[Kdrama review] 시그널 Signal


If I could turn back time, I would still choose to watch this drama again.

Genre: Thriller, mystery, action, crime, fantasy

Synopsis: Criminal profiler Park Hae Young (Lee Je Hoon) discovers an antiquated walkie talkie which enables him to communicate with detective Lee Jae Han (Cho Jin Woong) in the past. The both of them work together to solve cold cases, only to realise that changing the past not only uncovers the ugly truth, but it also brings about consequences that are greater than what they can imagine.


Although I knew the leads were established actors, I wasn’t particularly fond of any of the cast members, so you can say that I started watching this series simply because I was drawn to the premise. A crime drama mixed with fantasy? Sounds like my perfect cup of tea! And I was glad I chose to begin my year of drama-watching with this (yes, this is the first drama I’m seeing this year). I think it’s going to be hard to find another drama that can top this in 2016, but I wouldn’t mind surprises.


To be honest, I didn’t fall in love with this series at once as I wasn’t impressed by the first few minutes of episode 1. The opening scene was mysterious enough and kind of set the tone for the show (though it seemed like a scene from some puppy love story at first glance), but then the show cut to a grown-up Park Hae Young rattling off many lines of difficult dialogue like a machine gun, so the shift in tone was kind of jarring to me. This is also the first time that I’m seeing the actor Lee Je Hoon, so it took me some time to get used to his acting. Later on, I realised that there were other viewers online who were complaining about his diction and acting. But fortunately, all of these feelings disappeared by the second half of episode 1 and then I was hooked by the drama right till the end (I finished watching the whole series in two weekends!).

So, how did the show appeal to me? Firstly, the direction. Although there were no beautiful scenery of cherry blossoms or autumn leaves (in fact, most of the scenes throughout the show were gloomy and shot in dirty-looking alleys), I liked the consistency in the colouring and mood of the show. Ironically, it was the distinct use of colours between the past and present scenes that showed this consistency — scenes set in the present had a blue tint, while scenes set in the past were in sephia-coloured tones, and even the screen format was set to the more squarish dimensions used in CRT television sets before the age of widescreen LCD TV sets.

Past vs present

Past vs present

The choice of music was also on point — songs from the 60s remade with a more modern sound, but still retaining the nostalgic and melancholic feel, and also giving the show a slick and indie feel at the same time. This enabled the songs to be used for both the past and present scenes without sounding out of place.

Needless to say, the acting was amazing throughout, which is something to be expected when you have an ensemble of movie stars. Even the supporting cast was awesome, and I thought actor Lee Sang Yeob who played the serial killer at the convenience store did an exceptionally good job; he didn’t have many lines, but he still managed to express the fear, innocence and twisted personality of his character. Actress Kim Hye Soo is not young, yet she managed to switch between her older and younger self very convincingly, thereby showing the growth and change in her character due to events in her life over the years.

Actor Lee Sang Yeob had a small role, but left a deep impression on me.

Actor Lee Sang Yeob had a small role, but left a deep impression on me.

One thing I noticed in this drama was the excessive amount of whispering between members of the cold case squad, which I thought was realistic as you shouldn’t be discussing secrets loudly anyway. This is unlike other dramas, where characters are often seen discussing secrets louder than they should, probably because of the need to be audible through the microphone during filming.

Despite this being a crime thriller, I did not sense any deliberate attempt to rush the story forward or creating elaborate action scenes for the sake of providing tension and suspense. Rather, I thought the writer seemed to let the story develop at its own pace; the story did not always revolve around the cases, but often deviated to tell the back story of our leads, such as the budding romance between detectives Lee Jae Han and Cha Soo Hyun, and how Park Hae Young joined the police force. Even the side characters and criminals were also given time to reveal their own stories to us that may not be known to the leads. Although I must admit that I did feel bored by such moments at times, I acknowledge the effort to add depth and realism to the characters.

When past and present meet at the same place.

The story also switched back and forth between the past and present seamlessly, with characters some times appearing at the same place in different time periods. But while some things remain the same, there are many conditions and factors in the environment that have changed over the course of time. Cases remain unsolved, corruption still exists within the police force, rich and powerful people can still get away with some crimes, but technological advancements such as CCTVs and DNA testing have made it easier for the police to solve cases, and Google Translate saves you the time and hassle of using a dictionary to decipher a foreign language. It is interesting to see how society and the environment in the 1990s and 2015 are very different, and yet very much the same also.

