It is rare to find a kdrama that balances thrill, romance, emo and grey matter usage so finely. Especially in Kdramaland’s usual police procedurals. They tend to sway towards action-thriller, or romance-action, with cut and dried straight forward cases.
While Signal doesn’t score high in the looks department as compared to other police procedurals like Bad Guys, or I Remember You, its cast of veteran actors hit juz the right note. Heck, if everyone is slick and pretty in Signal, the overall effect would have been quite different. For one, the emotional punch will probably be lower — it’s harder to empathise with someone who looks like a super model as opposed to an actor/actress who looks more “commonplace”.
But what really makes Signal outstanding is its writing. The whole narrative works in a loop. What initially appeared as confusing in ep1 gets explained in the ending. (chills) And suddenly, everything makes sense. Like why Jae-han appears to be familiar with Hae-young, even though it is the first time Hae-young (and us) hears about Jae-han, when he checks out the mental hospital where Suspect Seo’s body is found. The itsy bitty details are tied up with no annoying loose ends. Even the slip of paper tagged onto Jae-han’s PC from Soo-hyun’s warning and his loaded gaze at Soo-hyun become relevant, as we realized he had been told (by her) not to go there, but still choose to check out the hospital.
Which makes Signal‘s secondary theme of Fate vs. Choice interesting. In Signal, the individual’s character leads him/her to make a certain choice…which may end up not changing what is fated for him/her. For example, Jae-han’s choice to help a limping Soo-hyun (since he likes her, and he is the typical responsible sunbae) leads him to forgo the chance to reach Sun-woo earlier. Similarly, Jae-han choosing to still check out the mental hospital stems from his inability to juz “let things be” and his persistence in uncovering the truth. Thus, he suffers the same fate (he got ambushed) as when he earlier walked in “blind”.
However, while the characters may end up repeating the same “mistakes” over and over again, dire warnings do have an effect in changing behaviors. At least at the second time around, Jae-han doesn’t go alone to the hospital site, he turns the table on Director Kim and gets his team mates to tail him as well. It may not be a BIG change on his part, but the consequences are epic. For that small action, history and the future are different. While Hae-young may not be able to save his brother, he lives a very different life now. (at the very least, his motivation to join the police force is VERY different this time around)
If I need to nitpick, it is probably Signal‘s handling of time-space continuum. Like how is it possible that Soo-hyun and Hae-young are able to retain two separate sets of memories on what transpired? Logically, if things have changed, they probably won’t even recognize each other, much less remember what changed.
And now that Jae-han is alive (and holed up in an infirmary), his walkie-talkie has been communicating with whom? Cos in the not-so-recent past, Hae-young has the magic walkie-talkie, and it makes sense for the past Jae-han and present Hae-young to comms via the same equipment. But the walkie-talkie is now with Jae-han, and yet, he somehow had managed to talk with someone else to deliver an anonymous warning to Soo-hyun. (er, so now the walkie-talkie managed to go hi-tech and uses mobile network??)
Oh man…one puzzle has juz been solved, and I’m getting the beginning of a headache for the next. But it’s ok. I trust that PD-nim and Writer-nim, should they give us Signal 2, will make sure the narrative is juz as water tight as its predecessor’s.