Edited by Seo Hae Lan
Translated by Na Young Gil
JTBC’s Undercover is a Korean remake of the British series of the same title but focuses on the historical and social context of Korea. It grabs viewers’ attention with bold localization, an absorbing plot, and great acting.
As Choi Yeon Soo, a civil rights lawyer, becomes a candidate for the Chief of the Civil Servant Corruption Investigation Unit, her life is constantly being threatened. Plus, Han Jung Hyun, her dedicated husband and father of her children, seems to be hiding something. In fact, Jung Hyun’s real identity turns out to be Lee Suk Kyu, a secret agent of the NIS (National Intelligence Service). He fell in love with her when had he approached her for his mission. He tries to protect his wife in his own way, but the evil is beyond his reach and endangers his family.
Daring changes and bold adaptation is worth a notice. Maya and Nick in the original show turned into passionate civil rights lawyer Choi Yeon Soo and NIS agent Lee Suk Kyu. Their first encounter was at a protest in the 90s when many student movements were going on. Lee Suk Kyu was disguised as Han Jung Hyun to arrest Kim Tae Yeol, a key figure in the student movements. But he fell in love with Choi Yeon Soo, who was on the watch list. Ultimately, he gave up his true identity and chose a future with Yeon Soo.
About 30 years later, Yeon Soo’s offered the position of the Chief of the Civil Servant Corruption Investigation Unit, a role that is at the center of political controversy. She ends up taking the job even after a confirmation hearing and propaganda against her. The people, who use Jung Hyun’s past and endanger Yeon Soo and her family, are the rich and powerful, including the NIS, the ones who are supposed to work for the country.
So far, it seems like Choi Yeon Soo’s Civil Servant Corruption Investigation Unit is on the side of the good. And the rich and powerful, who try to stop it, are on the side of the evil. However, things are not always black or white in the show.
In her unit, some get in her way, riding on the coattails of the rich and powerful. Meanwhile, some get killed, trying to expose the unit’s corruption. And some others get dropped by the NIS. The authorities, who made her the chief, request her to side with them politically. But, the rich and powerful, who oppose her, call her a slave of the power. In addition, Han Jung Hyun has been keeping his identity and occupation as a secret to be with Yeon Soo. In such a situation, where the truths and lies are jumbled together, the only good seems to be Yeon Soo’s unwavering integrity.
On the contrary, the structure of the narrative in each episode is relatively simple. Yeon Soo does everything she can to resolve issues at work. Jung Hyun, who’s trying to protect his family, secretly helps Yeon Soo and traces any conspiracy against him. They comfort each other at home after working hard in their respective positions. But viewers feel uneasy since they know the two’s relationship is built on lies.
What’s also notable is the acting that brings balance and vitality to the show. Kim Hyun Joo plays moral, tough Yeon Soo refreshingly. And Ji Jin Hee shows delicate emotions and performs challenging action scenes. The two actors, working together for the third time, portray the 20-year marriage beautifully. The supporting actors’ performances are flawless too. Especially, Heo Joon Ho (Im Hyeong Rak) and Jung Man Shik (Do Young Geol) ’s are so convincing that they often anger viewers.
Also, the main characters in the 90s and the ones in the present seem very much similar. For example, Han Sun Hwa’s Choi Yeon Soo and Yeon Woo Jin’s Han Jung Hyun share similar facial expressions and ways of speaking with the Yeon Soo and Jung Hyun in 2020. The same goes for the supporting actors like Jung Man Sik, Park Doo Shik, Han Go Eun, and Park Kyung Ri. You can tell so much effort was put into the casting and the acting.
In the end, the theme of Undercover is the weight of the truth. The pain is caused by people’s wrongdoings trying to hide the truth because they fear its impact. Look at the conflicts over the law Transparency of Special Activity Costs by National Agencies. They are mentioned as frequently as the Senior Civil Servant Corruption Investigations Unit in the drama. It exposes the viciousness of those trying to hide the truth that the flow of money will reveal. Many individuals involved in the mess can’t decide they’re going to side with the sour truths or sweet lies. Jung Hyun, who’s the only one that’s on Yeon Soo’s side, decides to bear the weight of the truth willingly, but he finds himself in greater evil’s clutches.
The truth that you can’t bear will turn into a punishment, which causes pain for you and the people around you. That’s why I feel so sorry for Yeon Soo, who still loves and trusts Jung Hyun. When she learns that the most crucial relationship in her life was born from lies, I’d want nothing but to give her a hug, who will struggle with pain.
Verdict: The characters’ appeals and the acting that shines in a difficult and complicated narrative (7/10)
Editor Seo Hae Lan: I’m not picky, and like all genres. I am in constant search of a balance between criticism and a fan’s heart.
Translator Na Young Gil: ZAPZEE is the best Korean pop culture community, and I’m happy to be part of it.