Return of the Queen
Little by little, I’m getting a sense for the geography of South Korea. Of course, there’s metropolitan Seoul and Busan. You land in Incheon, a major city to the east. Jeju is a popular vacation spot. Irene and her accent come from Daegu. Now we have the setting for K-drama Inspector Koo, Tongyeong, a destination on the southern coast which CNN praises for its “fresh seafood, picturesque seascapes and quaint fishing village charm.” After only two episodes, I desperately wanted to visit. Who knew a murder mystery could be so flattering for a city, but every chase scene, every surveillance detail is another opportunity for a wide shot or roving camera showcasing the mountains or festivals or public gardens. This is a regular feature of the genre as I’ve witnessed it, that K-dramas are always selling something, and in total present the shiny artifice of a country at its best. How is it that every male lead is at least six feet tall and every female lead is five-foot four? And take a look at this black bean noodle – doesn’t sound appetizing, but it looks amazing. How about that sunset on the skyline? There’s a beach in everyone’s backyard here, but you fall in love on the bridge over the river.
Hallyu is undoubtedly powered by South Korea’s intense beauty culture, and I think any healthy consumption of idol entertainment is also wary and paranoid. I’m far less suspicious of how Mamamoo is treated than I am Red Velvet, for example, but suspicious all the same, or for poor foodie Bomi and her constant diets. I also worry about all of their futures, hoping they continue on like Lee Hyori rather than shrink from the public eye. This is the thought domino which yields the darkest conclusions about how beauty is tied to worth, that when women age, we’d rather not think about them. To be honest, it’s an almost constant concern, when now and then I see netizens praise the graceful aging of idols in their early 30s. And it’s an old one for me, beginning with my first idol – long before Yoona and Irene and the 2019 visit to South Korea that sparked an interest in my own Korean heritage which led to this blog – Lee Young-ae.
Or rather, “Young-ae Lee” as we called her in the late 2000s, as not the preeminent face of the Korean New Wave in film but the most memorable, especially to a high school boy. While I knew her from her precious film roles, it was her turn in the 2003 K-drama Jewel in the Palace that effectively introduced South Korean culture to the world. That show was a juggernaut, establishing Lee as a star all over Asia and beyond. By the time I was talking about her on my first podcast in 2010, she was on the cusp of 40, a 22-year age gap between us that made our relationship simply unfeasible. Other than that, you know. Granted, in college, we often joked that she’s old enough to be my bio-mom, and wouldn’t that be fatally horrifying – these were less sensitive times. I’ve grown since, but in the meantime, it seemed like she’d moved on entirely. In 2009, Lee married a Korean-American businessman and had two kids, and wouldn’t return to the entertainment world until 2017. A fan of BTS, she’s been enjoying the fruits of the industry she helped create, but now finds herself in conflict with its seedier aspect.
In an interview with The Korea Times promoting her return to the big screen in 2019, she said, “Nobody can be spared from the passing of time,” and that “looks were less of a concern to me during filming.” It must be dealt with, no matter how, and that’s such a greater battle for the so-called “beauty who never ages,” a true legend of hallyu – and my first, most beloved idol. Now fully reengaged with film and TV projects, her latest venture is the titular role in Inspector Koo, a 40-year-old ex-detective who’s aged about ten further years following the suicide of her husband. When first we meet her, she’s the portrait of modern depression, clacking away at a keyboard on one of those Korean MMOs, pounding energy drinks late into the night and releasing the empty cans to the floor for the cockroaches. Her hair is a fly-buzzing mess and she can barely keep her eyes open. There’s a recurring gag that people on the street react to her as if she’s a ghost or a zombie. A teacher suddenly rushes schoolchildren onto the bus and orders the driver to hurry, and sure enough, it’s Koo shambling around the corner.
