Drama Review: Defendant

Defendant, a drama that finished its run a few months ago in South Korea, was met with a warm reception by the general public. That wasn’t altogether shocking given its star-studded cast and story of chaebol corruption. There’s nothing like a good morally bereft CEO to fuel a modern K-Drama, and Defendant is no exception to the formula. But is this story more than another well-produced addition to the slew of dramas made to air the dirty laundry of the fictional chaebols of South Korea? Let’s take a closer look and see.

Korean Name: 피고인

Genre: Crime thriller/mystery

Channel: SBS

Number of Episodes: 18 episodes

Episode Length: 60 minutes

Recommended For: People with patience, fans of darker law-based dramas

NOT Recommended For: Those easily frustrated by prolonged plot points or disturbed by misery


Starring:

Ji Sung as Park Jeong Woo

Kwon Yuri as Seo Eun Hye

Eom Ki Joon as Cha Sun Ho/ Cha Min Ho

Oh Chang Seok as Kang Jun Hyuk

Uhm Hyun Kyung as Na Yeon Hee

Synopsis:

Park Jeong Woo is a successful and ambitious prosecutor for the violent crimes investigative division of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office. He lives a happy life with his wife and young daughter, winning case after case in the courtroom. Things begin to change, however, when he becomes entangled in a murder case attached to Cha Min Ho, whose twin brother Cha Sun Ho is the successor of the vastly wealthy Chamyung Group. His investigation is immediately cut short when Cha Min Ho commits suicide by leaping from his apartment’s balcony. Jeong Woo is present at the hospital to hear his final words, a whispered “Cha Min Ho.” But did he whisper is own name or his twin brother’s name, standing innocently by his deathbed? Jeong Woo has a sinking suspicion that the man he set out to catch is still alive, and now guilty of one additional murder. He makes it his goal to uncover this truth, regardless of the power and wealth the Chamyung Group may use to force him into silence.

Months later, Jeong Woo awakes in a prison cell only to discover he is on death row and his retrial is rapidly approaching. However, he has no recollection of the past few months, his time in prison, or what landed him there. Even more horrifying, he soon discovers he has been sentenced to death for the murder of his wife and daughter Hayeon, whose body has still not been found. Jeong Woo is faced with two options: fight for justice through the legal system or escape and unravel these mysteries by his own hand. He struggles to choose between the two, especially with the doubt of his own innocence tying his hands together like iron shackles.

Review:

Okay, first to address the elephant in the room. Defendant’s story is heavily fueled by the dreaded K-Drama trope to end all K-Drama tropes… amnesia. I will say flat-out right now:  I am not a fan of amnesia. It is too often used as a convenient and uninteresting plot device to prolong conflicts in dramas.  In fact, I dislike it so much that I almost immediately discarded this drama when I first heard the gist of it. The plot, to me, also sounded eerily similar to another amnesia-courtroom 2016 K-Drama entitled Remember: War of the Son.

But I was eventually enticed by the promise of Ji Sung, intrigued by the question of “Whodunit”, and curious about seeing SNSD’s Yuri in a more serious setting in televised entertainment. I can’t say I’m familiar with much of her past drama works. But after noticing her fellow member Yoona’s improvement in The K2, I wanted to see if Yuri could pull similar results. The final verdict? Read on to see.

Plot:

Let’s go back to what I just mentioned about glaring similarities between Defendant and Remember: War of the Son. If you look at just the vaguest synopsis of these two dramas – man on trial for brutal murder that he can’t remember – they seem pretty alike, right? However, Defendant chose to approach this problem in a completely different way. Remember gave you all the nitty-gritty details of the crime first, and then let its lawyers fight for justice afterwards. The audience was fully aware who the real perpetrator was the entire time. Defendant, however, leaves things much more uncertain. You couldn’t quite be sure Jeong Woo was the right person to root for as the plot of the story staggers between time before the murder and the present timeline. Slowly but surely, the truth is revealed. But a significant amount of the drama is told in flashbacks as Jeong Woo recovers his memories. So my worries about the overlap between these two legal dramas were unfounded. While Remember is really a courtroom drama, Defendant spends much of its run time in the prison setting instead. Overall, I can happily declare that Defendant is definitely its own story.

Not so happily, I can declare the writers struggled to convey this story in a compelling way. I was actually baffled at the writers’ decision to have one of their big reveals occur off-screen and yet devote minutes upon minutes of screentime to other less interesting “reveals.” Without giving explicit spoilers, let’s say that the writers missed a critical opportunity to endear the audience to Jeong Woo’s brother-in-law. He spent a good half of the drama being a complete ass, and I was just waiting with bated breath for him to finally make that one critical connection needed to forgive Jeong Woo. Only when he did, we as the audience didn’t even get to see his initial reaction. I could practically hear the whee-whee-wherrr sound effect when he finally reappeared in the drama after what should have been a hugely emotional reveal scene. It was such a moment of: “That’s it? That’s all you’re giving me?”

