This is hopefully a one-off, or at least will not be a common occurrence. This is only happening because I’ve temporarily lost my marbles and watched my first k-drama in three years (since 2013’s Heartless City). The lack of logic pervading Goodbye Mr Black should have warned me to stay away, and indeed I tried, but alas, the pretty was too hard to ignore this time round.
Cha Ji-won (Lee Jin-wook), a UDT officer of the Navy Special Operations Force, is a positive and happy-go-lucky sort who seems to have everything going for him. However, his father suddenly dies and Ji-won is betrayed by his best friend, Min Sun-jae (Kim Kang-woo), accused of a crime he did not commit. With the help of Swan (Moon Chae-won), Ji-won narrowly escapes death and returns with a new identity to exact his revenge…
I wasn’t going to watch this show. I swearz I wasn’t. I even distinctly remember telling Timescout in one of her Drama Grab Bag posts that I would just stick to reading recaps despite being mildly interested because of the strength of the cast. Alas, reading recaps will be the undoing of me, because I saw pics of Lee Jin-wook as Black working that three-piece suit (rawr) and decided to check out a few clips… and in the end, the whole drama. I still can’t believe how south the drama went – how do you mess up a Count of Monte Cristo-inspired revenge thriller so bad? – but that’s not to say there weren’t any redeeming features, since I did enjoy watching the eye candy on show, so here’s a breakdown on what worked and what didn’t:
Maybe Kim Kang-woo had some sort of premonition early on that this drama would go to the dogs, so he decided to make the best of his villainous role, which is a piece of cake for him. He pretty much went to town with Sun-jae, and it was a fun watch because he gave Sun-jae layers that ultimately made me sympathise a little with him. It was a fascinating take on what would usually be a cookie-cutter villain, because Sun-jae is so wrecked by his insecurities and fears that he manages to twist everything that has gone wrong into everyone else’s fault. The man even mindfucked his wife into thinking she was pregnant… that’s pretty shitty and twisty. It’s a shame the writing and directing never built Sun-jae up to his potential, because gun-toting Kim Kang-woo was hot. I never quite got why Sun-jae hated Black so much when both boys pretty much grew up in the same loving environment, or how he could so quickly decide he needed to finish off his best friend, but Kim made Sun-jae’s motivations fairly realistic and worked well and above the material he was given. I know people were grumbling that he wasn’t playing Black, but casting is for once perfectly on point for the four leads – Black would have been too restrictive a role for Kim, who on paper is the strongest actor of the four, so Sun-jae was a much better choice.
I liked Black’s friendship with Sung-min (Lee Won-jong), his chief partner in crime. Sung-min alternates between jealous wifey and naggy mom mode, and always insists he’s helping Black because of money, but it’s obvious he cares for Black as he would a friend and son. Their bromance is heartwarming, funny and adorable. There were quite a few humorous scenes, mostly involving Sung-min, and even though it was tonal whiplash most of the time given that this drama was supposed to be about taking revenge on backstabbing villains, I did enjoy the comic relief. Black’s team was pretty solid if you ignore the shoddy writing, and most of the relationships got some nice play. Yoo In-young got a decent, non-backstabby role and I thought she did well in her scenes with Kim Kang-woo. Black and his sister Ji-soo (Im Se-mi) were lovely together, and she got a cute loveline with nice lawyer Ji-ryun (Kim Tae-woo) that kind of makes sense. We’ve got some solid oppas in this drama. I also liked the compass motif, it was rather sweet.
I don’t much care for the songs in the drama, but one song did catch my attention and should have been marketed as the main theme song. It’s 참아 by 2BiC and I quite like the mood and lyrics:
The writing and directing suck balls. It’s almost impossible to fail when you’ve got a wealth of material to draw from, given the many Monte Cristo interpretations over the years, but there are always exceptions. Scene jumps were awful and ill-timed – just because you overlay the music doesn’t mean scenes flow from one to the next like magic. There was almost no suspense or tension, characters freely belted out their intentions for the world to hear, plot points didn’t add up or fell by the wayside, characterisation was inconsistent and just about filled a thimble, and the narrative went in directions I didn’t think was possible – actually it’d have been possible if sequences were edited better or if the director/writer grew some brains. This pair had no idea how to do a revenge thriller and it showed.
For instance, if you want to mindfuck your opponents, flip-flopping identities is not the way to go. I never understood why the writer made the hero out his double identity so soon – what’s the point when you go “I’m Black… no, I’m Ji-won… no, call me Black” every fifteen minutes? Also, what was the writer snorting when she wrote that black swans don’t exist? Black was supposed to be the ultimate puppet master, intelligent and devious. He was supposed to have changed after five years, more jaded and less trusting, broody and detached, moving with an urgency to scythe down his enemies. Instead, we got one of the slowest, most predictable revenge schemes ever. Poor Lee Jin-wook probably rolled his eyes and prayed for his sanity every time he had to say his lines.
The revenge was simplistic and sometimes laughable, to the point where you’d wonder why Black and his team even bothered. I wanted Black to outfox Sun-jae at every other turn, and for Sun-jae to grow a pair and fight back, so that the ultimate showdown would be between the two ex-best friends. Instead, Sun-jae just wasn’t strong and nasty enough and Black should have finished him off early on. I never understood why there was a need for Baek Eun-do or why he didn’t expire due to bad cackling. I kept waiting for a solid connection between Baek and the Cha family, but it turned into “save Swan from her fake father”. Shouldn’t all revenge roads lead back to the hero? Why make her backstory the ultimate revenge? Why not incorporate her into the revenge scheme in the first place? The lack of focus was annoying, because it felt like the hero had too much free time and was just poking his nose into everyone else’s business when his own personal feud should have mattered more. The police were so inept they let a supposed murderer stroll around Seoul in plain view of anyone who gave a damn (and not many did). There was just so much filler material that this should have been cut to 12 episodes and it’d be so much more solid. I’m pretty sure the Japanese would have done a much better job if they were so inclined to remake this.