Also commendable is how the cases in the show were adapted from real-life cases, which again adds realism to the show despite the fantasy element. I did some research by reading through some Korean news articles about “Signal”, so here’s a brief summary of how the show overlaps with reality:

Real life cases referenced in Signal

Cases in the drama Cases in real life
Kidnapping of Kim Yoon Jung Kidnapping of Park Chorong-Chorong-Bitnari in 1997:
An 8-year-old girl was kidnapped and murdered by a pregnant woman. Just like in the drama, the culprit managed to slip past the police when they came after her at a cafe.
Gyeonggi Nambu serial killings Hwaseong serial murders
Collapse of Hanyoung Bridge Collapse of Seongsu Bridge in 1994:
Several cars including a bus with female students fell along with the bridge.
Gyesu-dong robberies “Great Thief” Jo Se Hyung:
Dubbed the modern day Hong Gil Dong, Jo committed a spate of burglaries between 1970 and 1980, targeting only rich and powerful families, and then distributed some of the stolen money to the poor. Among the items he stole was a blue tear-drop diamond. 
Hongwon-dong serial murders Sinjeong-dong serial murders in 2005-2006:
Victims were murdered in the same way as seen in the drama using plastic bags and tying their hands. The third victim managed to escape by running blindly.
Inju gang rape case Miryang gang rape case in 2004
“Oh Dae Yang” case Oh Dae Yang mass suicide case in 1987:
Oh Dae Yang is the name of a company behind a religious cult. 32 people along with the cult leader were found dead in an apparent mass suicide, but there is suspicion of homicide due to financial dispute within the company.

Although the drama is stellar in many ways, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with the drama “I Remember You”, which was also a crime drama involving a profiler and an investigation team. Both dramas have the same brooding and subdued mood, and a couple of lines in the dialogue are also similar (e.g. Haeyoung questioning if monsters are born or made, and about cold cases being forgotten). I’m not implying that the writers copied each other though. While there are some similarities, I think the main focus for both dramas are very different. “I Remember You” (see my review) looks into the human psychology and the significance of remembrance, whereas “Signal” is more of a social commentary on corruption and the pursuit for justice, and how the past can affect the future.

Similar lines in “Signal” and “I Remember You”

[Ending spoiler ahead!!]

“Signal” concluded with an open ending where the leads continue pursuing the villain (another similarity with “I Remember You”), and I regard this as both a good and bad thing. I do think it was brilliant and ingenious of the writer to flip things around through the use of the fantasy element without being too far-fetched, though I do wonder how Park Hae Young remains sane if his life keeps having such drastic changes all the time. Not only did she save all the main characters, she also flipped the show’s entire concept around by introducing the possibility of someone helping them from the future. All this while, we see Park Hae Young relaying messages to help Lee Jae Han in the past, and I always felt this was somewhat unfair because Lee Jae Han’s life was always being threatened, whereas Hae Young seemed to have the “upper hand” in the future. But at the end of the last episode, Park Hae Young now seems to be on the receiving end along with Lee Jae Han, while someone else in the future is directing their actions in a way. To put this in another way, Park Hae Young was the chess player and Lee Jae Han was his chess piece for the most part of the series, but the ending seems to suggest that Hae Young has now become a chess piece along with Jae Han and Cha Soo Hyun, who are all being controlled by an unknown chess player in the future (you probably might not agree with my analogy, but this is how I interpreted the ending).

I also wonder if the writer had already planned to end the show this way right from the start. In the first episode, Park Hae Young obtained the walkie talkie because a lorry was parked in front of his car, which seemed like a deliberate move by someone, but we weren’t given an answer to this. I think there is a possibility that this was actually orchestrated by the unknown person from the future!

On a side note, some scenes make me wonder if there’s a love line between these two. Haha!

The director and writer have mentioned the possibility of a season two, and while I generally disapprove of Kdramas having sequels (with the exception of OCN’s “Ten” series), I do think “Signal” requires a second season. This is where “Signal” differs from “I Remember You (IRY)” also. There has been some discussion about whether IRY will have a season two because of the open ending, but I don’t think IRY requires a sequel because 1) there is no demand (viewership ratings were dismal) and 2) there is no necessity for it (because the lead has already recovered his memories so the topic about monsters and remembrance cannot really be explored further). But there is both demand and necessity for “Signal” to have a sequel because the show was highly popular (so there is demand), and the story can still be explored and developed further because new factors were introduced in the last episode, the main villain hasn’t been caught, and corruption and injustice is always present in society.

But if the team were to proceed with a season two, the story has to be handled with caution. The drama is already set in 2015, so how much further into the future must the story go in season two? There is a danger of the show venturing into sci-fi territory and losing realism. But if there is no season two, I might actually consider the open ending an unsatisfactory one, because too many questions were left unanswered. I’m not against open endings, but I just felt that the ending of “Signal” seemed to introduce more question marks rather than answering them.

Despite the difficulty of gathering the same cast and crew for a sequel, I do have high hopes that they will proceed with a sequel since the audience, director, writer and cast seem to be in favour of this. I don’t know if I can take comfort in the fact that Lee Je Hoon has already served his national service, so at least one obstacle is out of the way. I will definitely be paying more attention to this actor from now on. And embracing Lee Je Han’s spirit of never giving up, I’ll be holding on to the hope that this show will flicker to life again in the near future.