There were also some aspects of the story that pushed the boundaries of reality, and my patience. The biggest element of the plot that is guilty of this would have to be the ease at which Cha Min Ho slipped into his brother’s role as CEO. I find it wholly unbelievable to think a man who spent his life partying and drinking in his luxury apartment would know anything about running a corporation, let alone be able to do it to a degree of competency that few people around him would question it. And as heartbreaking as it is for him to know so few people could even visually recognize that the switch happened, I just can’t quite suspend that disbelief.

Speaking of heartbreaking: Defendant is quite a heavy drama. I really didn’t have it in me to watch more than two episodes of it per day because it was just so disheartening at times. You wait for just something good to happen, to anyone in involved in the story, but it never does. The bad people just get more twisted and the good people get more shafted. Of course, there are bits of humor sprinkled here and there, mostly in the form of Jeong Woo’s cellmates. There is one wonderfully meta scene in particular where the inmates are dancing along to a Twice performance on Inkigayo only to be shocked when they see Kim Minseok emceeing on the music show. Yes, the same Kim Minseok who plays their cellmate Lee Seong Gyu. These lighthearted moments were few and far between but they did work to break up some of the monotony of misery that was the rest of the storyline otherwise.

I have to say, up until episode 6 Defendant seemed fairly predictable. Unremarkable even, and all of the plot twists I saw coming in episodes prior to their big reveal. It did end up throwing me for a loop however, following the events of Episode 6, and things do pick from this point, at least in the short-term. The writers did a fantastic job with the ending scenes of most episodes, because those were the moments I really wanted to continue watching, even if much of the screen time that preceded these scenes were underwhelming.

Overall, the prioritizing of screen time to certain events was something I really thought was lacking in Defendant. I think the story could have easily been told in less than 18 episodes. And the audience would have to suffer through much less repeated flashbacks and angsty ruminating that way as well. To put this in perspective: it takes 12 episodes for us to even reach the scene that opened the drama to begin with: Jeong Woo fleeing from the prison. That’s two-thirds of the drama essentially being the “Are we there yet?” stretch of any road trip. And my legs were starting to cramp by episode 10. Defendant was initially planned to be a 16-episode drama but received a two episode extension, and it shows in the plodding pacing. Even before the extension was announced, the story just seemed to drag for me with unnecessary time being taken and shown for planning escapes and running into time-consuming obstacles. I truly don’t think an extension was warranted, but with this drama’s commercial success as reflected in its ratings, somebody certainly did. It’s a little surprising considering this drama was penned by the same person who wrote City Hunter, which I love and doesn’t prolong conflicts to unnecessarily lengths nearly as much as Defendant‘s story.

One issue with building up to a possible “conclusion” to the drama with Jeong Woo’s reunion with his daughter was at every instance of this, you knew it wouldn’t be the end game because there were three or four or seven more episodes until the drama’s planned end. It removes some of the suspense, and some of the stakes, when you know neither party is likely to die, or likely to get their ending any time soon. Perhaps because of this, the final two episodes were some of the best paced of the drama’s entire run because progress was finally being made. I will say the eventual wrap up was satisfying to watch, even if it was easy to see it all coming.

I do think the ultimate message of the drama is important, as is its representation of the corrupt and interconnected nature of government, big businesses, and the law. It’s not a situation exclusive to South Korea by any means, but I think Cha Min Ho’s scathing question of “Is there anything you can’t do in this country without money and power in this country?” to Jeong Woo as he was attempting to weasel his way out of a guilty sentence is particularly relevant. Of course, this theme isn’t new to the K-Drama scene by any stretch of the imagination. But it was interesting to see Cha Min Ho become an almost caricature for that corruption as the story progressed. To me, it really seemed as if he was a symbol of those corporate schemes and dirty deals, and I think his character was ultimately one of the best parts of the story.

Characters:

Abuse is a very serious subject, as are its effects on the mental state of all subjected to it. But if I had a quarter for every time I saw a K-Drama chairman mistreat his chaebol son, I’d be a shareholder in his company. I don’t really want to say Korean dramas make light of this situation, but sometimes it comes off as an easy way to humanize an immoral character. Or at least try to make them into someone you want to sympathize with. It’s true that Cha Min Ho suffered terribly at his father’s hands, and his father is by no means a good person. But that simply doesn’t excuse Cha Min Ho’s horrific crimes including but not limited to: crippling a rising sports star, brutally beating a woman to death for gossiping about him, and murdering a member of his own family. And as the drama goes on, so does his death toll. He’s a bad person. No way around it. And every single time I found it in me to feel even the slightest bit of sympathy towards him he would turn around and manipulate one of the only people that genuinely cared about him or lash out and hurt someone else around him. There’s really no silver lining to his character. He’s fascinating, but in the worst way possible, and I wasn’t rooting for him in any regard. Not even as the ending credits rolled around.

