‘Insider’ review: tension so thick you could cut through it with a knife

Kang Ha-neul’s latest K-drama walks a very thin line between a future cult thriller classic and taking itself too seriously

The tension in JTBC’s latest thriller K-drama series Insider is so thick you could cut right through it with a knife. You’re thrown headfirst into the action from the first minute – our impassible protagonist Kim Yo-han (Kang Ha-neul) sits in the dingy hall of an illegal gambling den, in the middle of a high-stakes card game with stacks upon stacks of cold, hard cash on the line. Yo-han’s deftness at the game poses a threat to the owner of the den, who orders one of his croons to spill a drink on fellow player Oh Soo-yeon (Lee Yoo-young) in order to distract the table from his misappropriation of the deck. When Yo-han goes all in, everyone ends up having to disgruntledly surrender their cash to the fraudster.

As it turns out, the den’s head has fallen for Yo-han’s trap hook, line and sinker. As a judicial apprentice, Yo-han had been instructed to infiltrate the gambling den as part of an undercover operation to persecute the den’s top brass. His presence at the den had been at the personal behest of the director of the judicial training institute, Noh Young-kook (Yoo Jae-myung), who had employed Yo-han for the sole purpose of unearthing the corrupt dealings between the high-profile Chairman Yang (Heo Dong-won) of a company called The Skin Nation, chief prosecutor Hong Sang-wook (Park Sung-eun) and his son Hong Jae-sun (Kang Shin-hyo).

There’s just one problem: this entire operation is completely off the books. The risks of such a gambit against political and economical figures of immense power really only begs one question: why on Earth would Yo-han ever agree to something like this in the first place? In prototypal fashion, it’s due in large part to a piteous personal history: Yo-han’s one role model in life is his prosecutor father, who is missing and presumed dead, and he would do anything to try to live up to his father’s name – even putting his own life at risk.

Yo-han’s undercover partner, Mok Jin-hyung (Kim Sang-ho), puts forth the idea that the former infiltrate a local prison in order to obtain case-making video evidence from an inmate – something that Young-kook, high off the triumph of the den strike on the den and now overconfident, quickly agrees to. However, as they get closer to dredging up the truth they seek, Yo-han is thrust into the thick of unbridled danger – the den owner tracks him down and physically assaults him while threatening to do the same to his elderly grandmother, who happens to be the only family he has left. He begins getting cold feet and requests to be pulled out of the operation, however Young-kook is mysteriously murdered before he gets the chance to do so.

Young-kook’s death quickly becomes the catalyst for Yo-han to regain the motivation to follow through with his mission in prison. As he’s working his way through the inner politics of the slammer though, Yo-han is left in the lurch by his partner, having been bribed over by a partner of Chairman Yang’s, prosecutor Yoon Byung-wook (Heo Sung-tae), who is duplicitously working to weed out those who threaten the corrupt administration. Everything begins crashing on Yo-han from here – his grandmother is brutally murdered due to an overdue debt incurred at the gambling den while he’s (physically) fighting to be taken seriously as a fresh inmate, learning to play his cards right.

The first four episodes of Insider are callous and unforgiving; there is no true moment of respite from the constant anxiety and tension we experience both for and from our hero. The series takes the already high stakes and only continues to raise them – there is a palpable disregard for any sort of emotional balance anywhere in the writing or plot. Consequently, because of the unnecessary need to pile things on, this becomes the only side to Yo-han we ever really get to know.

Though, this one issue has, so far, not detracted from Kang Ha-neul’s capacity to play Yo-han’s role to near-perfection; the way he seems to easily slip into the shoes of a stone-cold, mettlesome, career-driven man is certainly praiseworthy. But really, it was the lone moment of vulnerability during grandmother’s death that sealed the deal – watching his love and grief twist and turn into a vitriolic vengeance that eats from the inside out was just so palpable.

Even the editing choices made in select scenes that depict Yo-han and his grandmother’s relationship – despite being physically apart – succeeded in telling us more about Yo-han where actual words failed; this is shown clearest through a particular scene where his grandmother was monologuing the meaning behind Yo-han’s name and by extension her hopes for his future while being led to her demise, intercut with scenes of him fighting for a place at the table amongst his fellow inmates for the sake of both his career and the greater good. It added that much more significance to the time he’s spending locked up and abused in prison, as well as a necessary amount of depth to a show on the precipice of getting consumed by its own solemnity.

In the same vein, the worldbuilding of Insider is so labyrinthine and knotty that it almost becomes a chore to keep up, especially with how its plethora of characters are related to each other and what their alignments are. This leads us to question: are they simply present to add some sort of enormity to the extent of Chairman Yang’s corruption, and nothing else? From the Bukyeongpa Gang (lackeys from the gambling den) and prisoners such as Ryu Tae-hoon (Jo Hee-bong) and Jang Sun-oh (Kang Young-seok) are so slapdash and hollow that they run the risk of simply falling off your radar until the next moment they appear on screen – whenever that might be.

A thriller in all sense of the genre – maybe even too much sense – Insider walks a very thin line between the potential of becoming a cult thriller classic and yet another failed attempt at the genre due overdramatisation while taking itself too seriously. It all hinges on how well the emotional progression of this story is due to unfold, and the facets to Yo-han it’s willing to lay bare.

New episodes of Insider air on South Korean cable network JTBC every Wednesday and Thursday.


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