Hey, it’s been a while since I’ve done a Time Out for TV post!
These thoughts about the latest Korean drama I’ve been fixating on has been stewing in my head for a month. I really need to be able to put them into a “pensieve”, so I’m taking a break from books today.
It’s now a little over halftime for “I Hear Your Voice 너의 목소리가 들려“, which currently airs Wednesdays/Thursdays over SBS in South Korea. Episodes 9-10 aired last week, but my notes are more about the first 8 because there was a natural break in the story at that point. So…8 episodes’ worth of comments! This is going to be long, but it will be such a relief to get this out of my head. *flexes fingers*
“I Hear Your Voice 너의 목소리가 들려” is a 16-episode TV mini series. It’s been billed both as a courtroom/law drama and as a fantasy/romance, and it does tread the line between those two classifications, but I think it should count as a crime thriller as well. The themes are darker than the promo posters (that aquarium? it will be important) and trailers would have one believe, exploring questions about revenge, family, the loss of innocence, crime, and the justice system.
This is not the kind of Korean drama I would normally take up on a whim, especially since I don’t particularly follow any of the lead actors before watching this. But take it up on a whim I did because I was intrigued by the synopsis. I started watching without knowing anything else about it, and maybe that’s a fun way to go when picking K-dramas sometimes; ‘ya never know whatchoo gonna get.
Jang Hye-sung (Lee Bo-young: “My Daughter Seoyoung”, “Equator Man”) is a lawyer who is known around the district courts for her formulaic defense strategy, and for not caring much about her clients. She is jaded, and admits to taking up her new position as public defender for the money.
She is the opposite of her colleague, Cha Gwan-woo (Yoon Sang-hyun: “Secret Garden”, “Queen of Housewives”), an ex-cop who left the police force to pursue law. He is perpetually optimistic, idealistic, a bit dorky, and is the “mood-maker” of the district office he shares with Hye-sung, a gruff senior lawyer (Atty. Shin), and a young and preppy legal assistant.
Hye-sung’s first case involves a high school student, Go Sung-bin, who is accused of the attempted murder of one of her classmates. For Hye-sung, she is just another client, and she proceeds to treat the case the way she did all the others: she tells Sung-bin to just plead guilty.
On the day of the trial, Sung-bin refuses to plead guilty, and she’s backed up by her friend and classmate, Park Soo-ha (omg, who and what have I been watching all this time, Lee Jong-seok: “Secret Garden”, “School 2013”). After witnessing Sung-bin attempting suicide because no one believes that she is innocent, Soo-ha is determined to make her lawyer reverse the planned plea.
Soo-ha is surprised to learn that Sung-bin’s lawyer is Hye-sung, a woman he has been trying to find for the past 10 years. She doesn’t recognize him, but they have a shared history—she was one of only two witnesses to the murder of his father, and the only one to have come forward to testify in court.
He has been looking for her because ever since the trial, with the earnestness of a child, he swore he would protect her from the murderer, Min Joon-gook, who plans to get revenge on Hye-sung as soon as he is released from prison. Soo-ha is certain of it, just as he is certain that Sung-bin is innocent. Certain of it because he has read Joon-gook’s mind, and Sung-bin’s too.
And he has been looking for Hye-sung because ever since the trial, she has become his personal hero and his first love.
As of Episode 8, no explanation has been presented for how Soo-ha ever got his mind-reading ability. What’s known is that he started exhibiting it moments after he was injured when his father’s car was rammed by Min Joon-gook’s truck. And he can only do it if he is able to see the other person’s eyes—a likely reference to the eyes being the windows to one’s soul.
When Soo-ha confronts Hye-sung about Sung-bin’s case, she tells him that there is no evidence on hand for them to be able to convincingly plead “not guilty”. Soo-ha argues with her and is surprised by how jaded and how different she’s become from the Hye-sung he lovingly remembers. He has no choice but to reveal his ability to her.
Although she isn’t convinced it will help at first, Hye-sung later decides to use Soo-ha’s ability to gauge if she’s making progress in her arguments for Sung-bin. Later, they team-up in this way to solve some of Hye-sung’s other cases.
Soo-ha’s involvement in Sung-bin’s case is the catalyst for his re-entry into Hye-sung’s life.
As of Episode 8, 4 cases have been presented as 2-3 episode arcs. This aspect of the show is perhaps it’s weakest because of obvious plot holes that are left open in the service of the writer’s whim. The police are less than competent, and the legal proceedings tend to be simplistic. Fortunately, this doesn’t take away all that much from the overall impact of the drama, at least for me. I do know other viewers are bothered by it.
