Open Thread: Beyond Evil Episode 1-2

I’m trying something a bit new this month and instituting my first open thread. This is a bit of an experiment so we’ll see how it goes for this show.

I’ve picked up the new psychological crime thriller Beyond Evil, with industry veterans Shin Ha-kyun and Yeo Jin-goo. As I breezed through the first two gripping but unsettling two episodes, I looked for somewhere to discuss the show and found little but a first episode review at Dramabeans. And so here we are – my first open thread!

I’m a bit late to this party as I was struggling with real life issues around housing for a few months and so three quarters of Beyond Evil has already aired. Still, I’m hoping there’s an appetite for having somewhere to discuss the show. And – since its specialty is deliberate ambiguity – somewhere to speculate. I’ve certainly got a lot of speculating going on.

There’s an air of Twin Peaks small town gothic to this show; a sense of a facade of small town life hiding a darkness the denizens either ignore or deliberately plaster over in the name of community solidarity. What Liane Moriarty called Big Little Lies. And with the body parts piling up, it’s time for all those secrets to be dredged up too.

Laura Palmer post from the show Twin Peaks. It has a photo of her as a Prom Queen with "Who Killed Laura Palmer" on it

And since I’ve now used the word facade once, I shall have to find 15 synonyms for it. Because facades are ultimately what Beyond Evil is all about. Everyone has a secret, possibly nobody is innocent. And, as with the perfect small town fantasy that was Twin Peaks, it might take an outsider to crack open this nut’s secrets.

Speaking of nuts…

Male lead,Lee Dong-shik, breaking the fourth wall and doing his best impression of maniacally crazy

Shin Ha-kyun (playing small town cop, Lee Dong-shik) is doing some serious old-school scenery chewing with this one and for most of the first two episodes I found it distracting. But, like a lot of what happens in these two hours, you’re left wondering if he’s genuinely crazy or deliberately crafting an image of craziness. And if the over the top antics he engages in are part of a deliberately crafted… facade… by the character, rather than a misstep by the actor, then instead of being over-acting it is instead a brilliant performance by a classically-trained artist who knows exactly how to misdirect an audience.

Also an artist of some calibre, Yeo Jin-goo (playing elite golden boy, Lieutenant Han Joo-won) may be more understated initially but he brilliantly embodies an entitled member of a ruling class who’s long been led to believe he’s always the smartest person in the room and struggles to know how to act once he makes his first big mistake. Beneath his perfectly-coiffed model looks, impeccable pedigree and first class education, he’s a man wound tight. And with Jin-goo showing us exactly what he can do as the unhinged crazed king in his dual role in the 2019 Sageuk The Crowned Clown, (between Jingoo and Jingoo, I still think Jingoo was better than Jingoo), it’s not hard to wonder what will happen if and when his facade cracks.

Yeo Jin-goo as the tightly wound son of privilege, Han Joo-won in his police officer uniform

After a cold open in a field of reeds in Munju City, where two men discover a corpse, Beyond Evil zips us back to October 2000. The past is definitely prologue for this show as we meet twins: the perfect Lee Yoo-yeon (Moon Joo-yeon) and her decidedly imperfect brother, Lee Dong-shik (played as a teenager by Lee Do-hyun).

While Lee Yoo-yeon is playing the organ at her grandmother’s memorial service in the local church, her feckless brother is loudly – and poorly – playing guitar in a local cafe, much to the annoyance of the owner’s daughter, Bang Joo-seon. The two have an altercation and she kicks him out but not before he throws her a darkly cold look as he leaves. One that suggests that while he wouldn’t hit a woman in public he might wait to do it later in private.

The smiling public face of Lee Yoo-yeon as a teenager, also breaking the fourth wall and giving a smile that doesn't extend to his eyes

Later, his sister is trying to get him to come home but instead gets a text from him (or at least his phone), asking her to come out. As dawn breaks the next day, Joo-seon is dead in the field of reeds, her hands and feet tied up with a pink bow, and the twin’s mother finds Yoo-yeon’s fingertips neatly lined up outside their house. Yoo-yeon is never seen again.

There’s an unavoidable voyeurism to the first part of this show and I use the word unavoidable since, at this point, shows about male cops that use violence against women to ground their narrative is always going to be voyeuristic no matter how hard they try to avoid it. All you can say about Beyond Evil is that it moves through this quite quickly and doesn’t stop to either fetishise it as some kind of torture porn or linger lovingly over it like some other vehicles.

A woman's dead body in a field of reeds

As we move forward to October 2020, we meet the adult Lee Dong-shik who’s working in his small town as a police officer. He has a reputation for being a little crazy and we see why as he arrests a group of gambling Ahjummas at a local hairdressing salon, ending up in a scuffle. He makes a show of loudly reciting the law on gambling chapter and verse. As the chaos swirls around the station, we also meet transferred Lieutenant, Han Joo-won, who graduated with top honours from the Korean National Police University and is the son of Korea’s second-highest ranked police officer. Everyone at the small substation is clearly surprised he’s been sent to this comparative backwater.

Joo-won has been sent to Manyang substation because of a mistake he made in his previous job at Foreign Affairs, He’s been possibly tucked away out of sight so no hint of scandal will hurt his father’s illustrious career. But it’s a transfer he’s embraced because he’s convinced that Dong-shik is guilty. Not just of the murder of Yoo-yeon and Joo-seon 20 years ago but of other, more recent, killings of illegal immigrants.

