In a nutshell: A dark revenge-melo that manages to lighten the gloom with a well-balanced amount of absurdist humor. Characters are complex and emotionally engaging and well tied to the driving plot. There is a touch of romance, though it’s kept mainly to the light and frothy side of things. The story itself is very tightly told without the usual treading water moments I expect from dramas of this type and length. Which made for a very compelling (and addicting!) watch.
The theme: We open with a close up of a bug crawling onto a half-buried bar of gold. We pan back to see a excavator dumping a load of what turns out to be a massive pile of cash causing the site workers to break into an all out brawl over the find. It’s the first of many, many scenes of people fighting over money, the least subtle but also the least vicious. Love of money does indeed breed bad things.
Greed and vengeance are the story’s bones. It explores how far people will go for money and how easily people thirst for vengeance. Characters swear revenge countless times throughout the drama. Some acts are huge and reprehensible and cover the length of the drama. Some are minor and hilarious and cover an episode or two. Some carry their characters into destructive darkness, some fizzle out pathetically, and a rare few create personal epiphanies and moments of growth.
The plot: With the theme tying it all together, the plot itself is broken into three major chapters, each chapter a compelling watch on its own. It means the big clash between the hero and villain is a long time coming. But it also means that when it does come it’s able to come with (if you’ll pardon my choice of words) a vengeance. And I will say, it stands worthy of the build up.
I’ll also say the story leading up to the big clash is not just the drama marking time. The hero has to earn his place in the ring. He doesn’t simply spring onto the scene with honor on his side and meaningful Bible quotes in his hand. And the journey he takes is an interesting one with unexpected twists and turns ranging from the horrifying to the hilarious.
The humor: Both the writer and director of Incarnation of Money were behind the eccentrically funny drama, History of the Salaryman, and while this drama wasn’t quite as madcap, the madcap was definitely there. (Which sometimes created borderline offensive portrayals of the mentally challenged, the mentally ill and obesity as the show teetered between broad humor and serious business.) But for the most part, the humor worked really well, informing on rather than distracting from, the main plot.
It helped that several players from History of the Salaryman brought their character-acting skills to the game. And our main leads, Kang Ji-hwan and Hwang Jung-eum had great comedic skills as well. (Hwang Jung-eum managing to fight through layers of latex to bring the funny.) Their interactions with each other were so entertaining, I kind of wished they’d do an Incarnation of Money redux: the rom-com version.
The timeline: The drama covered a great deal of ground — starting with our hero as a young teenager (around 14 or so?) and taking him all the way through to adulthood (early 30’s). In the youngest years, actors Park Ji-bin and Seo Shin-ae did an excellent job setting up the characters. For the middle section, I have to admit it was hard for me to buy Kang Ji-hwan as a young 20-something — which is probably a shallow complaint. But I was relieved when he settled into full adulthood and I didn’t have to remind myself that yes, he really is young enough to be that awkward and callow.
Story-wise, however, the expanse of time really worked well. It gave our hero the time to actually become a hero. And it allowed our villain (played with chilling righteousness by Park Sang-min) to realistically grow into a truly formidable foe. By telling a story that took place over several years the 24 episodes were well used, rather than padded out with unnecessary filler and tangents.
In conclusion: This wasn’t the perfect drama for me — I could have used a little more romance — but it told its story perfectly. The creators knew exactly what kind of tale they were telling and they told it fully and without deviation. Which meant it was a thrilling and entertaining watch. If you like revenge-stories, carve out some time. Once this drama gets you, it won’t easily let you go.