By Anthony Chau
In my humble uncultured opinion, D.P., a miniseries that serves as an exposé to the horrifying toxic military culture in South Korea, offers some of the best viewing experiences that Korean drama has to offer.
I have a love-hate relationship with Korean dramas. I’ve tried watching many but have only ever finished… maybe three? I loved Reply 1988 for the charm of its main cast and the mundane yet equally heart-wrenching and heartwarming stories the show painted against the aesthetic backdrop of South Korea in the late 1980s, I was pleasantly surprised by Age of Youth’s quirkiness and poignant character moments, and I liked Hospital Playlist despite its relatively lackluster “medical drama” moments because of the main cast’s chemistry and the fact that I’m a shill for medical drama wish fulfillment. Other shows have appealed to me before, but they’ve always lost me between the hour-long episode runtimes, and in my opinion, a lack of interesting characters. You can only iterate on rich, asshole boy meets feisty, poor girl in so many ways and it just gets tiring.
Having started the show with such lukewarm expectations, I didn’t expect to be blown away and enraptured in the show so quickly. D.P. wastes no time clueing viewers in to what the show is really about – the show starts in the middle of a confrontation between our main character, Ahn Joon-ho, and his apparent superior in the military. Unable to talk back or resist against a superior officer, Ahn is forced to repeat his title – “Private Ahn Joon-ho. Sir!” – as his tormenter pushes him further and further back towards a wall with an exposed nail that threatens to pierce his skull if he falls back too far. He is stoic and emotionless. A line of tape before his feet make it clear that this is not a one-off situation, but a premeditated, practiced act of harassment that’s happened many times before. Suddenly, we cut back in time to a day before Ahn’s enlistment, when he’s still working as a pizza delivery person. He delivers a pizza, but is promptly falsely accused of keeping the change for himself without offering it back to the family beforehand. Ahn denies it, but the family doesn’t believe him. He walks away, but stops and turns back to declare his innocence steadfastly once more. After receiving an earful from his manager about his act of disrespect towards a customer, Ahn is fired with no promise of receiving the pay he deserves. Quiet but vengeful, Ahn steals the pizza delivery motorbike as he leaves his job.
It’s hard to do these scenes justice in writing for obvious reasons, but I’d like to highlight two things: the characterization and the pacing. What stuck out to me was the contrast between Ahn’s nonresistance in the confrontation with his superior and his quiet but forceful resistance in his prior civilian life. Jung Hae-in’s acting here and throughout the show makes the viewer deeply curious – he is quiet and we know he’s not a doormat, but he refuses to show his emotions. It looks like he’s gotten the short end of the stick in many parts of his life, and it feels like he’s always hiding something from others. We keep getting these glimpses of who he is from his actions, but he’s interesting because we want to know how he feels and thinks about these terrible things that he’s experiencing.
Wanting to understand more about him and wanting to see how he engages with the events in his life is an incredibly powerful motivator to keep going on to the next episode. The way the show presents these sequences is also beautifully immersive. It dangles a premise in front of us – a tense confrontation, a feeling of injustice – but it cuts to the other timeline before it resolves what it just showed us. It’s this feeling of heightened momentum, this feeling that the show keeps climbing without letting us settle down, that makes it so watchable. It’s not just the first episode that excels in this, too. Throughout the miniseries, watching Ahn grow and reveal more and more of himself and watching the events of his life unfold chaotically made each episode feel much shorter than their 45-minute to hour-long runtimes.
According to Wikipedia’s synopsis, here are the (spoiler-free) outcomes of this pilot episode: “D.P. tells the story of a team of Korean military police with the mission to catch deserters… Private Ahn Joon-ho and Corporal Han Ho-yul both team up to find the deserters, and end up in an adventurous journey.”
I’ve never seen such an oversimplified, off-tone synopsis in my life. Yes, Ahn Joon-ho is tasked with catching deserters – a tragically ironic position that pits the abused against the abused and only allows the top of the chain of power to win. But “adventurous journey” makes the show sound campy, and this show is so far from it. Each episode centers on a different deserter, and in the framework of investigating the deserter’s life to pinpoint his location, we get these painfully human stories that highlight how military life in South Korea breaks down soldiers’ psyches through toxic masculinity, entrenched practices of systematic abuse, and an unyielding system that reduces its members to numbers rather than individuals. We learn about these young men in tandem with Ahn Joon-ho and his partner, Han Ho-yul, and through the tragic lens of Ahn’s unique position as both the abused and the enforcer of the abusers, we soak in the full injustice of the military system in South Korea.
I know what you’re thinking. This is indeed heavy, heavy stuff. However, the show is not without levity, and I think it has the perfect amount of humor to balance the content material without being disrespectful or flippant. A lot of this humor is brought to the table by Koo Kyo-hwan’s performance as Han Ho-yul, Ahn’s partner. As a senior officer and a veteran of this military team tasked only to catch deserters, Han brings a certain resigned, sarcastic wit that speaks volumes about the tragic nature of the job. He acts as an older brother figure to Ahn, and his carefree nature but clear dedication to his job makes the show infinitely more viewable while also providing a reason for Ahn to open up slowly as a character.
These individual facets – Ahn’s character, the addicting way the show is edited, the unique content matter, and the perfectly balanced drama and tasteful humor – make for a bingeable watch that’s not only eye-opening to a harsh reality that I’d never known about before, but also just plain good storytelling. Plain good storytelling is hard to find sometimes. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the deluge of passable shows that are adequately satisfying, and it’s easy to forget that spark that you first felt after a show that just spoke to you, that had you screaming internally for the characters as if you were with them. D.P. is not one of those passable shows. D.P. is Korean television at its finest – no, D.P. is simply television at its finest. I’m earnestly hoping that somehow this doesn’t pass under people’s radar, and even if this isn’t a Netflix Top 10, please go watch it.