The Devil Judge review: K-drama on Netflix loses sharpness along the way, yet makes for a worthy watch
While The Devil Judge protagonist Yohan may not have the charisma of transgressive heroes like Vincenzo, he is still fun to watch and his nemesis is one of the most charismatic villains of the K-drama in recent times.
Against a sky that looks like a fresh bruise stands a city made up of dark towers and diamond-bright windows. A large billboard shows a man speechifying about how difficult it has been for South Korea to survive the pandemic, and promising to restore the country to its former glory. On the streets, people riot and the police, in bulletproof vests and helmets, stand in military formation while fires burn around them. Welcome to the fictitious Seoul of The Devil Judge.
You cannot help but remember Batman and Gotham city as you see a sleek grey luxury sports car glide past the chaos of this near-future Seoul — especially since its driver, Judge Kang Yohan (Ji Sung), is a dark knight of sorts. Instead of the Batsuit, Yohan has the flowing robes the judiciary wear in this dystopia, and his hunting ground is a very special courtroom. Yohan presides over a court that streams its proceedings live, and allows the public to vote whether or not they think the accused is guilty.
The premise is intriguing, and The Devil Judge does not shy away from bringing thorny topics like #MeToo allegations into Yohan's courtroom. It also raises some important questions. Is it really justice if the judge manipulates witnesses and public opinion to validate his verdict? Should we turn a blind eye to Yohan's dubious methods just because he is targeting bad guys who have the backing of the rich and corrupt political establishment? Also, what is the deal with the doe-eyed Sun-Ah (Kim Min-jung), who is ostensibly a prominent businessman's secretary, and seems to have a secret agenda that involves bringing Yohan to his knees?
Raising these and other questions is Kang's junior colleague and the conscience of the show, Judge Kim Gaon (Park Jin-young). Over 16 episodes, Gaon tries to figure out whether Yohan is a hero or a villain while also navigating his own path through a murky swamp of power, greed, and cruelty. Eventually, Gaon and Yohan discover a conspiracy that involves some of the most powerful people in the country — people who will not hesitate to kill both Gaon and Yohan in order to achieve their goals. Meanwhile, Sun-Ah comes up against the crass sexism of male colleagues who dismiss and disrespect her simply because she is a young woman.
There is a lot going on in The Devil Judge, which explores the idea of justice and the nexus between politics and industry.
Even though it is set in an unspecified future, the world of The Devil Judge feels eerily familiar, beginning with the buffoonish president who contains shades of many real-life, megalomaniac world leaders.
The court verdicts that draw on public sentiment offer an unnerving look at mass hysteria while raising questions about cancel culture, freedom of choice, and the role that the media needs to play in a functioning democracy.
Unfortunately, despite a promising start and stellar performances by Kim Min-jung and Ji Sung, The Devil Judge begins unravelling halfway into its 16 episodes, and ultimately ends disappointingly. The show loses much of its sharpness when it robs Yohan's character of ambivalence, and instead devotes its energy to establishing him as a hero without shades of grey. It also makes the criminal mistake of creating some fantastic female characters only to kill them off when they start commanding as much attention as the male leads. There is a strange fixation with women smoking cigars that Sigmund Freud would probably have loved to include while writing about castration anxiety.
Still, for all the frustration and sexism that is folded into the story, The Devil Judge is an interesting watch. While Yohan may not have the charisma of transgressive heroes like Vincenzo, he is still fun to watch and his nemesis is one of the most charismatic villains of the K-drama in recent times.
The Devil Judge is streaming on Netflix.
Deepanjana Pal is an author and a journalist.
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