If you’ve been watching Korean dramas long enough, I’m sure there are things that miff you. For instance, two lovers circumambulate each other at the airport, always missing the other by a nose. A phone goes mysteriously dead or unanswered in the most pressing of moments. An ending is so ambiguous you paw the wall in frustration.
But chief among my pet peeves is the subversion of justice. A situation is obviously wrong but nothing is done to correct it. Lies submerge the truth and the innocent is thrown into the pits, simply because the people who are supposed to uphold justice prefer to abuse it. When the abuse is outrageous (not in scope and intensity but in how stupid and unbelievable it is), then it makes me mad as hell.
That was how I felt watching the first three episodes of Scale of Providence (a.k.a. God’s Scales, 2008), a drama that I had liked at first sight but grew increasingly uncomfortable with as I continued.
Jang Joon-ha (Song Chang-ui) is a man in waiting. Everything that he has dreamed of is about to come to fruition.
If he passes the bar exam, he is one step closer to becoming a lawyer. He and his girlfriend will get married and he will finally be able to house his family under one roof. Right now his mom sleeps in the hospital where she works as a caregiver, caring for patients whose families have long forgotten them. His brother, a cab-driver, sleeps at his company while Joon-ha himself is staying at a study dormitory.
Once a month the family, together with Joon-ha’s girlfriend, will sleep together in the public sauna. The occasion is bittersweet, reminding Joon-ha of the house and life that they had left behind in the village. They have no house now, because selling it was the only way to finance his studies.
Still, the Joon-ha that we see in the opening episode is bright and cheerful, openly affectionate with his girlfriend and cautiously hopeful about the bar exam results.
But everything goes terribly wrong on the day that the results are released. With no warning the ground beneath him shifts and a chasm opens up, swallowing his dreams and everything that he holds dear.
Like Joon-ha, Kim Woo-bin (Lee Sang-yoon) is waiting for the results of the bar exam. Unlike Joon-ha, it’s not for monetary reasons that he wants to clear the exam but the desire to walk in the footsteps of his prosecutor father.
His parents’ only child, Woo-bin radiates a confidence that can only come from a lifetime of being loved fiercely and having all his needs met. His family is not wealthy (their house isn’t opulent), but you can tell they live comfortably enough.
Woo-bin’s friend and fellow law student, Hak-beom, lives in an oktapbang (literally “rooftop room” but more akin to a small apartment). His nondescript lodging will later become that abyss into which Joon-ha falls, figuratively speaking.
Hak-beom has been sitting for the bar exam for ten years, that length of time marked by his daughter’s age (she was born when he took the exam the first time). So desperate is he to pass and so sure that he’s going to fail again, he attempts a half-hearted suicide but is interrupted first by Woo-bin and then by his landlady who demands he settle his outstanding rental or vacate the premises.
“I have people interested in renting,” the landlady yells, a statement that is loaded with meaning when we return to it later. You see, the “people” who want to rent the oktapbang aren’t many, just one, and this future tenant will pay for that decision with her life.
(But how was Oh Eun-ji, played by a wonderful Im Hyo-sun, to know that the day she moved into the oktapbang would be the day of her death? All she wanted was to give Joon-ha a conducive place to study, and to give themselves some private space since the study dormitory was so cramped. She had scrimped for years, working by day in a factory and by night in a “talking” bar, where she sat and talked with patrons, most of them university students. After paying the deposit for the rental, she still had enough left over to give to Yong-ha, Joon-ha’s brother. “For your studies,” she said, “because I know you’ll go back to school if the fees come from me.”)
It’s finally the day of the bar exam results.
As expected, Woo-bin passes and Hak-beom fails. Their mutual friend, Shin Young-joo (Kim Yoo-mi) fails as well but is nonchalant about the whole thing. She is just thrilled that the Woo-bin she adores (they are supposedly dating) has passed. As for Joon-ha, the look on his face says it all.
(Some actors make you snigger when they cry, but Song Chang-ui is such a natural you can’t help but cry with him. He and Lee Hye-eun, who plays his mom, are riveting to watch. She is especially awesome.)
When Joon-ha apologizes tearfully for his failure in the bar exam and says it was wrong to have uprooted the family for his foolish dream, his mother chides him gently. “Think of your late father and all the hardships he went through. But never once did he express regret or give up.”
But her words can’t ease his disappointment, so Joon-ha does the usual in a kdrama and drowns himself in soju. Eun-ji calls him repeatedly, but he’s too ashamed to talk to her. So she leaves him a cheery message to say she’s rented the oktapbang and for him to meet her there.
And so they troop, one by one, to that rooftop room.
First Eun-ji, happily busying herself with unpacking and unaware that someone is watching her. Then Woo-bin and Young-joo, unaware that Hak-beom has already moved out. Woo-bin is drunk (passing the bar exam means a celebratory night out and drinking oneself silly) but insists that he must see Hak-beom to console him. And finally, Joon-ha.
Our main characters, congregating innocently on that stage, conscripted without their consent as actors for a play that will become their worst nightmare.
Eun-ji is dead, but the one who killed her isn’t the intruder who had grabbed her earlier, intending to rape her. No, it’s the drunk Woo-bin, who had stumbled into the room looking for Hak-beom. Thinking Woo-bin is the first attacker who has returned, Eun-ji charges at him with a hammer, hitting his crown. Woo-bin fights back, pushing her so hard she flies across the room and hits her head on a dumbbell. And then he flees.