Overall: 9/10
Enjoyment: 9/10

A well-made crime-fantasy thriller with a surprisingly insightful take on society, which make this both a meaningful and interesting watch. The drama scores on realism and production quality, and is totally recommended for those who love the police procedural genre, but probably not for those looking for non-stop action or mushy romance with hot guys.


14 thoughts on “[Kdrama review] 시그널 Signal

  1. Thanks, I really enjoyed reading your review. I became a fan of actor Le Je Hoon because of this drama ! Have you seen My Paparotti ? A very good movie with both Jehoon and Cho Jin Woong that I highly recommend if you like these actors 🙂

    1. Thank you! I’m also a new fan. I haven’t seen any of his past works yet and I do intend to watch them when I have time. I guess it’s a good thing that he acted in mostly movies so they don’t require a lot of time.

      1. Oooh, I know he sang a song for Fashion King, but his live singing is unexpectedly good in that clip! And it was so nice of him to accede to the audience’s sudden request even though the emcee tried to “save” him from having to sing live.

        His previous dramas didn’t have good reviews though so I’m hesitant to watch them 😦

      2. Haha agree about his live singing in that clip, I was really surprise ^^

        Yep, me too I read that both Fashion King and Secret Door were not good 😦 and he’s only second lead in FK.. but I think I will still give FK a try since I have nothing to watch after Signal ><

        Btw, do you know/remember in one interview of JCW (I like him and I also really like your other blog 🙂 ) he said that he asked a movie director why she didn't choose him at the audience of "Finding Mr Destiny", she answered JCW was too handsome for the role ? The actor who got that role was LJH :p

      3. If I were to start on his dramas, I might give Secret Door a go first, just my preference hehe. Yes, I remember that JCW interview, but I don’t think he stated which role in the movie he was auditioning for, but it’s still such a small world! Love it when my favourite actors are related to one another somehow.

  2. Ah, i have been curious to know whether all the cases tackled here are based on real life’s cases but do not know where to look, so glad to find this post! Thanks for outlining them! Can i quote or reference you on this?

    I too hardly fancy the idea of sequels (or prequels) regardless of the ending, and while i don’t think Signal needs a second season, the ending does leave enough questions and mysteries to be answered or explored in Season 2. And if the magic walkie-talkie does flicker to life again, i hope the same cast and crew are behind it.

  3. LEE JE HOON!!!!
    I have finished all of his movies and dramas!! and love him more and more…he can portrayed any roles even comedy (ghost sweepers is very entertaining to watch!)

    Dun miss Bleak night and the front line. His acting made me goosebumps!! He deserved all the best acting awards he got from these two roles. He is genius!!

    My Paparotti is my favourite..very feel good movie. The chemistry between ljh and han sok kyu is the best!! Beautiful movie.

    Architecture 101 is nice to watch. I love ljh and suzy..so lovely together.

    Hong Gil Dong, i watched it 3 times wtout eng sub. It is really nice to watch..beautiful screenplays…good casts..a lot of laughs from hgd and the kids. Ljh is so gorgeous and handsome here.

    For the drama i love secret door!! Ljh acting is beyond my imagination.. i am not surprised, he got best actor award from this role even the rating is not good. It is worth to watch! The relationship between father and son is so heartbreaking. Han Sok Kyu and ljh again…their chemistry is superb!!

    Fashion King..If u love ljh u should check it out..i think he is 1st leading man role. His acting here is good. U cant hate him. And he is so gorgeous in this drama!!

    1. Wow, you have really turned into a fan of him! I have yet to watch any of his past shows, especially since I hardly watch Korean movies. I do intend to start on Secret Door soon…

      He appeared in several variety shows recently too! Haven’t managed to start on those either. I did watch his Running Man episode though, but somehow I didn’t really enjoy it as much as I would’ve liked, probably because Running Man has been getting boring to me over the years…

      1. Yeah runningman is not fun as before. But i think jehoon is doing well in variety show. I love him in Happy Together 😊

        I am surprised that his real him is totally different from the roles he portrayed.😀

        Real him is fresh and joyful. He is a very happy boy😂😂

        Looking forward to his new dramas/movies..romcom would be really great!!

      2. Yes, he is always smiling, and his smiles seem to be from the heart (not the forced kind), so it makes people happy. He’s like a happy puppy.

        I hope Signal’s success will encourage him to take on more dramas instead of just movies. A rom com will be good (and I will always welcome police dramas), but I thought I saw in an interview that he also wants to do melo. Don’t get why my favourite korean actors are always drawn to melos 😭

        Don’t think he will be having a new project too soon either. There was a news article after Signal where he said that he will be taking a break after he is done with Phantom Detective promotions.

      3. That’ s right..he is a very happy puppy. His smiles always melt me.
        We like happy puppy!!😁

        Read some of his interviews, he is smart and sincere.

        Yeah he should have some break for travelling😊 fighting jehoonie!!

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