A thriller that will have you crying “Save me!” Salvation lies at the end, fortunately.
Genre: Thriller, horror, mystery, action
Synopsis: Sang Mi (Seo Ye Ji) and her family arrive at the town of Muji in the hopes of rebuilding their lives. All seems quiet and peaceful at this backwater town, but bad luck follows her family as they get drawn into a mysterious cult. Sang Mi tries to escape from the cult but has no one to turn to other than her newfound friends at school — Sang Hwan (Ok Taecyeon) , Dong Cheol (Woo Do Hwan), Jung Hoon (Lee David) and Man Hee (Ha Hoe Jung).
I was excited to watch this drama with this being a thriller (one of my favourite genres) and Taecyeon’s final project before his mandatory army enlistment. I’m glad to say that this thriller was a decent one, but I was not prepared for the amount of goosebumps I had to endure.
The good — A unique story rooted in the realities of society
Save Me is a welcome departure from all the usual Korean dramas about time travel, immortal boyfriends, arrogant rich guys and women looking for revenge. I’ve not seen a drama that deals with exorcism or a religious cult, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Save Me is the first Korean drama of its kind.
Save Me is adapted from a Korean webtoon To the Outside World (literal translation), but I haven’t read it so I’m not sure how closely the drama follows the original. Not much apparently, as the director admitted in an interview that he has not read the webtoon. He also said that he tried to give more realism to the story by touching on societal issues, and I appreciate this move as it gave the show more depth and meaning.
The drama paints a very grim picture of society. Sang Mi’s brother has a disability and he is subjected to ridicule and bullying in school. Besides the obvious reference to societal discrimination against people with disabilities, the drama turns the spotlight on the issue of school bullying. You can’t help but feel enraged by the cruelty and lack of remorse of the school bullies, and it reminded me of the recent real-life case of school bullying in Busan. We also see how money makes the world go round as the school bullies go scot-free thanks to their rich parents, innocent powerless people are made convenient scapegoats, and corruption is rampant as the police and politicians willingly join hands with the influential cult. Our protagonist Sang Hwan is also a good example of this as he gets away with many things for being the son of the governor, whereas his friends from less influential backgrounds have it less easy.
Many of Sang Mi’s classmates are jobless, delinquents or working in poorly paid jobs as they seem to be caught in a vicious cycle of poverty. It also reflects the sad reality of a small town like Muji having fewer job opportunities than a big city, and the high unemployment rate that is plaguing the country now. You come to discover that Muji is like an apple with a rotten core, and is probably meant to be seen as a microcosm of society at large. An interesting note is that Muji is a fictional place and not the name of an actual town in Korea.
The good — A satisfying underdog story
At the core of this drama is an underdog story about four unemployed youths fighting against powerful institutions and injustice in society. It is indeed satisfying to see how these ordinary youths make use of their wits, courage and ordinary smartphones to rescue a friend. Actually, I wouldn’t consider them best friends with Sang Mi since she was mostly cold towards them in school and she rarely hung out with them; they were just trying to be friendly to her since she was a new student. So I found it admirable that they would go to such great lengths to rescue her. I wonder if it is possible to have such classmates in reality who will sacrifice themselves for you. I think they were driven by their moral sense of duty and their conscience more so than friendship.
The good — Movie-like cinematography
Just like past dramas on the OCN channel, Save Me felt more like a movie than your regular Korean drama because of the cinematography and widescreen format. The blue and greyish colour palette and the moody rock music that were part of the soundtrack set a gloomy tone for the series from the get-go. I love the OST except for the third track titled “Sandstorm” by Jung Cha sik; the song is the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard! Despite being a thriller that has nothing to do with the supernatural, Save Me actually felt like a horror movie in most scenes involving the cult. I’m amused that Taecyeon claims to be afraid of ghosts, and yet he keeps picking projects that fall under the horror genre.
The good — A stellar cast
Taecyeon mentioned in an interview that this drama has a huge cast that is almost like epic sageuk proportions. He is right as the show has many veteran actors who delivered stellar performances in their respective roles. Jo Sung Ha, who has played the villain in numerous shows, delivered all his sermons with gusto as the Spiritual Father and also managed to be menacing while spewing lines lifted from the bible. Jo Jae Yoon always amazes me by how good he is at playing both comedic and villainous characters. I still remember the 180-degree turn in his character in Empress Ki. There were many other notable performances, but I’ll have to write that as a separate essay if I were to talk about all of them.
The drama also has many new young faces that I’m seeing for the first time. They could either be rookie actors or they could have been more active in the movie scene. Lee David reunites with Taecyeon again after Let’s Fight Ghost. I’ve seen him way back in dramas such as Iljimae in 2008 and I’m surprised that he still has a baby face despite being the same age as Nam Joo Hyuk. I didn’t really like Seo Ye Ji in Hwarang but she performed exceptionally well here. Woo Do Hwan was a stand-out and gained a lot of attention in this drama as Dong Cheol; some viewers have been saying that he stole the limelight from Taecyeon. I think Taecyeon’s acting was alright but he wasn’t impressive, especially when surrounded by so many talented actors.
The bad — Poor pacing and lack of focus
I normally wouldn’t consider a 16-episode drama “long”, but this length did seem a tad too long for Save Me. The first half of the drama had nothing much going on — Sang Mi (and we, the audience) had to cope with all the insanity going on at the cult, Sang Hwan and his friends had their own personal problems to deal with, and Sang Hwan spent a long time deliberating whether to save Sang Mi.
I mentioned earlier that I liked how the drama touched on societal issues happening to the town people beyond the cult, but I also felt the drama dwelled unnecessarily on too many side characters such as the gangsters, the politicians and the police. Having too many issues running concurrently alongside the main plot made the show convoluted at times, and it was not immediately clear how the different side characters had anything to do with the protagonists until the last few episodes when the different story lines began to converge. I found myself zoning out whenever the drama shifted its focus to the side characters in the early episodes.
The director mentioned in his interview that he had considered filming Save Me as a movie, but decided to give more depth to the story by producing it as a drama instead. I wish he had gone with the former instead or cut down the number of episodes by half. It didn’t help that the show had a lot of disturbing scenes that made viewing rather uncomfortable. Things only got more interesting for me after episode 8 when Sang Hwan started taking proper action to rescue Sang Mi.
The bad — Disturbing and morbid
This is subjective, but for someone who has always kept a distance from horror shows (Let’s Fight Ghost was an exception), I found the portrayal of the religious cult in this show disturbing. There were many scenes of people going delirious because of religious fanaticism, casting of “devils” through exorcism, people getting locked up against their will and subjected to mistreatment, people becoming deranged, violence etc. While this may be a realistic portrayal of cults, all these amounted to a rather stressful watch that was mentally and emotionally draining. This is not the kind of show you would want to watch after a stressful day at work.
Although every episode begins with a disclaimer that the religion portrayed in the drama is a fictitious one, there is no denying that the cult is based heavily on Christianity. Many lines from the cult’s holy scripture are also borrowed from the Bible. As a Catholic, I can’t help but feel disturbed by how our religious teachings are being twisted in this drama. And I don’t even consider myself a devout Catholic; all I do is attend Sunday mass. I tried my best to watch this with an open mind. I think devout Christians should probably avoid watching this drama lest you get offended.
A thriller that’s almost like a horror movie. If you can watch with an open mind and get past the creepiness and discomfort, the drama is actually a deep and meaningful one. Though the drama falls short on its pace and coherence in storytelling, it makes up for that with impressive cinematography and acting. Save Me can be rather emotionally draining, so I wouldn’t want to watch this drama a second time.