But while Cha Min Ho was a compelling villain, I didn’t really feel like Jeong Woo was an equally compelling hero. Perhaps because a good amount of character is not a character at all, given that he’s a very distraught man with memory loss for a fair amount of the drama. But his character was… safe, and not in a good way. When he was still an amnesiac we were seeing a shadow of what his character was supposed to be and when he finally regained his memory he was a loyal, intelligent man with a strong moral compass. Sound familiar? That’s because he’s essentially the main character of any typical legal drama just with amnesia. The only caveat to his character is that he is hell-bent on revenge towards Cha Min Ho, but even that comes secondary to his desire to rescue his daughter from his clutches. He’s a good guy, for sure. He’s just not a very interesting one to me, as far as characterization goes.

I felt like at times I was looking forward to scenes with the Cha family because they were just more complex. This may have been in part because Cha Min Ho was always either getting himself into trouble or out of it. Other characters just seemed stagnant in comparison, particularly those trapped in prison. And maybe it’s my intense hatred for amnesia as a plot device talking but seeing the once level-headed and brilliant attorney Jeong Woo completely lose all semblance of reasonable thought was just frustrating. The portrayal and manifestation of his grief was very realistic but the effect this had on his intellect was a little more doubtful. My ambivalence for Jeong Woo was in no way due to Ji Sung’s performance however. If anything, Ji Sung is the reason why Jeong Woo’s struggle was ultimately so depressing at all, because he absolutely brought his character to life. But more on that to follow.

Ji Sung (left), Oh Chang Seok, Eom Ki Joon, Kwon Yuri

Rather unexpectedly, I found myself becoming strangely invested in Cha Sun Ho’s wife Yeon Hee’s storyline. She definitely had some moral qualms in her past that made her into a flawed character. And yet, she took these mistakes and eventually learned from them to grow as an individual. I loved that she had her own agenda and was smart enough to make it happen. The safety of her son and herself is something she put above everything else, and she wasn’t afraid to use Cha Min Ho’s insecurities and fondness for her to manipulate him. That may sound a bit callous to say, but she was both resourceful and bent on self-preservation in a way I enjoyed watching. She is also one of the more pitiable characters in the drama, given the way she was forced into a loveless marriage, cheated on by her husband, and then subjected to the affections of a murderer for months and months. In the end, I’m not quite sure she’s a good person but her story was so interesting to watch play out I can’t be bothered.

In comparison, our other most prevalent female character is Seo Eun Hye, the lawyer that is Jeong Woo’s primary source of support while in jail. If Yeon Hee is a woman struggling in the gray middle ground of a black and white conflict of morals, Eun Hye is the woman in white. She’s a very nondescript character – not quite spunky enough to be memorable but not unoriginal enough to be cliched. I think she comes off somewhat as a plot device more than a character, and I would go as far to say she exists as an ex machina at one crucial point in Jeong Woo’s escape from prison. I feel mostly ambivalent to her in that I have nothing to really complain about her, as she felt like a genuine person. But I just couldn’t make an emotional connection to anything she did.

One character I did have a major problem with was Jeong Woo’s friend and fellow prosecutor Kang Joon Hyuk that betrays him. It wasn’t even the fact that he did double-cross his friend out of a combination of greed and self-preservation. I actually really liked watching his downward spiral on the slippery slope of corporate corruption. But I personally don’t like the way the writers handled his character, or his ultimate reversal (mild spoilers ahead). His change of heart comes too late, and way too fast, for me to find it believable particularly because he spent the entire length of the story actively preventing Jeong Woo from reuniting with his daughter and ignoring said daughter when she reached out directly to him for help. That is not only being a bad friend – it’s being a bad human being. Anyone that would neglect or ignore a child in need is plagued by more than selfishness, especially if that child views you as a kind of surrogate family member. Thus the idea that he’d snoop around Ha Yeon’s preschool for a few days and finally cave to his guilt when she hugs him when he essentially condemned her to death earlier in the story was more than far-fetched.

On a lighter note, Jeong Woo’s cellmates were a bright spot in this drama to me. There wasn’t a whole lot of happy in the unforgiving prison environment, but they were responsible for most of it. Be it through an improvised performance of “Cheer Up” or school boy flirtations with the prison doctor, I had fun watching them and all their antics. These men also serve as a huge support to Jeong Woo, despite some of their tsundere ways, and are rather pivotal in him keeping a semblance of sanity while his life is thrown further into turmoil. I like that each of them got a fleshed out story on the side, and it made them into more than props for Jeong Woo’s bigger story.

