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Series / Stranger

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Stranger is a Korean Drama limited series. The first season aired in 2017 and lasted 16 episodes. It was received well enough to get a second 16-episode season, which is relatively rare for Korean television series; Season 2 ran in 2020. Its Korean title is 비밀의 숲, translated as Secret Forest or Forest of Secrets. Its leads are Cho Seung-woo as prosecutor Hwang Shi-mok, and Bae Doona (Cloud Atlas, Sense8) as Detective Han Yeo-jin of the Seoul police.

Season 1

The story opens with Hwang Shi-mok as a boy, being examined by doctors. He suffers from hyperesthesia, an extreme oversensitivity of the senses that often causes him debilitating pain, especially in response to sound. Doctors operate on him to relieve the condition, but they fear that the surgery may result in him either having wild mood swings or having few emotions at all. It turns out that it's the latter, as Shi-mok, once a high-spirited boy, comes out of his surgery having a reduced affect in which he seems to have few feelings about anything at all.

Cut forward 20 years or so. Shi-mok still has blunted/absent emotions and a lack of empathy, and his surgery didn't even completely cure his hyperesthesia, as he's still highly sensitive to certain frequencies of sound. This has not stopped him from becoming a highly successful prosecutor. As the main story opens Shi-mok is going to meet Park Moo-sung, an executive with a construction company, who apparently was going to reveal corruption in the Chief Prosecutor's office. It doesn't happen, because when Shi-mok arrives he finds Park Moo-sung dead on the floor of his own home.

Shi-mok promptly deduces that a cable repairman was at the scene and tears off in pursuit of the suspect, much to the bafflement of the detective called to the scene, Han Yeo-jin. She chases after him as he chases after the cable guy, Kang Jin-sub, and they wind up arresting Kang, right after he sold some of Moo-sung's valuable to a pawn shop.

Kang is tried for murder by Eun-soo, a newbie prosecutor in Shi-mok's office, who insists that he let her handle this as her first case. She gets a conviction but Shi-mok soon suspects that Kang may be innocent after all. As it turns out, there is a trail of corruption that leads to another prosecutor, Dong-jae, and his (and Shi-mok's) boss, the Deputy Chief Prosecutor, Lee Sang-joon.

Season Two

A second season premiered in August 2020. In it, Shi-mok investigates the accidental drowning of two young students on a lonely beach at night. He pins responsibility on a rich cad named Yong-ho who cut down the beach closure notification signs, but Yong-ho oulls some strings, and the case is dismissed...with the help of none other than prosecutor Kang Won-Cheol, Shi-mok's supervisor from the first season. Meanwhile, Han Yeo-jin has been promoted to Senior Inspector, but, somewhat to her dissatisfaction, has been put in a unit that is in a power struggle with the prosecutors.

That power struggle between the police and the prosecution is a main theme of the season. Yeo-jin's boss, Chief Choi, is determined to win the power struggle, so she deliberately publicizes the case of the drowning at the beach. The prosecution for its part is looking for material to embarrass the police, so senior prosecutor Woo Tae-ha recalls Shi-mok to Seoul and puts him to work looking for cases that could be used against the police. Shi-mok investigates the case of a police officer who officially was said to have committed suicide, but who in reality may have been murdered by his corrupt colleagues. Another mysterious case concerns the mysterious death of chief prosecutor Park Kwang-soo, who was found dead in his car of a heart attack that possibly wasn't.


