TV Series: Signal (2016)

Signal is hands down my favourite TV series of the year. Thought I should give everyone the heads up. I originally posted the review in snippets in a forum that I am active in, so I will just reproduce the posts here for convenience.

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Post 1

A Korean friend knows we are huge fans of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) and recommended this 16-episode TV series to us. We gave it a whirl a couple of nights ago and 3 episodes in, I think I should give everyone the heads up. This is excellent stuff!

A mysterious walkie talkie allows a detective in 1989 to communicate with a cold case profiler from 2015; with the power of fore and hindsight the two not only solve crimes but prevent them from ever taking place. However, a long standing murder case is closer to home than either realizes.

The writers of the series took actual cold cases in Korea and weave a very compelling story around them. It is equal measure procedural and time bender. The time paradox idea is not new and feels like an idea taken from Frequency, but how it is used to accentuate the past so that the future is changed is brilliant. The second story concerns the serial killer in Memories of Murder and last night we were at the edge of our seats embroiled in all the cold facts and the jaw-dropping repercussions. The series also offers us a thought provoking “what if” – if you know the time and location of the next murder, what would you do about it?

The principal actors are of a high calibre and most importantly the plot is so tight and loaded that you cannot not pay attention to the details bombarding your consciousness.

Highly recommended for the discerning viewer and procedural lovers.

Post 2

Few nights ago we saw ep4 which is the closure of the Hwaseong murders as detailed in Memories of Murder. Brilliant writing. The revelation, we kinda guessed, but it is still inspired ideas to weave a solid story with the murders. However, what we didn’t count on was the 20min falling action and closures of arc for the three main characters – very poignant and all hit the spot. The juxtaposition of the dude sitting in a cinema is masterclass. All round solid – they won but each lost something. Most American series don’t do this – every character moves like a pre-determined plot point, characters think and then they immediately react. The Koreans know how to do it differently. Ep2-4 are like a companion piece to Memories of Murder. This one “solves” the unsolved heinous crimes and it is a piece of marvelous writing.

We are now at ep7.

Post 3

We did ep9-14 today. Each episode’s runtime is about 1h 15min but the time just whizzed by like nothing.

Nobody would be able to watch this procedural with us because we engaged in constant animated discussions and project how the narrative would go. We love cerebral and intelligent stuff like this. Not even the crazy news from USA could make us turn away from the TV.

We were originally going to watch a movie tomorrow. Fcuk that! We will finish this tomorrow night.

Post 4

Sometimes my wifey will ask me why I spent so much time telling my friends about films and tv series because they won’t bother – the silent response from my “movie gang” WhatsApp group (likewise with my FB posts and forum posts) feels like a silent cry from the void. But the thing is sometimes when I see something so good I can’t shut up. I understand how difficult it is to tell a great story and how the stars are lined up for that to happen is down to every aspect of filmmaking. I likened that to a miracle. My way of celebrating the experience is to share through words. It makes me so glad that some of my pals have started watching and the feedbacks are nothing short of outstanding. I hear echoes from the void now. Words of eloquence escape me and I feel like a broken record, so this will be my last post on this Korean series.

We finished the last 2 episodes last night and we actually skipped our usual Thursday evenings at the cinema just to come home to do this. We couldn’t wait to see how it all ends. Although the ending shamelessly sets it up for a sequel, we never felt we were cheated. The writing is superb. Many times we get to see the payoff, then some time later we revisit the scene and we are given the context and payoff exploded again like a payload. The use of flashbacks is terrific and they don’t just serve as plot devices. At times each flashback teases out a new important detail or peel another layer off a character. At other times the flashbacks feel Rashomon-resque as we see a crucial scene from different points of view. The narrative constantly jumps between two timelines but we are never confused. The characters play both the past and present narratives with differentiated aplomb. But the glue that links up all these high concept scenes are the compelling characters and themes. So many times we are stopping each other from wanting to jump into the TV to either kill the bad guy or give Jae Han a tight slap to knock some sense into him. The acting is tier one.

Time travel/paradox/loop movies are always tricky but the great ones know that it is just a plot device to tell a larger story. If done well, the nuts, bolts and gears behind the screen melt away, and you won’t be searching for plot-holes anymore (and there are if I even want to think about it) because you are already invested in the story. And what a story this is. This is not about an academically cool idea of taking 5 or 6 cold cases that actually happened (I googled each of the case and read the actual investigations) and linked them like some monster of the week CSI episode. Nowhere does it feel episodic. Every case flows to the next like a torrent. I couldn’t see which one ended and where the next one began. I love the craft in writing. I love the investigations – the past, without the advent of internet, is based on pure hard work, foot work and thinking, and the future uses technology wisely. I love the gentle one-sided love story between Soo Hyun and Jae Han. Some moments are so warm and hilarious, some are just downright gut wrenching.

Of course, Signal isn’t perfect. Being Korean, it just couldn’t not engage in some loud melodramatic scenes that just pounded and pounded away. But I am not taking any points from what is a solid twist-galore mind-boggler, especially the final episode that took the whole story to way beyond Inception level. Give me this type of cerebrally intelligent series anytime. I am no fan of cutie-pie and hunk stuff in the vein of Descendants from the Sun and You Who Came From the Stars. This is one of the best series we have seen this year, and I am even comparing it with the English ones this year.

PS – I know tonight we will be lost on what series we can follow up from this. I feel so empty now, and I know my wifey feels the same. For a person who absolutely abhors time paradox stuff, she loves this to bits.

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