Distant Lights in a Fog: Forest of Secrets Season 2

At its halfway mark, the second season of Forest of Secrets (Stranger) is living up to the promise of its freshman year

Doggedly chasing after the truth and marching toward what’s right is a never ending process.
To stop, even for a moment, is to fail.
Marching towards change is like having two needles as your feet with an invisible thread trailing after you, never stopping for a breath as you march on.
In the belief that a handful of hope is better than immeasurable despair we move forward with unwavering determination.
Once again.

As the second season of Forest of Secrets (Stranger) opens, the first thing we hear is the voice of last season’s enigmatic Deputy Chief Lee Chang-joon as the weak headlights of a car cut through the dense fog. It’s a shot brilliantly merging the old with the new: Chief Lee reminding us that corruption is a rot that destroys slowly, the fog and the voiceover telling us that the fight against it is endless, exhausting and often directionless.

And yet the message is one of hope, however dim. Justice may be a tiny distant light shrouded in a dark fog. But it still shines.

Hwang Shi-mok stands alone in a dark fog

It’s been three years since Forest of Secrets (Stranger) was last on our screens. The intelligent, nuanced and confronting discussion of corruption is consistently voted one of the best Korean dramas of all time. And so it was with a great deal of excitement, anticipation and a good dose of nervousness that we greeted the announcement of a second season.

Could the writer live up to the standard set down in 2017? At eight episodes into a 16 episode season, the verdict is that she can. This season is just as intelligent, beautiful, uncomfortable and disquieting as the first season was. Maybe in the final estimation even more so.

Hwang Shi-mok and Han Yeo-jin stand at the top of the stairs to her rooftop room; a glittering city scape blurred behind them. They are tiny figures dwarfed by the dark urban landscape that is Seoul

Jo Seung -woo is back as Hwang Shi-mok, the incorruptible prosecutor suffering from brain damage that limits his ability to process emotions. He is joined once again by idealistic police officer Han Yeo-jin (Bae Doo-na) who is now working in a Unit designed to reform the roles in the Korean justice system. Set several years after the events of the first season, time and the system have not been kind to either character. Both have been ground down by the machinery of justice and both are clearly nearing burnout.

Han Yeo-jin, still in her pyjamas, stares bleary eyed into the middle distance

This season starts with fog – Shi-mok’s headlights illuminating it faintly – and this image underpins everything the writer is trying to tell us about the quest for justice. Which way do we go through the fog? What step do we take? Which direction is the right one and which just gets us more lost? While blood splatter led us through the forest in the first season, there is no clear direction here: just people going through the motions and wondering whether they make any real difference in the world.

“No matter how hard you look you can’t stop a fog. And no matter how many criminals you catch they never disappear. If I catch one here, two others pop up in a different place.”

– Han Yeo-Jin

The first episodes are constructed around an apparent accident involving a restriction line that was cut at a beach. It’s an incident caused by a selfish and thoughtless act by wealthy and connected people and this image – the cut restriction line in a dense fog, the entitlement and obliviousness of the ones who cut it – is one that sticks with us as we move through the series.

How the police, prosecution, victims and possible perpetrators respond to this tragic accident sets the tone for the first half. The act itself becomes less important than the manoeuvring it sets off: parts of the machinery playing out their well-worn dance.

But behind the scenes, there is a simmering bureaucratic tension between the police and the prosecution; a longstanding friction over who has the right to investigate crimes and to request warrants. This was a very real argument that happened in Korea and the show draws on found footage and legal history lessons as much as the technical aspects of a crime drama to ground its narrative.

As the infighting accelerates and the two sides seem more intent on slinging dirt than in serving the public, corruption gathers apace as it always does. And with our eternal partners Shi-mok and Yeo-jin on opposite sides, both will begin to question their role, their ethics and their ability to retain their independence and objectivity in an environment where it seems everyone is compromised in some way.

Hwang Shi-mok and Han Yeo-jin sit across from each other at a barbeque restaurant, looking like awkward strangers instead of friends

The tone of season 2 is not just grim, it’s leaden. It’s been several years since the white hot clarity of their quest for justice in season 1 – a quest that ended as anti-climatically as a quest for justice would in the real world.

Somewhere near the beginning of season 1, Shi-mok says that you can’t uproot corruption because if you did you wouldn’t have a justice system left. And it’s true: the system grinds on. And now it’s grinding down its best, brightest and most idealistic. It’s a depressingly realistic theme for the show to be discussing. You don’t win against corruption. You just stave it off for now and hope that somebody comes along after you to stave it off into the future.

The weight of the years bears heavily on our two protagonists as they attempt to navigate their way out of the fog, their path lit however dimly by a belief that justice is possible even if the pursuit of it is exhausting.

Hwang Shi-mok tests a theory about a suicide by recreating it in a public shower room

As a writer, Lee Soo-yeon is truly masterful in how she uses the images of the fog, the headlights and the cut restriction line in just a few minutes at the beginning of episode 1 to give us metaphors for justice that she’s still teasing out eight episodes later.

There is something harder than finding the courage to do the right thing when you’re in a system that is compromised: that is, working out what to do at all. The paralysis that comes from not knowing what the correct course of action is, where you should make your stand, when you should draw the line.

Is this it? This line here? Is this the one I should stop and fix? Or should I drive by and save my energy for the next one. What about this one? Is this the one? Am I driving past a small problem to save myself for the big ones or was that a big one and I just didn’t know it? Should I stop for all the lines being crossed and if I do will I just burn out and achieve nothing anyway?

“When I saw that the restriction line was down, I thought an accident might happen. But I just drove by… I could see something had gone wrong but I did nothing.”

– Hwang Shi-mok

The path in season 1 was unclear but the destination wasn’t because murder is a very clear wrong to correct. But the path through a fog is harder because everything looks the same when you’re in it. You have no clear destination at all.

Hwang Shi-mok and Han Yeo-jin stand on a dark road in a Seoul suburb working a case like old times

Forest of Secrets 2 may not be as rollicking as its first season but the writing is even more skillful, insightful and mature. We flounder in the dense fog as much as our characters do at first, waiting for that path out. And by putting us there and building that atmosphere so beautifully, everyone involved shows us that they are truly at the top of their game.

Everything – the writing, direction, music, design – every aspect of this drama is almost perfect as its first year was as well.

This remains the pinnacle of Korean drama and its sophomore season merely cements that rank.

Stranger is available to stream on Netflix and week to week reviews are available at Dramas Over Flowers


4 thoughts on “Distant Lights in a Fog: Forest of Secrets Season 2

  1. Lee, it is simply, masterful. The struggle of moving out of the fog to implement a separation of powers that includes cementing in place the boundary that neither side wants is vivid for me, even now. I was part of a debate within a regulatory authority many years ago: you cannot have the policy makers and the enforcers being one and the same.

    The dialogue is superlative. Not that you need it. The facial expressions by the actors says it all. You can even read Shi Mok’s expressionless expressions! Imagine if there was to be a third season. They way they have changed up Season 2 is oh so clever. Thats what you need to keep watchers invested. Sublime.

    1. I agree, the show is brilliant. And as we move through the back half I’m even more impressed every week. I can’t wait for the writer to bring it all together but also I don’t want it to end! It’s a conundrum but hopefully we get a season 3 🤞

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