This is the first time I’ve seen Lee Young-ae in action since Lady Vengeance. I follow her on Instagram (you may have seen my all-heart comments), so I know what she looks like these days, but seeing her in motion and hearing her voice were a different matter. Clearly, this introduction to her character is supposed to be a shock, and admittedly, I was disappointed by the laborious effort to make her gross and undignified. Is this playing into the age/beauty conundrum in an extremely cynical way? She isn’t just old but a monster? Well, worry not, because despite these efforts, Lee Young-ae remains Lee Young-ae. I’m just as spellbound as I was a decade ago. She’s so fucking gorgeous, radiant, queenly, a god.
And with a second of introspection, I realize that this is likely the last thing Lee Young-ae would desire as feedback. “No matter what you do, you’ll always be you, Miss Actor.” Part of the reason she took the role of Koo Kyung-yi is because it’s so different from anything she’s done before. A challenge met – naturally – as it’s a very, very good performance. I’m amazed what she’s able to do while keeping a straight face. When she snaps to focus, she’s a scary genius with a detached, cool demeanor, at once obsessively involved in the minutiae of a case and indifferent to anyone else’s input. And unfocused, she’s fascinating in an almost anthropological way. We’re often seeing her from the perspective of other characters, and she’s unpredictable though reliably recalcitrant. Physical as well, with the wavy arms and lolling head that offset the upright, frame-friendly posture of other characters. Beneath all the grime, there’s just something appealing about her, and this complicates our conundrum: is a good performance a kind of beauty?
You might be wondering just what kind of show I’ve been describing through Lee’s character alone. Inspector Koo Kyung-yi is investigating serial murders and her prime suspect is Song Yi-kyung, a demented college girl with ties to her past. At first blush, it’s a crime thriller which balances the perspectives of the detective and the serial killer, like Dexter in reverse. Given that my dad and I were the only people on Earth who watched this year’s Dexter: New Blood, I think television has progressed past that benchmark via the popularity of true crime. We’re newly fascinated by the horror of criminal psychosis, preferring sensation over the once-novel mundanity of TV police procedurals. Inspector Koo eschews sensitivity toward mental illness for its Joker-adjacent fascination with invented pathology, but it’s nowhere near that self-important pomposity. It’s got splashes of horror, splashes of tragedy, of drama, but mostly, it’s a comedy.
The show breaks a lot of rules to achieve its cinematic language, with fourth-wall moments or on-screen graphics communicating Koo’s alcohol/energy level. There are flashbacks, and for particularly dramatic flashbacks, Koo may find herself in a sort of mind theater with big screens displaying Yi-kyung’s face. Koo manages to pull off surreally effective spin-kicks, a far departure from her typical bumbling, physically-inept self or her normal-person flashback self. How does the show reconcile all these styles? Episode five begins to explore Yi-kyung’s origin story, and remarkably, the engine for silliness effortlessly shifts to generate creeping atmosphere. My initial reaction to Inspector Koo was that it’s a show caught between genres and tones, like my experience with Strong Woman Do Bong Soon, which cut between a light romance and Criminal Minds, but I’m seeing now that it’s more confidently elastic, in the style of an Edgar Wright or Taika Waititi.
There’s an absolutely brilliant scene where Koo and her friend Santa break into Song Yi-kyung’s apartment. First we see the two sneaking around a pillar to avoid the security guard sweeping. Koo runs toward the door which doesn’t open and then the guard yells out to her. She immediately feigns drunkenness and starts falling all over him, trying to reach his keycard in punch-line insert shots. Santa jumps in and they’re all stumbling around and the guard is tossing off remarks like “You must be the life of the party!” And after Koo is shaken entirely and falls before the door, Santa and the guard end up in an inadvertent dance routine that ends with a romantic dip. A resident emerges from the lobby, opening the door, so Koo and Santa run in, but we linger on a wide shot where the guard remains lying on the ground looking peaceful.
