Based on the webtoon D.P: Dog Days, written and illustrated by Kim Bo-tong, this affecting new K-drama on Netflix focuses on the pains and struggles of young men in South Korea serving two years of mandatory military service.
The series begins with Ahn Jun-ho (Jung Hae-in) on his final day before enlistment. Through our brief glimpses of his civilian life, we learn enough about the character to be instantly invested, even before his army experiences begin. Behind Jun-ho’s calm and reserved demeanour lie hints of a troubled past, originating from the childhood trauma of watching his mother suffer at the hands of his abusive father.
Having lived a tough life, Jun-ho isn’t fazed by the strict discipline and excruciating physical training that comes with boot camp. What does bother him is the pervasive culture of bullying he witnesses. In particular, his bunkmate Cho Seok-bong (Jo Hyun-chul) becomes the target of a cruel senior soldier named Hwang Jang-soo (Shin Seung-ho), who uses his authority to continually harass, beat up and humiliate the soft-hearted boy. Thankfully, Jun-ho is spared when his superior, Sergeant Park Beom-goo (Kim Sung-kyun), notices his uncanny observational skills after a chance meeting. Thus, the fresh-faced Private is recruited into the D.P. unit (Deserter Pursuit) of the Military Police, where he’s tasked with apprehending soldiers who’ve gone AWOL.
Despite his sharp eye for detail and quick analytical mind, Jun-ho is woefully inexperienced in this kind of work. That is why he’s paired with Corporal Han Ho-yul (Koo Kyo-hwan), a quirky and free-spirited partner who shows him the ropes of investigating and tracking down deserters. The pair’s immediate onscreen chemistry is easily the most winsome part of the show, making full use of their contrasting personalities to deliver an absolutely charming buddy cop dynamic. D.P.’s two leads are especially terrific when playing off one another during their various missions, giving the series some genuine moments of levity and comedy amid some very thematically dark stories.
While Jun-ho does enjoy the detective work – which gives him the relief of wearing regular clothes and spending days (sometimes weeks) outside of camp – he begins to feel morally conflicted when he learns more about the people he’s chasing. While some are indeed lazy lowlifes intent on shirking duty, others have nobler reasons, like the young man in episode four who abandons his post to care for his ailing grandmother. But most commonly, Jun-ho finds that these escapees are youths who’ve been bullied past their breaking point. Due to his family life and what he’s witnessed with his own eyes in camp, he sympathises with the deserters’ plight.
As we delve into the backstories of these AWOL junior soldiers, we witness horrific scenes of bullying inflicted by ranking seniors (who were victims themselves as juniors) under the flimsy pretense of punishment or instilling respect. From brutal beatings to sexual assault to dehumanising humiliations (we see the aforementioned Cho Seok-bong ordered to stand still while his pubic hair is burned off with a lighter), these fictional depictions of hazing are sadly far from exaggerated – just look up news articles about bullying in the South Korean military.
D.P. also does a great but disconcerting job at depicting what happens on the rare occasions when these cases do come to light. At best they are ignored by callous higher-ups who have normalised this sort of behaviour and bemoan the softness of the new generation, or at worst they are outright covered up by career senior officers who are more concerned with how a scandal might affect their promotions. Webtoon creator Kim Bo-tong (who writes for the show as well) and director Han Jun-hee must be given credit for how this series tackles such extraordinarily difficult and tragic subject matter with compassion and sensitivity.
But D.P. does some suffer from weak characterisation when it comes to our three main leads. While we do get intriguing clues about their backstories through brief scenes and bits of dialogue, not nearly enough is done to flesh them out. In fact, the various deserters in each episodic case are given more meat to their characters than the headlining stars. Further compounding the series’ issues is the ludicrous escalation of events during its climax, which suddenly turns a fairly grounded show into a melodramatic action thriller involving kidnapping, soldiers going rogue, anti-terrorist Special Forces and characters enduring obscene injuries to implausible degrees.
Nevertheless, its uniformly excellent performances, splendid cinematography, addictive pacing, and intrepid commitment to shedding light on the appalling culture of bullying in the military make D.P. a compelling six-hour binge.
D.P. is streaming now on Netflix