Biweekly Binge: Stranger and Hyena - On Yeo-jin, Choi Bit and Geum-ja
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's Stranger and Hyena
It continues to astound just how self-aware Korean TV characters are in most dramas set in the modern day. They are aware of their place in society, exactly what level they are at, and what level is it possible to breach. They know the class they belong to, what its pros and cons are, and what they need to do to either climb the echelons or hold on to their position of privilege. Rarely does anyone betray ignorance when it comes to this. Be it Stranger or Itaewon Class, Crash Landing on You or Hyena, you'll always find characters running the spectrum — from ruthless to empathetic to naive. Honest police officers, corrupt prosecutors, man-eating top 1% or empathetic strangers trying to fight internalised xenophobia.
Stranger 2, the mystery series starring Cho Seung-woo and Bae Doona, ups the drama in its second season as it pits the former police-prosecutor partnership of Doona's Yeo-jin and Seung-woo's Si-mok against each other in a power grab over rights to investigation and authority over cases between their respective professions. Across the season, we see police officers and prosecutors of all types, those that are morally bankrupt, those that stand for human rights, and some that fall in between. Yeo-jin and Si-mok often find themselves at a crossroads of doing the right thing as opposed to doing what they are told to do. By design, it's not a choice for Si-mok. But Yeo-jin struggles with it and in season 2, she's seriously tested.
Yeo-jin was always written as a loner and we hardly get any background about her through two seasons. But Stranger throws us enough in bits and pieces to get us the shape of her character — the high ambitions she strives for in her job, the values she fights for - something that unites her with Si-mok - and how she treats her peers and subordinates. Many offhand moments draw us her picture, her strengths and weaknesses, her penchant for ridicule or her own doodling talent that lets on more than she'd like. We even get a moment where her orientation is left open for debate.
But in season 2, we get a character she could play off, someone other than Si-mok or her partner at the police force. We are introduced to Choi Bit (Jeon Hye-jin), Yeo-Jin's chief and someone she clearly looks up to and wishes to be like. We can see why. Choi Bit is every bit fascinating as Yeo-jin with the same mystical aura, we are given very little information about her. We see her as the stern chief who has gamed the system in some form, something incriminating, but we don't know the what or how of it. We see her as a mother, but without ever seeing her children — they're only on the other end of a phone call. Sometimes she gets the rare break from her work to attend to something as mundane as laundry. These are shots and sequences that Korean dramas like Stranger excel at. They don't make a big deal out of anything, but go a long way in establishing something about a character and Stranger is one of the best series out there that does this with women like Choi Bit and Yeo-jin and their explosive mentor-mentee dynamic.
A character who is her own mentor and charts her singular path to the top is Jung Geum-Ja (Kim Hye-soo) of Hyena. She is a lawyer who will do anything necessary to win a case, even break the law or do things that could get her disbarred. But that's the only way she's seen - she belongs to the lowest strata, both in social standing and in her chosen career path and she has no sympathy - not for others like her and definitely not for those that continue to keep her away or like her only for her supposedly nasty ways of getting the job done. Hye-soo plays this unapologetic character in a tone that is far dialed up than anything you'll see in mellow, nuanced Stranger. But that is part of the fun ride that Hyena is, it is about Geum-Ja realising that nothing is fair in the world and therefore she'll go in or go out all guns blazing.
Stranger and Hyena offer a great view of the breadth and depth of the current Korean drama scene. It's addictive in both its escapist ways and also in its realist, hyper-aware ways. There is no telling what you'll get. Best is to sit back and enjoy the roller-coaster and the great women characters we meet along the way.
(Stranger and Hyena are streaming on Netflix)