Because I’m not a lawyer or law student, I treat the legalities as highly fictionalized and whittled down to its bare essentials. And although I’m used to watching those crime documentaries on Discovery Channel, well…I just think of it this way: thank goodness real cops do a far, far better job than this. Somewhere down the line, if things get any more stupid, it will probably start to annoy me, but for now, it’s but a very minor irritant.
I do love how the theme of each legal case ties in to the larger story arc and to the characters’ arcs as well. Hye-sung’s outlook changed a lot after Sung-bin’s case and now I’m rooting for her. Just as she didn’t give up on Sung-bin, the story also showed how her mother never gives up on her. The moral of her second case was about the futility of revenge and how the law can be used to manipulate how justice is served, and it becomes a point for her to tell Soo-ha to not waste his life fixating on Min Joon-gook. Another case challenged Hye-sung’s views about justice and social inequality.
The only remotely fantastic aspect in this show is Soo-ha’s mind-reading ability, and I appreciate that it is not treated as an X-men Level kind of power. Soo-ha himself downplays it as something akin to having a genius-level IQ, or being able to run very fast like an athlete.
I also like that the way the Director decided to visualize the power isn’t comic book-ish, and is very consistent with the look and tone of the show. Giving voice to the characters’ thoughts seems to have become a kind of theme, and so sometimes, even if Soo-ha is not involved, audiences are given access to them if it is deemed important for the plot or character development or to bridge narrative gaps.
The Legality of Romance
The lovelines are crossed every which way in this show in the first half, which does make for some comedy, but a lot of disappointment and uncertainty and heartbreak as well.
I won’t spoil much of what actually happens, but I have to say that the writer has been sailing both the Hye-sung/Soo-ha and Hye-sung/Gwan-woo ‘ships very convincingly.
Hye-sung/Gwan-woo (The Legal Ship, because they’re both lawyers and both are of legal age, haha!) seems like the default ship. He so obviously adores her. She kind of has a crush on him, and she admits to needing someone who’s very stable. He is a good man, and he’s an excellent foil for Hye-sung’s rather fiery and prickly personality. He is the logical choice.
Hye-sung/Soo-ha (The Lifesaver Ship, because they tend to rescue each other all the time) is a little problematic because Soo-ha is only 19, and Hye-sung is almost 30. While people keep saying “age doesn’t matter” in love, I bet those same people will have some very bad things to say about an adult having a romantic relationship with a minor and someone 10 years her junior.
In K-drama terms, they call it the Noona Romance, a relationship between an older woman and a younger man. It’s not very often portrayed because dramas usually mirror society, and this is not exactly widely acceptable there, although the reverse is a different story. However, when it involves a minor, it can get iffy.
“Flower Boy Ramyun Shop” is a good example. The iffy factor comes from the portrayal of a high school student pursuing his teacher and said teacher eventually falling for it, although, to her credit, she did try to resist and she resigned her position. The entire time I was watching that drama, I just put the fact that the guy is a minor and used to be her student at the back of my mind. (It helped that lead actor Jung Il-woo doesn’t look like a high school student, too.) That was the only way I was able to enjoy and endure watching it, because the story really is pretty good otherwise. In the end, (SPOILER!) the guy’s father forces him to do his mandatory military service early. When he gets discharged 2 years later, he’s legal, and he’s able to come back to the woman he loves.
Conservatives are protesting the possibility of The Lifesaver Ship, and while they do have a point, technically, to me, the portrayal in this drama is more acceptable than “Ramyun Shop”. For one, Soo-ha has been billed as a man-boy type of character who is psychologically mature for his age because he’s had to fend for himself for so long, and had to live with all his past emotional baggage at that. There’s also his special ability and how he deals with it, which so far has been on the mature side except, perhaps, when he is provoked into a fistfight. He’s not written like a high school kid apart from attending classes, so unlike in “Ramyun Shop”, audiences don’t have to watch the hero grow up to bridge the gap between him and the woman in terms of psychological maturity, at least.
Soo-ha being a minor also isn’t an issue because there is technically no romantic relationship to speak of. The audience knows he loves Hye-sung, but he hasn’t really made a move. He’s twice denied (publicly) that he has romantic feelings for her. And despite his feelings, he never oversteps his bounds beyond his personal mission to protect her. He does try to stake his claim a little when Gwan-woo shows interest in Hye-sung, but that’s as far as he goes…until just a few minutes before Episode 8 ended, that is.
I know that there will be a one-year time jump in Episode 9, which will make Soo-ha an adult. In this way, the writer cleverly avoided harsh criticisms about the ‘ship, and at the same time, provided a lot of angst and some thrilling moments for the characters.