  • Asshole Victim: The two college kids who drowned at the beach in episode 2-1. Turns out it wasn't an accident; the third college kid, Hoo-jung, lured them there, got them drunk, and murdered them. It's also revealed that the two victims were horrible monstrous bullies who had been persecuting Hoo-jung since primary school and were still bullying and persecuting him, even after Hoo-jung had gone to university and thought he'd escaped them. Instead, they tracked him down and commenced ruining his life, taking over his apartment while stealing from him and selling off his possessions.
  • As You Know: When Lee Sang-joon suggests manipulating Eun-soo for the trial of the cable guy, Dong-jae tells the audience who she is by saying "Eun-soo? You mean the trainee in Shi-mok's office?"
  • Bland-Name Product: In multiple episodes in Season 2 characters are shown using a search engine called "Geegle" to search the internet, or looking up locations from "Geegle" Maps.
  • Broken Pedestal: Shi-mok confesses to Lee Sang-joon that he used to view him as a role model and based the entire direction he decided to take as a prosecutor on a case in which a young Lee Sang-joon sided against the government in a lawsuit. But, Shi-mok then explains that it doesn't matter now because Lee is his target.
  • The Bus Came Back: Yeo-jin goes to a prison to conduct an interview in episode 2-5 and stumbles into none other than Yoon Se-won, the killer from Season 1. Se-won greets her warmly but is not familiar with Lee Dae-sung, the bullying cop who is in jail for accepting bribes.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Yeo-jin has the standard bolting upright nightmare in episode 1-7, when, after dozing off in her chair in the office, she has a dream of Ga-young (the hooker, aka "Min-ah"), who is currently in intensive care in the hospital.
  • Chalk Outline: The standard tape marking where Moo-sung's body was found.
  • Chekhov's Gun: There's a random comment about how Section Chief Yoon suffered a tragedy some years ago, when his son was killed. That turned out to be Yoon's motive for murder.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Hoo-jung, the third of the three drunken college students who went swimming in episode 2-1, the one that didn't drown. He's shown at the scene, then basically forgotten about, as in fact the drowning at the beach case is eventually dropped for other storylines. Then in episode 2-13 it's revealed that those other two college students weren't Hoo-jung's friends; they were his bullies and he killed them. Then he kidnapped Dong-jae after realizing that Dong-jae was putting the pieces together.
  • Comforting Comforter: In episode 1-9 Eun-soo puts a sweater over Shi-mok after she finds him asleep in the conference room. This is immediately subverted when she knocks over some files and wakes him up.
  • Corrupt Cop: A Season 2 storyline deals with a unit of corrupt cops from the Seguk district and how they killed their coworker, Song Ki-hyun, when he started investigating. Yeo-jin's boss, Chief Choi, moans with despair when Yeo-Jin tells her that Song was murdered.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Chairman Lee, Lee Sang-joon's father-in-law, is head of Hanjo Group, a large industrial conglomerate. He's also deeply corrupt, having been neck-deep in bribery and flesh-peddling with Park Moo-sung.
  • Desk Sweep of Rage: In episode 1-3 Sang-joon angrily seeps everything off his desk, after Shi-mok extorts a promise to promote him to Deputy Chief after Sang-joon moves up to chief.
  • Disposable Sex Worker:
    • Min-ah, the High-Class Call Girl that Dong-jae was hunting for, presumably because she was used to blackmail Sang-joon. She's found murdered in episode 1-4. This is promptly subverted in the next episode when it turns out that she's still alive!
    • This trope is then discussed in the last episode, when Yeo-jin tells "Min-ah" (true name Ga-young) that she had better straighten her life out, that murders of sex workers are so common that the news doesn't even bother to report them.
  • Distant Finale: The ending of the last episode of the first season skips forward ten months to find Shi-mok, who was dispatched to the coastal province of Namjae, being called back to Seoul to investigate the Prime Minister.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Yeo-jin has several beers while she waits for Chief Choi in episode 2-15, and is pretty drunk by the time she tearfully accuses Chief Choi of letting her down and betraying her trust.
  • Dutch Angle: Used in episode 1-3 to dramatically frame Shi-mok's distress as a high-pitched noise, apparently from his refrigerator, causes him to collapse to the ground in pain.
  • The Faceless: Multiple scenes throughout the kidnapping storyline in Season 2 show the kidnapper up to no good, without showing their face.