A couple of special mentions to: 1) the horrible styling for Moon Chae-won. By the end of the drama, she looked frumpy and stodgy and nothing like a beautiful swan, which is something I could not have imagined when I first started the drama. But her outfits got progressively worse, she ended up with some mushroom bobble hair (she and Song Jae-rim could pass for twins with that hair) and the wedding dress they stuck her in looked like some cosplayer’s costume gone wrong; 2) the medical facepalm in the last episode, where Black should have died because all signs pointed to the aneurysm in his head rupturing (the damage was already quite severe), yet a k-drama surgery made sure he had no side-effects whatsoever. I detest this kind of emotional manipulation just for the sake of an incredibly lame happy ending. When you’re expected to die, please just DIE. That’s what angst is for!
Also, the last episode does not exist. Black dies at the end of episode 19 and Swan kills herself to join him. Baek Eun-do is halfway to China when Sun-jae appears (after doing a Prison Break) and stuffs jajangmyun and a live octopus down Baek’s throat, then watches with psychotic glee as the old man cackles and sputters to death. Why Sun-jae has jajangmyun and a live octopus, I have no clue, but then this drama didn’t either.
The law of diminishing returns applies to the chemistry between Lee Jin-wook and Moon Chae-won here. You’d think the actors, who played lovers and whose screentime together stretched the whole of the 20 episodes, would have grown fairly comfortable with each other as the drama progressed. Instead, there was a noticeable drop in chemistry after the halfway mark and by the final stretch, she looked positively uncomfortable to be in such close contact with him. At times, I even noticed her recoiling from him – this at a stage where Black and Swan were by now so intimate they were happy to jump into bed if they didn’t have to work. Ever since Black confessed his feelings for Swan at the end of episode 8, minus the bit of idiotic backtracking in the middle, I’ve always felt he was the more invested one in the relationship, and it was irritating to see Swan not looking like she was as into it when she was supposed to love him so much she couldn’t live without him. I don’t know what caused Moon’s emotional block – she certainly didn’t have it in the earlier episodes and was emoting well – but it was made worse because Lee was almost single-handedly selling the relationship in the second half of the drama. The romance was already superfluous and stretching it to begin with, and this just made it worse.
This also means I was forced to watch the dead fish lip press for a number of times, because half the time Lee was trying to get Moon to open her mouth and return the kiss. I’m pretty sure he was not eating her face off because dang, that man can kiss, so I don’t know what the problem is and why it couldn’t have been sorted pronto. I hate bad kissing in dramas, especially when it’s bleedin’ obvious one party is doing all the work. All the passion was coming from him, but I could feel zilch from her. You’re adults, so fucking kiss properly. Also, who the heck films a post-coitus scene with clothes on?! How old are you again?? Gah.
I’ve liked Lee Jin-wook for a while and he was adorable as the stiff as a board Ryu in Myung-wol the Spy, but I was never quite as invested in his projects until I saw him as Black working that suit and with his hair all gelled up (for specimen reference: Kim Ji-hoon in Love & Marriage, Go Soo in Will It Snow for Christmas, and Jung Kyung-ho in Heartless City). Lee didn’t quite grab me when he was being Ji-won, but as Black, he totally made me sit up (see the grand entrance in episode 4). The styling definitely contributed, because pretty much all of Black’s outfits hit my sweet spot. I totally approve of three-piece suits being de rigueur fashion for hotties staging coups and hatching revenge plots. As he’d been getting flak for his acting in comparison to Kim Kang-woo’s more expressive performance, I began to take note of all the little things Lee did. A lot of his facial movements were very subtle, in the blink-and-miss kind of way because Black needs to be cool and inscrutable, but that worked well for me and I ended up liking how he played the character. I liked that he could be so subtle and yet convey the right amount of emotion because I feel you need a fine balance and control for that sort of acting. It’s not award-winning or anything, but I thought he made the best of what he was given. In fact, I liked detached Black so much that when he sometimes reverted to jokey Ji-won, it felt uncharacteristic and tonally off. Also, hot man in pain is sexy, so I must be the only one who somewhat liked the aneurysm plot – somewhat, because the full potential was never exploited, as usual.
I went into the drama expecting flaws, so ultimately I was not terribly disappointed by the lack of quality and the simplistic revenge. I don’t feel Korea excels in this particular genre, seeing as how it inevitably gets sidetracked by the romance and melodrama, and loses sight of the big picture – Heartless City‘s second-half collapse is a prime example (not that Shi-hyun had any idea how to follow up on a coup after he went to all that trouble to stage it). Also, while the cast tried their best, the poor writing and directing severely undermined what could actually have been a solid, if unspectacular take on this classic motif. I disagree with the drama’s decision to make Black little different from his old Ji-won self, because it loses the opportunity to explore some moral conflicts. No matter how you frame it, Black just didn’t seem as interested in revenge or justice – upping the ante four episodes from the end doesn’t cut it. The drama just didn’t know what it wanted to focus on or the tone it was going for. The only upside is that I’m now more inclined to check out a few of Lee Jin-wook’s other projects and hope he reunites with Kim Kang-woo in a less stupid drama or film that has them on the same team.
Goodbye, Mr Black. Until next time, please die like you were supposed to.