Performance:

Ji Sung is an amazing actor and embodies his role in a way wholly believable and heart-wrenching, what’s new? No, but in all serious he was the star of the show here. He was able to sell a rather basic character through his acting and emotional range, and I’m not sure I could have stuck this drama out without him in the lead role.

I am really pleased with the way the costume directors and makeup artist approached Jisung’s prison get-up. He looks disheveled – bleak really, almost gaunt – in all of his scenes there. I remember being so struck by the first episode when it cut from a happy, healthy Jeong Woo to a ragged looking prisoner Jeong Woo for the first time. It was definitely a moment of “Alright, this is serious” realization. Sometimes K-Dramas can be terribly unrealistic with the actors and actresses having spotless makeup and styled hair in dire situations. But that wasn’t the case here, and it added some realism to the drama.

Actually, I can’t really say Ji Sung was the only scene-stealer in the drama. Not when Eom Ki Joon was out there, acting so convincingly psychopathic as Cha Min Ho. I was especially impressed with Eom Ki Joon’s ability to show such a distinctive difference in character while acting as two twins. Cha Sun Ho didn’t appear for long in the drama. But in the scenes he was in, Eom Ki Joon was so remarkably different in his role. It was easy to tell the two men apart by the way they carried themselves, their manner of speaking, their aura almost. And yes the word “aura” is incredibly vague and borderline cheesy but it’s the best thing to describe the change that came over him in each character. I enjoyed watching him, and the best scenes in the drama tended to involve Eom Ki Joon’s performance in some way.

Now onto Yuri, who played a big role in this drama. I’m not going to say she swept me off my feet in Defendant, but than again her character didn’t really demand an overly emotional performance. I wouldn’t consider her performance awkward or forced in a way that pulled me out of the drama, but she wasn’t really stealing any attention during her scenes. Had she been given a character with a little more depth, I hope she could have shown more, but what she did bring to the show was a respectable performance in the moments she was on-screen. Nothing jaw-dropping, but nothing to complain about.

As far as the supporting cast goes, such as Jeong Woo’s quirky batch of cellmates, everyone gave believable performances. Some of them were even engaging. The side characters make up essential parts of the story of Defendant, so it was important to cast individuals that were able to stand up next to the very strong leading actors and act on equal grounds. And I’m happy to say everyone did, particularly Jo Jae Yoon who was a delightful and devious sidekick to Jeong Woo for the latter half of the drama. All in all, the cast was most definitely one of the best things about the drama as a collective whole and the actors and actresses should be commended for it.

Music:

There’s one particularly epic instrumental that comes on in moments where you suddenly realize, “Oh shit, this is getting real.” At certain moments, this was a great tension booster and packed the right emotional impact for a significant scene. However, I will say it was overused a bit and sometimes played over certain scenes that were not nearly dramatic enough to demand it. It gave the scene as a whole a kind of campy, over-the-top dramatic effect instead of the sense of epicness I’m sure the director was aiming for.

Otherwise, however, I wasn’t particularly wow-ed by the music featured in Defendant. It didn’t do the typical K-Drama scheme of releasing weekly OSTs that are vocal-based, which didn’t really come as a surprise given the thematic material of this drama. A lovey-dovey ballad had absolutely no place in Defendant and you won’t find one there either.

Cinematography:

The cinematography, I would say, was quite good. It wasn’t something I would consider masterful or up to the high standard of a few other Asian dramas I’ve loved but it portrayed the story effectively. There were a few moments where I was really struck by a certain scene, be it the lighting or general visual of it, and I commend the director for that. If I were to pinpoint one, the scene in episode 13 where Cha Min Ho and Jeong Woo converse over the phone on rooftops across the city was rather striking. And there wasn’t any point in time where I thought, “That was an awkward transition” or something of the like. I was simultaneously watching Strong Woman Do Bong Soon while catching up on Defendant and there is a glaring difference in the quality of cinematography. Defendant makes Strong Woman look like a high school senior’s film project, to say the least. So I can’t say I was let down by the manner of shooting and editing the drama itself.


Overall, I have mixed feelings about Defendant. It did some things right, some things wrong, and a lot of things way too slow to maintain my interest over the run of the drama. I don’t think an 18-episode run time was warranted for this drama, and actually believe this story could have been told very compellingly in a two-hour movie instead. The best thing I could say about this drama is that it’s well-produced; the worst thing I could say is that it’s… boring. And it may be unkind to say, but I have to refrain from giving a glowing recommendation for Defendant, on the defense that it took me nearly half a year to slog through it and people with similar levels of patience may suffer to do the same.

Review overview
Summary A well-produced, skillfully-acted legal drama that is bogged down only by its snail-like pace and somewhat dry characters. I would recommend it only to those who have the patience to sit through somber, needlessly prolonged plots points in a prison setting. Visually, an excellent work, but conceptually it lacks some memorability.
3.5
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