As the wicked rub their hands in gleeful anticipation, the stage is set for our hero to make his appearance. And so Joon-ha enters the room and discovers his beloved Eun-ji lifeless on the floor.
(And even the wicked cannot be unmoved when they behold Joon-ha’s grief.)
Joon-ha screams for help and when none is forthcoming, dashes out of the oktapbang and into the path of an oncoming patrol car. Why did he not call the police when he was still cradling Eun-ji in the room? Well, we learn later his phone battery died. (What did I tell you?)
The police assign two dolts to the crime and I pull my hair out, so flabbergasted am I by the farce that is their investigation.
Relying on the flimsiest of circumstantial and hearsay evidence, they determine that it was the boyfriend who did it. Because he failed his bar exam so he was pissed. Because the landlady overheard them arguing. Because his fingerprints were all over the book that was used to ward off the victim’s hammer. Because he was running when they found him. Case closed!
Still reeling from his loss, Joon-ha now finds himself behind bars, a murder suspect. Nothing he says will convince the two dimwits that he’s innocent.
Meanwhile, the guilty one has staggered home. As testimony to how well his parents have raised him (in a caring environment where open communication is a given), Woo-bin blurts out to his astonished mom the events of that night.
I killed her. But no, it was an accident. So I didn’t really do it. But then she died, so it was me. But why did she attack me? I was provoked, so how will they classify this? Misadventure? How long will I be jailed? Two years? Just two years, right? No, I didn’t kill her. What should I do, Mom? I’m going to ask Dad, he’ll know. He’ll tell me what to do.
No, no, you mustn’t call Dad. You know how he is, he even prosecuted your uncle, remember? He’s so busy with the JD Group case now, don’t call him. Go to sleep, my son. Everything will be okay tomorrow, you’ll see. You didn’t do it, you didn’t kill her. It was an accident!
Look, Mom, on the Internet. It says here they’ve caught the guy. Her boyfriend. But how can that be? She was alive when I got there. How could he have killed her?
Son, you were drunk. How could you remember? Of course he killed her.
If you keep whitewashing a lie, pretty soon you can’t separate fib from truth so commingled have the lines become.
So Woo-bin’s world for now is intact even as Joon-ha’s crumbles. Only two persons witnessed what happened in that oktapbang and one of them is dead. The other, even in his confused state, has removed his fingerprints from the scene. No one can place Woo-bin at the scene of the crime because he has left nothing there to incriminate himself, or so it seems.
The last time she saw her son, he had been miserable about failing the bar exam. Now she gets a call, from the police, telling her that he’s prime suspect in the murder of his girlfriend. No, it can’t be, you have the wrong man. My son is Jang Joon-ha. JANG JOON HA!
How could the world collapse within a day? Sweet Eun-ji, whom she had loved like a daughter, now gone forever. Her Joon-ha, whom she loved more than life itself, incarcerated for the most heinous of crimes. For killing Eun-ji? God, this can’t be real.
When his mother faints at the police station, Yong-ha (Oh Tae-kyeong) knows that she is not going to be able to withstand the continued blows. If Joon-ha is found guilty, his mom’s life is pretty much over. It had always been that way, her love for her older son more evident than her love for him. Not that he, Yong-ha, minded; Joon-ha had more prospects, of course, and their family’s future depended on him.
And so Yong-ha decides he’ll be the fall guy for his brother, he’ll confess to the killing. It’s the only way to save their mother.
Here is where I pause the video to scream.
Do the dunces at the police station believe Yong-ha when he comes forward to claim responsibility for the murder? What do you think? Never mind that the new suspect can’t recall the weapon that he used for the crime. If they could buy the landlady’s leaky testimony, they jolly well could buy Yong-ha’s incredibly thin confession.
I’ll stop with the recap here because all of a sudden I have a migraine from remembering the two utterly inept police officers. Let’s leave it to Joon-ha to uncover the truth, as he vows. He’s free now, after all, since the police are more than happy to approve the swap of suspects. The new suspect’s mom and brother can protest his innocence as vehemently as they want, the puhleezemen’s ears are too blocked to hear a thing anyway.
Will I continue with the drama?
Yes, certainly. Justice needs to be served and I want to be there to see it. Can’t have more innocent people jailed because of bungled police investigations, can we? Woo-bin can’t hide behind his parents forever. Joon-ha must take the bar exam again so that he can prove his brother’s innocence and nail the real culprit. Young-joo must stop idolizing Woo-bin and stop behaving like an airhead herself. (Kim Yoo-mi is just too chirpy in the first three episodes. Stop overacting and I might yet like you.) Jeon Hye-bin finally appeared in Episode 3 and she did what every good girl should do when made the butt of a lame betting joke: threaten to sue. You go, girl. Love that spunk!
Other reasons to continue?
The flashes of Rebirth and Devil that I see here. The fact that this is written by the same writer of Green Rose. The generally solid acting (crank it up a few notches, Lee Sang-yoon, and you’ll hold your own with Song Chang-ui). The veteran cast (even if they’re made to do ridiculous things, like jog in the prosecutor’s interrogation room). And because no matter how I whine and rant about the things that irk me in kdramas, I still keep coming back for more. Call it providence.