Humanism is bunk. Not only that, it’s un-inspirational, nihilistic, and depressing. Over and over I ask myself, why do I like murder mysteries? Why do I enjoy stories in which murderers are hunted down and brought to justice? For starters, good and evil do exist, and it is the work of good to bring evil into submission. This is justice. What is not justice is the hunting down of evildoers for the sake of human, and only human law. This in itself is pointless and leads to gross miscarriages of justice, like Javert from Les Miserables hunting down Jean Val Jean, who should be treated with mercy and compassion and allowed to do the good that he wants to do. This is also why people in America are suddenly finding their Constitutional rights terribly violated. Humans who believe in humanism often also believe they themselves are superior to their fellow humans, and their goal is to put everyone else under submission to them.
But I digress. Back to murder mysteries. A good mystery, chase, and/or cat and mouse game is fun to read and or watch. One hopes in anticipation that the detective(s) can outthink the bad guy, or sometimes vice versa. Korean dramas that try to do crime or police procedurals are on shaky ground. I don’t know a lot about the cops in South Korea, but their shows constantly portray them as being severely inept and corrupt. In American cop shows and crime dramas, although those elements are there, they are understated. The point for American TV is often to boost audience confidence in the system. Corruption would be more of a twist ending thing, and rarely are the federal officers or cops shown as being truly inept. The show Tell Me What You Saw, has an interesting balance of smart Korean detectives who are simultaneously inept, and who, although they do want to bring the murderers to justice, don’t seem to truly understand, well, how to keep the public safe.
The story revolves around three main detectives, Oh Hyun Jae, played by the ever versatile Jang Hyuk, is the main one. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for Jang, as he was in the first Korean movie I ever saw, the funny Please Teach Me English. He’s know for his hilarious laugh, often over-the-top characters, and his athletic ability. Jang was a good choice to play Detective Oh, as the man is definitely larger than life, albeit so severely psychologically damaged that he’s bolted down any and all emotions. Unfortunately, this means that Jang wears a blank expression more than half the time, though he does use his eyes to emote well on occasion.
Tell Me What You Saw revolves roughly around three plot gimmicks, that are used unevenly and are often dropped. Detective Oh is damaged psychologically and physically. When Policewoman Cha Soo Young (Soo Young from Squad 38), our second detective, who is transferring to the Metropolitan detective unit, meets him, he is in a wheelchair and sunglasses. Sometimes characters with disabilities add a lot to these kinds of shows, but it initially seemed the writers were piling it on, as we’d already met Cha who communicates fluently in sign language due to having deaf parents. I wasn’t sure where they were going with all of that, but was intrigued to find out. It’s sad to peg any disability as a gimmick in stories, but that’s just so often what they end up being. In this show, sign language is used well for parts of the story, but wasn’t an integral part of the show.
The second gimmick, and most prominent one, at least for the first half of the show, is photographic memory. This almost superhuman ability work well on screen if used reasonably, and I actually thought the writers underused it considering it’s the reason for the name of the show. Again, it’s just not something integral to the show, and it probably was meant to be, but the third gimmick takes prominence. Well, sort of.
The third gimmick used is that of profiling, specifically profiling of serial killers. An example of where this is actually an integral part of a show is the awesome Criminal Minds, an America show that has been amazingly successful. Detective Oh is not just a detective, but a famous profiler and he and the third detective, Hwang Hwa Young played by Jin Seo Yeon, were both on the hunt for a serial killer 5 years before our story begins. They were both injured when the serial killer blew up a car in which Oh’s fiancee was trapped. Both detectives have made it their mission to find this guy and bring him to justice, though officially, the killer is supposed to be dead.
Hwang is Cha’s new boss, and she’s a tough cookie. By the end of the show I concluded she’s way, way more traumatized and damaged than Oh, and it really grated on me that he refused to show her genuine kindness or compassion.
So, three main detectives, three gimmicks, corruption, ineptness, and darkness all around. One thing the show does hands down, is showcase creepy serial killers. Very creepy and also very gruesome even though half of the stuff is blurred out. It is the stuff of nightmares and I don’t blame any of the characters for their somberness or melancholy. At the end of the series there’s a bit of a rush to add some light and hope. Corruption is routed, at least for the time being. The big bad is brought to justice, though in such a roundabout, drawn out way, it’s a bit hollow. The idea is stated that even if one is naturally programmed to do bad, one can choose to step into the light, just as good people can choose to give into evil.