It was only with episode four that things began to click into place for me. Not only that Koo and her team are established in a basement office and investigating a serial killer, as if laying down a foundation for things to come, but that this foundation is so reminiscent of Killing Eve. You have the older Asian female agent tracking the younger female killer, though with Inspector Koo, the killer is also Asian. Everyone’s Asian. And actually, the differences don’t stop there, as I’m doubtful about romantic tension and there’s only one season, as opposed to the apparently ruinous four. An article in Firstpost suggests the show is directly inspired by Killing Eve, though I haven’t seen official corroboration. Tonally, it’s a useful point of reference, though Inspector Koo is far sillier. Take Killing Eve and temper it with maybe Parks and Recreation?
Just like with the security guard who proves himself an insufficient obstacle, there’s a funny recurring bit where every stranger the heroes encounter is friendly. Tongyeong is a just friendly place with helpful people. This serves the dual purpose of world-building and also ensuring that even once-off characters are memorable. It’s kind of like a sitcom world, where every line of dialogue in the script has to contribute somehow to comedy, and some of those lines will be spoken by bit players. It’s the kind of attention to detail that builds on a strong foundation, and the central character work here is flawless. According to MyDramaList and IMDb, the show’s writer Sung Cho-yi has no other credits. She’s coming in hot with Inspector Koo, with scripts that attracted legendary talent and have, at least as I’ve seen after six episodes, followed through with confidence.
We cut between three primary POVs: Song Yi-kyung wreaking havoc, menacing Director Yong doing business, and Koo’s team of fellow ex-detective Na Je-hui, insurance investigator Oh Kyung-soo, and Koo’s MMO guildmate Santa. There’s a visible hierarchy in each of these. Na Je-hui hired Oh Kyung-soo and is his senior, but there’s no professional connection between Koo and Santa, and yet without discussion, Koo and Na Je-hui are the bosses. Director Yong terrorizes a male lackey, and Yi-kyung retains a male disciple who’s at once awed and frightened by her. Regardless where the show ultimately takes the story, whether or not it’ll be about girl power like Search: WWW, I’m certainly enjoying the simple pleasures of women in charge. I love the relationship between Koo and the ever-smiling Santa. In one especially precious scene, Koo is scrolling on the computer late at night in the office and eating chips while Santa does his best to clean up after her. She tells him to go home, but he instead puts a blanket on her shoulders and crouches by her side to look at the screen.
All of the relationships are great, where each character is rich enough to enliven every possible combination. There’s a beautiful animosity between Koo and and Oh Kyung-soo, where the self-serious Kyung-soo is so offended by Koo’s whole deal (he did have to clean up her gross apartment), but this makes him particularly vulnerable to her. To prove that people may run when chased, she suddenly sprints toward him and he cowers – a good instance of Lee’s miraculously straight face. The relationship between Koo and Na Je-hui has been the richest so far, with a shifting moral authority and ideological disagreements that give way to a twist-happy backstory. Episode four provides a set-piece clash between them that begins to define the terms of their history. There’s a reason why Je-hui puts up with Koo, as it is intriguing she considers this slovenly weirdo her sunbae.
Koo has broken out of the social order, and her strangeness is a kind of liberation. When we find her awake, she’s almost always eating, and she takes every opportunity to cause a nuisance. As the hero character in this open-world RPG of her own making, Song Yi-kyung is the perfect foil. She, too, operates on a different wavelength to the crowds she’s always inserting herself into. Whether lying about on the docks with her hair in the ocean as passersby grimace or disrupting theatre performances with overacting, Yi-kyung is visibly, deeply delusional yet sharply focused and frightening in an instant. She’s big and brash, then icy and sinister. In at least the first six episodes, Kim Hye-jun doesn’t allow us to sympathize with Yi-kyung, despite the ample access to her world. Instead, we have Yi-kyung’s loving aunt, Jung-yeon, who’s already showing signs of doubt that her young niece isn’t so naïve and innocent.
She also isn’t all that, and this is very important for a serial killer on TV. She doesn’t have the stamina for a foot chase, huffing and puffing, and her first altercation with Koo is messy, a bravura scene depicting a fight to the death between two people who can’t really fight. Koo has the skills but not the physical strength anymore, and Yi-kyung has neither the skills nor the patience. Both are evenly matched in their wild-eyed flailing, and the younger actress Kim Hye-jun impressively keeps pace with Lee Young-ae in these darkly comic moments. I know that she was criticized for her anachronistic accent as the Queen Consort in Kingdom, but as modern-day Song Yi-kyung, she’s convincingly strange and given plenty to do.
