South Korean comedy Prison Playbook offers ginseng chicken soup for the soul

The makers of the Reply nostalgia series have dished up another feel-good show, this time set in prison

In its third episode, the South Korean comedy Prison Playbook acts normal.

Several inmates sharing a cell with fallen baseball star Kim Je Hyeok (Park Hae Soo) hatch a hush-hush plot that requires timing, diagrams and tools - including a hammer hidden in a Bible, Shawshank Redemption-style. Their operation gets under way during the warden's naptime, amid anxiety and fighting talk, and they must be making a break from jail, as inmates do in most prison fiction.

Nah, not this bunch. The sequence turns out to be one of the show's pranks. The inmates are just trying to break a boiler lock and regain a freedom that is relatable in its ordinariness: They're longing to eat piping hot instant ramen on a rainy night, even though boiling water is forbidden in prison.

This is Prison Playbook for you, a jailhouse comedy infused with humour, bonhomie and a feel-good sensibility that will be familiar to fans of the Reply nostalgia series.

In three seasons, director Shin Won Ho's Reply series focused increasingly on communal living, evoking simpler, happier times when one family had one television, for example, so everyone had to share.

With Prison Playbook, Shin and his team are serving up their brand of ginseng chicken soup for the soul in a present-day setting. (Seriously, this stuff is more wholesome than an average episode of the American women's prison series Orange Is The New Black.)



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But it still works because in the one-man-one-phone-one-screen era, prison must be one of the last places where everyone has to watch the same show on the same television in the same room, like it or not.

Actually, Prison Playbook may be an improvement on the Reply series. It is less sentimental and some of its characters are less huggable, but no less human.

They include Je Hyeok, an obtuse, mostly gentle giant who has a real temper and whose introduction to prison and its unwritten rules frames the show; Joon Ho (Jung Kyung Ho), Je Hyeok's loyal but fragile friend who is now a prison officer; and a chief warden who is despicable, dishonest yet likeable, perhaps because he is played by Sung Dong Il, a stalwart of the Reply series.

On the whole, they are quite a nice lot to be shut in with.

In Prison Playbook, a baseball star (Park Hae Soo, left) lands in jail and meets his old friend, now a correction officer (Jung Kyung Ho). PHOTO: NETFLIX

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2017, with the headline 'Ginseng chicken soup for the soul'. Print Edition | Subscribe