  • Frame-Up: Shi-mok considers how the taxi driver's car, and its dashboard camera, was only parked in the alley because the taxi driver had received a complaint from a dissatisfied customer. He soon concludes that it was a deliberate effort to get the camera there in order to take a video, and that the murder of Moo-sung was a frame job. Yeo-jin quickly realizes that the frame might have been targeted at him and that it was sheer luck that the cable repairman arrived moments before Shi-mok did.
  • Hand of Death: As Ga-young (aka "Min-ah") lies in the hospital, still in a coma, a mysterious woman appears in the ICU in 1-7, disconnects her oxygen line, then tries to smother her with a pillow. All we see are high heels and gloved hands.
  • Handshake Refusal: Shi-mok's lack of social skills are underlined in episode 1-2 when Yeo-jin tries to formally introduce herself and he simply ignores her outstretched hand.
  • Hates Being Touched: Part of Shi-mok's pathology. In episode 1-3 he recoils when the production assistant at the TV studio tries to put makeup on his face before an interview.
  • He Knows Too Much: Lee Sang-joon says that now that Moo-sung is dead, he can't rat on them, because "Dead men tell no tales."
  • High-Class Call Girl:
    • A flashback in episode 1-2 shows a conference in a hotel room, where murder victim Moo-sung was present. Shi-mok rides an elevator with a hot lady who strolled off towards Sang-joon's room. It turns out that she was a High-Class Call Girl, and that before his fall from grace one of Moo-sung's businesses was arranging for call girls for VIPs like Sang-joon. In fact, the anti-prostitution sting that Dong-jae is running is actually a ruse so that they can find the particular call girl who serviced Sang-joon. We later find out the hooker in question is named Min-ah, and later than that we find out that "Min-ah" was a fake identity and her real name is Ga-young.
    • A whole brothel full of high class call girls is the location where Dong-jae goes in episode 1-4 in an attempt to find Min-ah.
    • Episode 2-15 includes Shi-mok interviewing a high-class hooker. It turns out that Park Kwang-soo and Woo Tae-ha were partying with three hookers when Park had a heart attack and died.
  • Hired to Hunt Yourself: One of the prosecutors on Shi-mok's task force, Section Chief Yoon, turns out to be the guy who killed Moo-sung and attacked Ga-young.
  • I Have No Son!: In episode 2-4 Lee Yeon-jae tries to see her father Lee Yoon-beom, who went to prison as a result of the events of Season 1. She finds out that her father, who blames her for him going to jail, no longer considers Yeon-jae to be his daughter.
  • Impairment Shot: A blurred camera shot and Dutch Angles are used to dramatize one of Shi-mok's migraine attacks in episode 2-12.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: In episode 1-6 a hooker at the brothel lays out a bottle of liquor and glasses for Yeo-jin and Shi-mok, in the belief that they're a couple looking to get kinky. Instead, they start hammering her with uncomfortable questions about giving away Min-ah's address to Dong-jae. The hooker throws them out and, after they leave, drinks straight from the bottle.
  • Insufferable Genius: Shi-mok's lack of empathy and social skills, combined with his brilliance as an investigator, make him this.
  • Jailbait Taboo: Literally. Dong-jae claims that Moo-sung's MO was to deliberately match up his VIP clients with underage High Class Call Girls, so he'd better be able to blackmail them later. Ga-young, it seems, was one of his underage hookers.
  • Left Hanging:
    • The storyline about the cop who may have been murdered by his bullying colleagues at Segok police station is never resolved. The last reference in episode 2-16 has Shi-mok sending his colleague Min-ha the file and urging her to continue the investigation.
    • Will Dong-jae reveal Hanjo Group's connection to the death of Park Kwang-soo? We'll never know. In episode 2-16 the prosecutor asks about Hanjo Group, Dong-jae leans forward and looks straight into the camera...and the scene ends.
  • Libation for the Dead: In the last episode of the first season Yeon-jae visits her husband Sang-joon's grave and pours out a bottle of soju.
  • Match Cut: Song Ki-hyun's old police chief angrily slams a table in the lunch room as he denies involvement in Song's death. This is then matched with an Imagine Spot clip of the ex-chief picking up a brick as Yeo-jin and Shi-mok wonder if he was the one who attacked Dong-jae.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Shi-mok suffers one of his violent migraine attacks and has to leave a meeting in episode 2-12. After Yeo-jin hurries after him and guides him to a stairwell, she tells him that she told the others in the meeting that he had a case of diarrhea. Shi-mok is startled. Her Mathematician's Answer provokes a very rare grin from Shi-mok.
    Shi-mok: Diarrhea?