Recent transfer, Joo-won, entering Manywang station. Perfectly coiffed and hiding his true intentions

Han Joo-won is abrupt, unfriendly, germ-phobic, and makes it clear he’s tired of being used for his father’s connections – and after a few meetings between him, his father and his former tutor-turned-prosecutor, Kwon Hyuk (Park Ji-hoon), you can see why he might feel this way. Yet despite his clear belief that he’s the Smartest Person in the Room, it soon becomes clearer that Dong-shik is at least as clever – if not more so because of his life experiences. Dong-shik’s antics, it turns out, nearly always have a purpose. So while almost everyone thinks he’s a firebrand who acts impulsively, you start to suspect that all his antics have an underlying purpose. And after he was accused of murdering his sister and the cafe owner’s daughter 20 years ago, he’s done caring about what people think of him.

Dong-shik challenges Joo-won and Joo-won probes the other man, looking for cracks he can use to force a confession to the murders. The two are paired up despite their mutual protestations and end up discovering another dead body in the reed field: hands and feet tied with bows and finger tips missing. Joo-won knows that this is illegal immigrant, Lee Geum-Hwa, whom he used as bait for the killer: the mistake that got him sent to Manyang.

After Dong-shik goes to Seoul to recover a local young woman who’s like a daughter to him, Kim Min-jung, she also disappears and the two men find her fingertips displayed outside of her father’s supermarket.

The effervescent troublemaker, Kim Min-jung, also breaking the fourth wall with a bright smile

As the two-parter unfolds, we meet a host of other characters that the show tries hard to make us dismiss as unimportant side notes; colourful and quirky residents of small community policing. The members of the local community mostly gather for drinks and dinner at a local butcher/restaurant owned by young woman, Yoo Jae-yi (Choi Sung-eun). They include Dong-shik’s affable junior partner Ji-hoon (Nam Yoon-soo), Ji-hoon’s older sister Ji-Hwa (Kim Shin-rok), who works in Violent Crimes, and Dong-shiks’ best friend, Park Jung-Jae (Choi Dae-hoon), whose mother is a Munju City Congresswoman. She’s trying to redevelop Munju City with the aid of businessman, Lee Chang Jin (Heo Sung-tae), who used to be married to Ji-Hwa.

We also have an uncomfortable work dinner with Chief Nam Sang-bae (Chun Ho-jin), and fellow officers Jo Gil-goo (Son Sang Gyu) and Hwang Gwang-young (Baek Suk-kwang) and meet Kim Min-jung’s father, Kang Jin-mook (Lee Kyu-hoe), a somewhat simple and awkward man with a speech impediment who, thanks to the show’s Director, we know was at the church the day that Yoo-yeon disappeared and is therefore clearly a strong suspect.

The little gang meeting up at Yoo Jae-yi's butcher shop for barbequed meat

It’s a classic Korean drama small town setup, with the bumbling police, the brilliant detective demoted for his refusal to play by the rules, and the scheming local Congressman looking to ride a development project to the Mayor’s office.

And Beyond Evil does this a lot in a way that feels almost subversive, as with the colourful Ahjumma fight in the salon. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching the story of an unhappy city boy who moves to the country on a quest for justice, gets sucked into the wonder of small town living and tight-knit community, and has a bromance with his quirky, renegade partner as they solve the obligatory serial killer case that Korean writers insist on putting even in romcoms.

What Beyond Evil does so well is to suck us into this feeling of familiarity and then deliberately undercut it so we constantly feel off balance in the same way the characters are. The familiar unfamilar. The Uncanny Valley, if you will. The sense that something is just a little bit off in a way you can only feel but not entirely express because there’s nothing concrete to hang that feeling on. It’s just there.

The second episode ends with Dong-shik sobbing over Min-jung’s fingertips, while Joo-won observes him coldly. And just as we’re convinced that Dong-shik could never and would never be involved with any of the murders, a postscript shows a hooded man laying out the fingers outside the supermarket. We pan under the hood to see… Dong-shik.

A flat-faced Dong-shik in a hoodie looking as though he has the potential for evil


8 thoughts on “Open Thread: Beyond Evil Episode 1-2

  1. I’ve been meaning to watch this – I feel like it’s the time of year for a really good thriller, and the idea of Yeo Jin-gu in a role that’s not romantic after SO LONG is seriously compelling. I haven’t started it yet though. I’ll be back later with some speculative ideas, I’m sure!

  2. Thanks so much for this. I’ve just finished episode two and I’m loving it. It’s been a long since a drama doesn’t suffer from the Episode 2 curse.
    I loved your comparison with Twin Peaks. In fact, I will be waiting a Lady Log on episode three, your fault.
    It’s too soon to say if Dong Sik is the evil monster this drama is about (let me doubt it, because we’re in dramaland), but I love all the dualities and have truths, how not anyone is who it seems.

    1. Yes the ambiguity and subtle menace – the sense that something is lurking below the surface of the small town – is what I like about these early episodes as well. It’s a vibe of small town gothic where you’re not sure if you can trust anybody. I think the show nails it and the excellent acting helps with that.

  3. I’m finally, finally back to go on this journey! Wow, the first two episodes were so good – judging by your recap, I’ve clearly missed a lot of subtle but important visual cues, but in spite of this I can see the detail this show is operating on. It’s so odd how it can feel like every suspense thriller ever made (eery little town, duplicitous characters, bodies in the reed fields) and yet also feel like something totally new. How do I put this…? The actors don’t feel like they’re retracing familiar steps with their dialogue, hitting all the expected beats. I feel like the writer has taken a lot of care in the small things, from how the characters speak to each other to the kind of scenarios the officers encounter etc etc.

    I’m totally confused and very very excited for what this show has in store for me.

    1. I’m so glad you’ve picked it up, I ended up loving it. And, yes, it feels fresh and unpredictable despite the apparently predictability of the scenario.

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