The basis for my viewing Inspector Koo was in learning that Kim Hye-jun won Best New Actress at this year’s Baeksang Awards over Jung Ho-yeon, who’s been scooping up awards all over the world for her debut performance in Squid Game. I’d never heard of Kim’s show, and swiftly thereafter learned it was the latest to star Lee Young-ae. So while that became the focus, still I wondered about a performance allegedly better than Jung Ho-yeon’s. Initially, I thought that Song Yi-kyung is like when America’s Got Talent gives the grand prize to the singer, that any voting body is simply more familiar with “deranged serial killer” as an archetype. It’s why unique roles like Fletcher in Whiplash make for such satisfying Oscar wins – for once, it isn’t the guy playing the guy from history.
And like JK Simmons, Jung Ho-yeon comes into awards season as an underdog. It’s a great story. She’d been working for years as a supermodel before being essentially rediscovered – after modeling for the Louis Vuitton brand in 2016, she returned as its global ambassador in 2021. Her distinct appearance and runway poise lend her a sharp, mysterious edge perfect for an outsider like Sae-byeok in Squid Game, a persona instantly cut through in interviews by her infectiously cheerful demeanor. Honestly, one of my favorite things about Jung Ho-yeon is that she’s very clearly happy. She put herself out there and took an enormous risk, exceeded reasonable expectations and is being rewarded for it. By contrast, Kim Hye-jun took the more typical path, studying theatre in school, starring in commercials, and doing endless auditions until paydirt. No less difficult, but to outside observers, including my own initial reaction to the Baeksang award, she’s “a Korean actress.” Maybe just another pretty face in a sea of pretty faces.
After three agonizing episodes, the show Hellbound turns around in a big way, with Kim Hyun-joo’s character reborn as a vigilante-style badass. Not long ago she was an attorney with stronger convictions than muscles, and here she is taking on a religious cult with a telescopic baton. In one nail-biting sequence, she infiltrates cult HQ to rescue Won Jin-ah’s character, an otherwise helpless woman in distress. Kim Hyun-joo is 5’6” and Won Jin-ah is 5’4”. Two inches doesn’t make much of a difference in this case, and in another world, on another show, Won Jin-ah could easily be that same level of badass. Maybe she’ll have her day; hopefully they all do. It’s about the performance, and the production philosophy around it, as we saw with Gianna Jun on the wires. If we had a peek inside the waiting room of any audition Song Yi-kyung went out for, we’d see a bunch of Korean actresses in their mid-20s with similar hair. It’s only until she’s in the room that we understand the difference, that we can recognize individuals in a culture of social conformity. By the same token, Lee Young-ae may have exited that strictest of beauty standards, but she will always be Lee Young-ae: a chameleon talent, fearless performer, and powerful presence.
Of course, there are two problems remaining. Forgive me, but Lee Young-ae is incredibly hot, even as Inspector Koo. She may be the First Idol and all that but she’s also a terrible example to defend a sort of “beauty is more than beauty” thesis. And then there’s the thesis itself, that expanding one’s personal definition of beauty may be counter to a toxic cultural norm, but isn’t in itself a revolutionary act. In fact, it only expands the Eye of Sauron that is the male gaze. So aside from typing up maybe the strangest and most forward thing I’ve ever posted here, what am I trying to say exactly? I guess, the last thing I would ever want is for Lee Young-ae to feel like she’s less valuable now than when she was younger. Then I have to realize that arguing it’s because she’s still beautiful doesn’t resolve the issue. So it’s two things: one, beauty can be controlled, and by more than products and surgery, but talent and resolve and courage. Two, beauty isn’t why people are valuable or interesting. If I’m not fully subscribed to both of these ideas yet, I’ll more than happily take the first, and thank Lee Young-ae for showing me – just as she always had.