    Yeo-jin: Well, I couldn't tell them I had it.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The series opens with scenes showing a young Shi-mok suffering hyperesthesia, then suffering from lack of affect after his surgery, before cutting to the present day.
  • Monochrome Past:
    • The first episode has Shi-mok reliving a grim memory in which his mom grabbed him, when he was a boy, and screamed "Let's die together!". The memory is presented in washed-out color.
    • Throughout the series, when Shi-mok is remembering some prior event in the investigation, or someone is telling him about something that happened, the flashbacks are shown in similar desaturated pastels.
  • Necro Cam:
    • In episode 1-2 Shi-mok gets back into Moo-sung's house. The murder is shown onscreen in various different Necro Cam scenarios as Shi-mok runs through how it might have gone down. Disturbingly, he pictures himself as the killer each time. This is lampshaded when Yeo-jin comes into the room and stares wide-eyed as Shi-mok, knife in hand, mimes stabbing someone.
    • This is played more straight in episode 1-15 when Yoon describes the murder after he confesses.
  • Never Suicide: A major plot thread of Season 2 has Yeo-jin and Shi-mok independently investigating the death of Song Ki-hyun, a rookie cop who supposedly hanged himself in the Seguk station. They soon discover that Song's coworkers were all crooked, that he was apparently investigating them, and that they killed him.
  • No Social Skills: After his surgery Shi-mok was left with basically no social skills. He's thoughtlessly brusque and impolite, and tends to simply break off and walk away while others are talking to him. Yeo-jin is continually irritated when Shi-mok goes zipping off to investigate something without telling her where he's going.
    • In a season 2 episode one of Shi-mok's coworkers remarks how their boss Tae-ha must be worried about the disappearance of Dong-jae. He is boggled when Shi-mok asks how one can tell if someone is worried.
  • Not Quite Dead: In episode 1-5, the cops and forensic techs are crowded together in the abandoned apartment where Min-ah's body was found, when her chest heaves and they all realize with shock that she's alive. (Really, no one checked this? No one noticed she was still warm to the touch?)
  • Ominous Fog: The first scene of the second season has Shi-mok driving down a lonely road that is thickly enveloped with fog at night. He winds up completely by chance pulling up to the scene of the drowning that is the big case of the second season. The scene is also symbolic of Shi-mok penetrating the fog of corruption and dishonesty that has enveloped the prosecutors' office.
  • Once More, with Clarity: A montage in episode 1-16 shows all the times where Sang-joon singled Shi-mok out and drew attention to him; it turns out that Sang-joon was actually grooming Shi-mok to carry on the fight against corruption. The montage also includes the scene where Sang-joon flatly states he'll never let Shi-mok prosecute him in a courtroom—because Sang-joon was planning to kill himself all the time.
  • Police Brutality: In episode 1-7, Park Moo-sung's son Kyung-wan is brutally beaten by the cops, who are trying to coerce him into a confession for murdering his father.
  • Posthumous Character: Park Moo-sung is found dead at the beginning of the first episode, but his various activities in corruption and crime are central to the plot, and he is seen in flashback many times.
  • P.O.V. Cam: Seen in episode 2-7 when Shi-mok and Yeo-jin try and puzzle out how Dong-jae could have been clubbed with a brick. They reject the notion that Dong-jae could have been frontally assaulted since he is a big tall man, and decide that he must have been attacked from behind.
  • Redemption Rejection: A dying Sang-joon, clutching Dong-jae's hand, gasps that it's not too late for Dong-jae to redeem himself. With literally his last words he begs Dong-jae not to follow the same path to corruption that he did. Dong-jae then goes to Shi-mok and pleads for a second chance, which Shi-mok gives him, hiring him back to the prosecutor's office. All that is undone in Dong-jae's last scene in episode 1-16, where he's shown hiding in his office and making illicit phone calls to some crook, just like always.
  • The Reveal: Episode 2-15 reveals that in fact, Park Kwang-soo wasn't cleverly murdered; he actually did die of a heart attack. The only thing is, he died of a heart attack at a vacation house where he was partying with Woo Tae-ha and three High Class Call Girls. In order to avoid a scandal and embarrassing questions all around, Woo Tae-ha and his rival, Choi Bit, (who was order by her superior to help) from the police put Park's body in his car, drove it out to a lonely stretch of road, and left it there to make it seem as if Park died while driving.
  • Rewatch Bonus: In episode 1-15 Sang-joon catches Dong-jae red-handed, rifling through Sang-joon's desk. He doesn't do a thing about it, much to Dong-jae's astonishment. It turns out that Sang-joon himself has been collecting a vast trove of intel on all the crooked politicians and industrialists he's been plotting with.