The light is dampened, or at least it was for me, by Oh and Cha’s last conversation. He says there’s no divine retribution in this world, but they chase the killers and bad guys to uphold the law and that’s enough. Have to say, after watching the whole show, I doubt very much that Oh actually believes that. The character is saying it because that’s sort of a standard rah-rah line for government worker shows. Upholding human laws is why they exist, but it’s not a message of light and hope in and of itself. Now, maybe Oh was hinting that in the afterlife or the next world there is divine retribution, but he didn’t say that, and none of the characters seemed remotely religious except for some of the baddies. No, Oh’s statement is humanism that rang super hollow and pointless at the end. Maybe it was just that the story itself got too dark, very little humor or poignant human moments. Very little, too little, actual profiling. Until it was suddenly brought again in the last couple of episodes, I had forgotten that Oh was a profiler at all. I often forgot that Cha had a special memory and that she knew sign language. Terrible writing in that aspect, and it’s really the last half in which it goes downhill.
Let me go back to this idea that the point of these detectives jobs is to hunt down killers for the sake of the law. They can’t even do that well–it took them way too long to put some things together–and they risked so many lives by not shooting on sight at times. Not sure what the rules are for officers in S. Korea, but as an American watching it was frustrating. It was also infuriating how Detective Hwang’s story unfolded. She put so, so many people in danger by not dealing with her own trauma, and if she got any counseling at all or even informed her team and superiors of what happened to her, I missed those scenes. And detective Oh was the worst. As soon as he figured out who the killer was he should have either done a citizen’s arrest or shot the killer on sight. Both would have been better and more satisfying than what actually happened.
(Spoilers) No, Oh, doesn’t kill the bad guy like he wants to. He’s too superior for that, for some reason he think he’s owed a torture session. He also stupidly lets himself get almost killed, so he can’t help his fellow detectives. As a profiler, he should first of all, know that the criminal gets off on torture, and as a detective, should second of all, understand that he’s just giving the killer more chances to escape. This is the pride of humanism, one starts to think they are above even the human rules and makes mistakes, not only against other people, but also against oneself–a la Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment.
Detective Cha arrives just in time to pull Oh into the light, but I’m not sure what light she’s pulling him into. Even in humanism, aren’t the standards for “good” people more than just not killing someone? In some cases, isn’t killing the bad guy actually the best thing to do? Detective Oh might actually benefit from some jail time and counseling, so little thought did he–did any of the detectives have–for the safety of the public in general. Everyone was so inwardly focused, one could almost forget they are in the business of public safety. Tell Me What You Saw reminded me a bit of the movie Se7en, both stories so laser pointed on the dark, so nihilistic, that on a spiritual level it makes them not worth watching.
Although I never finished it, I thought Voice, also starring Jang Hyuk, had much more light to offer, at least in the first half that I watched. Other, better serial killer hunting down shows from S. Korea are Tunnel and Signal. These shows offer emotional impact, if nothing else, and the cops are good, and can be labeled as good, even if they are sometimes inept. In these shows the cops and detectives are clearly about saving lives, not satisfying their own revenge fantasies. As these far better shows don’t have religion or God in them per se, I think maybe part of the problem with Tell Me What You Saw‘s humanism, is that they forgot the human part. Any of the detectives could have easily been played by a long list of other actors. There was just no there there, which was a shame, because I did enjoy the first half. Detective Hwang’s story definitely had the most impact, and in the end she forgave herself, a very spiritual revelation. The other two detectives were emotionally blank, though Jang did make some use out of his signature laugh, and his character often made me wonder how wise it really is to think like a murderer, even if one’s goal is to catch him. Are serious profilers just one step away from being murderers themselves?
Not only that, how wise is it to read and watch stories about killers? Is it the fun of the mystery or chase or is it the draw of the darkness that’s really what’s sucking me in? With Agatha Christie, it’s easy, God is incorporated and it really is about justice, not human law in and of itself. But with stories like these, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just letting bad writing get me down. It irks me because I really, really wanted to like it, but Tell Me What You Saw just left me feeling empty. Jane Austen of Pride and Prejudice fame began her writing career by considering the dangers of ingesting too many fictional stories. She was right. One can have too much of them and be pulled into the darkness. It’s telling that her stories push readers solidly into the light. I need to have more discernment, because humanity by itself is pointless and lost without God. That way be dragons, as the saying goes.