters who seem cold-hearted on the outside but are nursing deep wounds inside. (Case in point: Kang Dong-won in Magic.) Starting from Episode 14, when Seung-ha realizes that someone very dear to him now knows the truth about him, I essentially cry every episode for him. Or how about this foreshadowing that hints at Seung-ha’s divided character? In Episode 1’s theft-that-wasn’t scene in the library, Hae-in says, “People who like fairy tales aren’t bad.” Then later, in Seung-ha’s first scene as he walks into the prison, the prison warden tells him, “My daughter loves the fairy tale you got her.” See? Seung-ha likes fairy tales and therefore he can’t be really bad!
Perhaps it’s also because I see a Seung-ha who wants to break free of that hell which is the tunnel but can’t. For someone whose apartment is often in semi-darkness (and who is supposedly the devil in the drama), he is constantly looking at the sky. His favorite song is Over the Rainbow… where skies are blue.
[MAJOR ENDING SPOILERS BELOW]
The opening scene in Episode 1 shows us young Hae-in cycling with her friends. They look so happy and carefree. Rewatching that scene after I finished Devil the first time, I thought of Kang Oh-soo and Oh Seung-ha and how both had lost their hopes and innocence at 17 and 16 years respectively. The future should be so bright for them, yet that fateful day turned it into one dark tunnel.
But let’s talk about the ending.
“Like you said before, it doesn’t matter if I killed Tae-hoon on purpose or not. What matters is that I didn’t do anything to tell the truth. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I love the final scene between Oh-soo and Seung-ha. It’s my favorite scene in the entire drama and even though it makes me cry every single time I watch it, I can’t stop replaying it. I’ve almost memorized the words. Oh-soo’s apology made me, as a viewer, forgive him finally. The compassion in his eyes as he looked at Seung-ha just broke my heart. If not for a school brawl gone horribly wrong, these two might have been close. Seung-ha would address Oh-soo as “hyung” just like how he called Yeong-chul. How differently life would have turned out.
Was Oh-soo’s apology that one thing that Seung-ha sought all those years? I’ve thought long and hard about Seung-ha’s exact motive for the string of murders. What did he want? A tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye? To make Oh-soo suffer? To destroy all that was precious to Oh-soo? What did he really want?
But first let’s consider what caused Tae-hoon’s mom to die. This is important because I believe her pain and passing pushed her younger son over the edge and transformed him into the Seung-ha that he would become.
Yes, she was drunk so she got hit by the truck as she was trying to cross the road. But her drinking was because Oh-soo’s trial ended in his favor. He was pronounced innocent because he acted in self-defense. Tae-hoon allegedly instigated the whole brawl because he had the knife with him. He taunted Oh-soo and made him see red. In the ensuing struggle, the boys fell and Tae-hoon got stabbed. It was the victim’s fault. End of story. So now not only had she lost the son she loved more than the world, she had to sit in court and hear his name and character being maligned. In her grief and anger, she drank until she got drunk and then she herself lost her life.
Yes, Oh-soo was only 17 at that time. So I can understand if he didn’t have the guts to reveal the truth that it was he who had taken the knife out of Tae-hoon’s pocket, pointed it menacingly at him, and then rushed toward Tae-hoon to stab him. That’s the big difference between how Lawyer Kwon died (during his skirmish with Jo Dong-sub) and how Tae-hoon died. Tae-hoon was stabbed by Oh-soo (although I accept that Oh-soo didn’t mean to kill him).
Let’s assume Oh-soo really, really believed it was an accident. It doesn’t negate the fact that he rushed at Tae-hoon with the knife (unless he’s completely blocked off that fact in his mind). He never acknowledged that he was also to blame. He never told the complete truth, not in court and not in the next 12 years. He went on with his life and the boy he killed became just another closed file in the criminal annals. Listen to what he said to the ‘reformed’ thugs at the billiard room: “You know I hate boys with knives. It’s very dangerous. You might even kill someone. Someone innocent.” Words uttered with nary a tinge of guilt or self-reproach. The irony of it all.
I don’t believe that Oh-soo went out of his way to be a zealous cop so that he could use that as a way of atoning for his past sins. I take him at his word when he said he had completely forgotten what happened 12 years ago. Why? Because Oh-soo never acts. He’s always an open book. What you see is what you get. That’s the huge difference between him and Seung-ha. Look at how he treated thugs like Ssangkal or a murder suspect like Jo Dong-sub. Look at how he treated his own pal Sun-ki who’s been in and out of jail. He clearly had a disdain for people on the wrong side of the law. There wasn’t any obvious dualism of good and evil in him until Seung-ha came along.
Thus I don’t see Oh-soo as a man struggling between being good or bad. He simply pushed his mistakes out of his mind and they weren’t awakened until the first tarot card came. His redemption, so to speak, started only then. And who was responsible for his “redemption”? Oh Seung-ha. Oh-soo started to change after the first murder, Lawyer Kwon’s. And because I knew he wasn’t faking his zeal as a cop, that made his gradual transformation all that much credible and believable. As his past began to come back to him, he began to accept responsibility for the tragic chain of events orchestrated by Seung-ha. He was the cause of it all.
But although he knew all the events were tied to his past 12 years ago, he still did not come out to set things right. He kept insisting it was an accident. Until he realized Seung-ha was Tae-sung, he never (as far as I can recall) expressed sorrow for the deaths of Tae-hoon’s mom and brother. He was so caught up in trying to nail the mastermind.
Whatever anguish Oh-soo felt was more selfish than repentant. “Woe is me because I’m the cause of my friends’ deaths.” Just self-beating and more self-beating. Always looking inward. Always that outrage at Seung-ha for orchestrating everything. Why did he bring the pistol to the scrap yard if not to kill Seung-ha? But along the way or when he reached the yard, something happened inside him and he changed his mind. Face to face with his nemesis, he finally uttered the words that he should have said so long ago: “I didn’t do anything to tell the truth. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I believe Seung-ha knew that this was their final confrontation. When he gave his most prized possession, his mom’s ring, to Hae-in, he clearly was behaving like a man making final preparations for his own death. That’s why when he got knifed outside his car, he was at first stunned and then bemused (note the slight smile). He got his wish but the perpetrator was a person he least expected. He, who had planned everything down to its minutest detail, had not foreseen this particular enemy.
What about the aftermath of their deaths? What if the police thought the two men had killed each other? Oh-soo’s death was an accident, but would the police finger Seung-ha as the killer? How ironical and unjust if that were to happen. Would Hae-in be able to piece together their final moments? Would Yeong-chul finally do the right thing and clear Tae-sung’s name? After all, Yeong-chul was the start of it all. It was his knife that killed Tae-sung. He too was guilty of concealing the truth. Was he the drama’s “devil” then? But Yeong-chul brought the knife to school because he wanted to hurt Oh-soo. And why? Because Oh-soo had bullied and harassed him. So back to Oh-soo again. His fault again. But who made him that way? Why was he behaving like a bully? Because of his dad. And the dad was the one who forced him to hide the truth, bought Yeong-chul’s silence, and treated Tae-sung like scum. So was the dad the “devil” then?
What do you think? Who was the devil in Devil?