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.
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.
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.
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.
[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!
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.
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.