  • Rooftop Confrontation: Sort of. The final confrontation between Sang-joon and Shi-mok in the last episode doesn't technically take place on a roof. However it's on an upper floor of a tall building that is under construction and doesn't have any walls, so the dynamic is still the same.
  • Running Gag: Yeo-jin's habit of sketching awful, crude pictures of people. In one episode a guest of Yeo-jin's sees the doodles pinned to her wall and presumes that Yeo-jin has a kid. In the last episode Yeo-jin presents Shi-mok with a childlike doodle of him, and Shi-mok flatly states that it looks nothing like him. (He still keeps it as a memento.)
  • Savvy Guy, Energetic Girl: Shi-Mok is the savvy guy to Yeo-jin's energetic girl. Where he is stoic and lacking in emapthy, she enjoys to draw doodles, live a lifestyle in a house which would all be a child's dream, and goes beyond the call of duty to care for family members of victims.
  • Sequel Hook: The first season ends with Shi-mok being called back to Seoul to investigate the Prime Minister. Sure enough, a second season of Stranger aired in 2020.
  • Staircase Tumble: Dong-jae does this in episode 1-9 after the cops find incriminating evidence against him. He took his staircase tumble on purpose to delay his arrest.
  • String Theory: Shi-mok has the standard whiteboard with names and photos and scribbled notes. In one episode he dramatically puts up a photo of Yeon-jae (Lee Sang-joon's wife) up on the board.
  • Super-Senses: Shi-mok's problem as a child; he was overly sensitive to all sorts of stimuli, which caused him much pain. He had surgery which mostly fixed this but left him with other problems.
  • Team Power Walk: Two in episode 2-3, as the police (including Yeo-jin) and the prosecutors (including Shi-mok) both walk dramatically to the conference room where they are going to have their big meeting. (That meeting, in the next episode, is a confrontational fiasco.)
  • This Is Reality:
    • In episode 1-2, the video tech tells Shi-mok that there's no Enhance Button in Real Life, and the grainy image of someone opening the shades in Moo-sung's window is all they're going to get.
    • In episode 2-9, Team Leader Choi (a cop) wonders why on earth the kidnapper posed a picture of Dong-jae's blood-soaked tie, musing that "Things like this only happen in American movies."
  • Translated Cover Version: It seems Moo-sung was a Christian, as the mourners at his funeral sing "Nearer, My God, to Thee" with Korean lyrics.
  • Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: Shi-mok and his enemy Dong-jae wind up sharing an elevator in episode 1-6. Dong-jae frowns before standing in stiff discomfort for the rest of the ride. Shi-mok, who is too much The Spock to ever get uncomfortable, takes the opportunity to note the whiff of women's perfume from Dong-jae and the mask stuffed into his pocket, and wonder what he is up to. He then goes back to the brothel, where his nose tells him that the head prostitute is the person that Dong-jae just met.
  • The Unfettered: The ending reveals that Sang-joon is this. Having finally had enough, he decides to bring down all the corrupt politicians and businessmen and crooks that he's in bed with for years. He didn't stop with making secret recordings and compiling incriminating documents, but also went so far as to conspire with Yoon to murder Park Moo-sung and attack Ga-young.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Discussed Trope in episode 1-4. The curvaceous High-Class Call Girl who is trying to reel in Dong-jae sees him looking at her cleavage and says "Only 50,000-won notes go in there."
  • Voiceover Letter: Sang-joon's suicide note in the last episode, where he tells his wife that he turned against his masters and partners in crime, and compiled evidence against all of them, because he couldn't abide the rampant corruption in South Korean government.
  • Vorpal Pillow: Averted in episode 1-7. Someone tries to kill Ga-young this way, but that unseen someone (a woman) has to flee when the EKG alarm brings the night nurse scurrying.
  • When She Smiles: Gender-flipped. The very last scene of the first season has Shi-mok, who is The Stoic / The Spock looking at the silly little drawing of him by Yeo-jin, which he has pinned to his computer. He smiles happily, then the series ends.
  • Writing Indentation Clue: Shi-mok does this with Eun-soo's notebook in episode 1-14, to figure out what she was writing. He sees the same 0 and 7 that Ga-young was mumbling about, but then he realizes that it's actually a D and a T...and this causes him to realize who the killer is.
  • White Void Room: In the first episode Shi-mok is examined and interviewed in an all-white room that reinforces the sense of alienation and otherness that he has after his surgery.