One of the least likely and most moving love stories in K-drama so far this year is told in Signal, a terrific South Korean thriller and bromance where a time-bending walkie-talkie connects two loner detectives.
One of them(Lee Je Hoon), a criminal profiler in present-day South Korea assigned to reopen cold cases, picks up the decommissioned police radio that crackles to life on sporadic nights, at 11.23pm, for a minute or so.
The other (Cho Jin Woong)is the owner of the walkie-talkie in the past, a police officer who, beginning in 1989, receives transmissions from a stranger making eerie predictions about his on-going investigations.
VIEW IT / SIGNAL
More precisely, Lee is a cynic examining unsolved murders and mishandled cases that continue to embarrass the police, and he has the fortune to communicate with Cho, a passionate policeman who was going all out when the cases were fresh but banging his head against the brick wall of complacence and corruption.
The drama is from Kim Eun Hee, the writer of the thrillers 3 Days (2014) and Ghost (2012), and tvN, the network I’m allowing back in my good books only now, after its recent show Cheese In The Trap turned out to be so criminally disappointing.
Signal doesn’t disappoint, however. It is a narrative tour de force that succeeds as a multilayered, nail-biting detective drama and a considered, compelling human story. (Although the time-crossing radio transmission premise might ring a bell, Signal is far sharper than the 2000American movie Frequency.)
A notorious serial murder case that has become a skeletal list of dates, places and names in Lee’s time comes alive when the drama goes back to Cho’s era, on the night he receives a message from Lee just as he and his colleagues are about to find the seventh female victim in a field.
Lee,who can’t believe he is talking to a fellow Korean police officer who hasn’t learnt the facts of the case by heart, rattles them off. Soon, Cho is acting on Lee’s leads and rushing to prevent more killings–which is when the drama turns positively sly.
Far from revealing the outcomes of Cho’s actions right away, it builds almost unbearable suspense by having Lee piece together the details decades later.
And it gathers power and urgency as Lee discovers the little things that slipped out of police records: Cho’s small acts of decency, conscience and moral courage, which led him to a fate Lee now hopes is still rewriteable.
“The world you live in will be different,”Cho says to Lee near the end of the drama.
And by then, Lee knows Cho is right.The world the younger man lives in is indeed a little better, because the older man, the best friend he has never properly met, made it so.