Okay, so while The Legal Ship is the logical and cerebral choice—and if I was in Hye-sung’s shoes, it’s a choice that I probably would consider very seriously—I’m still going sailing with The Lifesaver because of Soo-ha.
I like that he is honest and straightforward with her, and this is important not only for obvious reasons, but also because he reciprocates her trust when she so rarely attempts to hide her thoughts from his mind-reading powers. He calls her out bluntly when he feels she has made a mistake, and he challenges her to be better. To be fair, Gwan-woo does this too, but he teaches her lessons hidden in grand gestures. Soo-ha’s a bit stingy with compliments and with telling her what she wants to hear—she calls him out for being tactless and for having a sharp tongue, in fact—but mostly it’s just to cover up that he likes her. Gwan-woo, meanwhile, says the right thing most of the time.
And it’s telling that Soo-ha never uses formal speech or honorifics with her, although he always treats her with respect. Somehow, his speech level reinforces the impression that he is trying to assert himself as a man in her life and not as a younger brother.
And also, he’s just really, really sweet! The guardian/avenging angel routine and basically his entire characterization just got me hook, line, and sinker.
As for Hye-sung, she doesn’t seem to have realized she’s fallen for Soo-ha yet (if she has), although she obviously cares about him a lot and she is not hesitant to prioritize him over Gwan-woo even though she has virtually agreed to date the latter. She is a positive presence in Soo-ha’s life despite the danger they both attract from our villain, and she keeps his dark, avenging side at bay for as long as she can.
If the writer actually makes this ‘ship sail (and I’m sure she won’t make it easy), I look forward to what else Hye-sung will bring into the relationship. But I’m not discounting a “Dream High”-esque ending where she separates the main couple so that they can each follow their individual goals, and then makes vague references to a reunion several years later. That will be very cruel in this case, especially for Soo-ha, though. And I am praying the writer is not in a hero-murdering mood.
Speaking of the writer, Park Hye-ryun also wrote one of my favorite dramas, “Dream High”, as I’ve already mentioned. She has a great sense of timing in her stories, rarely makes plot lines overstay their welcome, and she writes very satisfying arcs for her characters. The ending of “Dream High” wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but I thought it was fitting and organic to the story that she laid out from the beginning.
So far, she has shown the same impeccable timing for “I Hear Your Voice”, giving viewers some very good payoffs even if we are only halfway through. She’s also great at balancing the emotionally light and heavy sections of the story, and she has a good sense of humor.
I just hope there’s more to the villain and his motivations. Min Joon-gook (Jung Woong-in: “Ojakgyo Brothers”, “Queen Seon Deok”) is interesting because he seems otherwise harmless…unless you get a glimpse of his Dark Side, in which case, you will make a grand entrance into his Little Black Book of Victims. Although he’s super effective for now, I’d like to think that there’s a reason why he just had to kill Soo-ha’s father and attempted to kill Soo-ha after running their car over. The revenge plot after that, though, I can understand. His psycho side is definitely scary.
The writing isn’t perfect, by any means. As I said, the courtroom/criminal drama part is problematic. And sometimes things happen and have no logical explanation, like how Soo-ha managed to fix the defective streetlights in Hye-sung’s neighborhood. It’s probably played for the cute and heroic, but… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I don’t think I’ll love this show as much if the performances weren’t so good. Everyone has great chemistry, and I don’t mean that in the romantic sense all the time. They all just seem to act and react well with each other, whether they’re lead or supporting actors.
This has made me a fan of Lee Bo-young and Yoon Sang-hyun, but most especially of Lee Jong-seok, who just overtook people in my short list of Favorite Korean Actors. He captures all the facets of Soo-ha’s personality so well—he’s even a real taekwondo black belter!—and the role just fits him to a T. His acting is kinda minimalist, which seems to be true for a number of Korean actors, but his face is very expressive. And it’s nice to see glimpses of his runway model aesthetic sometimes, especially the bad-ass runway walk as he was stalking the villain, and…. *pause, breathe, remember to fangirl in moderation*
I think Soo-ha had the potential to become an annoying character if Jong-seok hadn’t interpreted him so well, to be honest.
Okay, so let’s talk about Jung Woong-in as Joon-gook instead before I embarrass myself, if I haven’t already. He does an awesome job of seeming so meek and then doing a 180-degree turn to become a vicious and cunning criminal. I just can’t help but hate him and then admire him afterwards.
And also Kim Hae-sook, who’s been a mother to a million other characters in a million other dramas. She’s just so…motherly. I want to step into the TV so I can ask her for a motherly hug; I really need one right now.
I’ll probably have to unburden my thoughts again after the current story arc concludes, although that might turn into a very spoiler-filled recap!
But yay, I feel so much better now.
Back to books!