Neighborhood Lawyer Jo Deul-ho: Episode 1
Neighborhood Lawyer Jo Deul-ho began its run earlier this month on KBS, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun than the standard underdog lawyer story that the synopsis let on. Despite a couple of flaws, I was pleasantly surprised at the well-written twists and turns, the smart directing, and interesting characters—not to mention some lovable performances by Kang So-ra and Park Shin-yang. As long as it holds onto its strengths, I think this show will more than satisfy the craving for a lighthearted, wacky legal drama—with just the right amount of social commentary to mean something more.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We open to a public trial for Chairman Jung, CEO of the conglomerate Dae Hwa Group, who was released on bail due to a sudden illness. Chairman Jung is to testify to the Seoul District Court today, and the prosecution—among whom is our hero, Prosecutor JO DEUL-HO (Park Shin-yang)—must prove Chairman Jung’s charges of embezzlement and breach of fiduciary duty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Unfortunately, opposing counsel isn’t making it easy. When the chairman arrives, it’s in a wheelchair and blanket, looking every bit like a sick, elderly man in pain. He can barely get through his swearing-in, gasping for breath through it.
Deul-ho, however, will have none of it. He interrupts Defense Attorney Kim (Jo Han-chul) before the defense can request a postponed trial, assuring the judge that he can finish his examination in just a few questions, and stalks up to the witness without court approval.
He’s breaking rules, and when the judge orders him to stop, his exaggerated stop makes him look clownish, earning some chuckles from the audience. The judge begrudgingly grants approval, and Deul-ho begins his questioning.
Deul-ho sarcastically thanks Chairman Jung for coming in despite his sickness, then leans in to ask softly how he isn’t ashamed: The whole nation knows this is all an act. He surreptitiously shows photographs of the chairman taken just yesterday, when he was standing healthy and energetic, but tucks them out of sight when the judge warns him to speak up.
The coup de grâce comes out in the form of a vibrating spider toy, which he “accidentally” drops on the chairman’s head. Chairman Jung screams bloody murder and jumps out of his wheelchair, dancing around in panic. Fake illness proven.
A flashback shows us that Deul-ho is in dangerous territory here. Chairman Jung is extremely powerful, and Deul-ho is going against the warning of his superior, Chief Prosecutor Shin (Kim Gab-soo). The chief had warned him to leave Chairman Jung alone—Dae Hwa Group is large and influential, and trying to sink it could ruin the entire prosecutor’s office. Despite the risk, however, Deul-ho is set on taking the chairman down.
Chief Prosecutor Shin, however, won’t chance the ruination of their whole office. He orders another prosecutor, SHIN JI-WOOK (Ryu Soo-young) (his son?) to get rid of Deul-ho before he does something irreparable. Armed with a warrant, Ji-wook leads a raid of Deul-ho’s office and his office manager, HWANG AE-RA (Hwang Seok-jung) is helpless to stop them.
Meanwhile, Deul-ho makes his opening statement against Chairman Jung, accusing him of embezzlement and of directing those funds toward improper and immoral conduct. He ends with a plea to the court: “This is our chance to prove that everyone, rich or poor, is equal before the law.”
Not if the sharkish defense can help it. As attorney JANG HAE-KYUNG (Park Sol-mi) gets up for direct examination, we flashback to see the defense’s unexpected plan: Chairman Jung should confess to his crimes.
Unfortunately, it’s not the crime we expect. As Hae-kyung questions him, the chairman bursts into tears and chokes out, “This is a company I raised with my blood and sweat for forty years. I never embezzled anything. The only crime I committed was giving a bribe to a prosecutor because I was under duress…” When asked who that bribed prosecutor is, Chairman Jung points an unwavering finger at Deul-ho. Oh shit.
Office manager Ae-ra slips into the courtroom, desperately motioning to Deul-ho to get out of here, while lead prosecutor Ji-wook and staff seal the building exits. Meanwhile, the court erupts in commotion at the defense’s shocking accusation—even more so when Hae-kyung presents incriminating evidence: photographs of Deul-ho with Chairman Jung, followed by copies of the bank statement showing that Chairman Jung sent money to Deul-ho. What’s going on? Are these faked?
Deul-ho, for his part, is just as shocked. In his panic, he turns tail and leaves the courtroom with Ae-ra. His only chance now is to meet with Chief Prosecutor Shin and beg to be saved. As Ae-ra tries to hold off Ji-wook and the others, Deul-ho sprints down the hallways, running to his saving grace…
Unfortunately, the corruption runs further than we thought. Chairman Jung is in Chief Prosecutor Shin’s office, complaining about that “crazy Jo Deul-ho.” Prosecutor Shin assures the chairman that he’ll be free in two weeks, and that he’ll take care of Deul-ho. Ugh. Meanwhile, defense attorney Hae-kyung rips up a photograph of Deul-ho, herself, and a young girl. So they were once married?
Deul-ho makes it outside the courthouse and catches up to a man about to pull away in a car. It’s Hae-kyung’s father (Deul-ho’s former father-in-law), and he begs for a chance to make a phone call. But his father-in-law only says, “My entire family is in danger because we accepted you. I really misjudged you.”
He drives away, leaving Deul-ho sprawling on the ground, where he’s apprehended by prosecutor Ji-wook. “If you have something to say,” Ji-wook says, handcuffing him, “you can say it to the court. Jo Deul-ho—you’re over now.”
In jail, Deul-ho is visited by his ex Hae-kyung, who negotiates with cold, unfeeling competence. She wants custody of their daughter, Soo-bin, in exchange for a shortened sentence for him. When he calls her out for her heartlessness, she says, “We didn’t marry each other out of love. We didn’t fit from the very beginning. Go back to your place.” Man, is anyone on this guy’s side?
Deul-ho is found guilty of taking a bribe and is sentenced to six months in prison and one year of probation, with a $25,000 fine. The news paints Deul-ho as a pathetic criminal who took a bribe while investigating Dae Hwa’s embezzlement case, and coupled with photos of him sprinting out of the courthouse, he looks pretty damn guilty. The prosecutor’s office swears to reform the organization, pointing to Deul-ho as a failed example.
THREE YEARS LATER. Attorney LEE EUN-JO (Kang So-ra) is an eager, bright-eyed newbie at Geum San law firm. She is clumsy but hardworking and optimistic, and despite being assigned petty jobs, she deeply believes in the strength of the law and her law firm.
One of her superiors, Attorney Kim, assigns her a task: Go find a man named Kim Yong-tae, who lent his name to someone to open a bank account under a false identity. She asks him where to start, and he tells her to pound the pavement.
So Eun-jo finds herself wandering the streets of Seoul, asking homeless ajusshis whether they’ve seen a Mr. Kim Yong-tae. Lol. After a few unsuccessful attempts, she stumbles upon a grumpy sleeping man buried in cardboard boxes, asking questions until he snaps at her. When he sits up, we see who it is: Deul-ho, looking filthy and apathetic.
Still, Deul-ho doesn’t seem too fazed by the homeless life. Rumors circulate among the homeless circles that he was a former prosecutor, which leads a couple of homeless men to ask for his help: There’s an awful loan shark who was never in when the man tried to pay back his loan, who suddenly demanded a fortune in interest one day.
Deul-ho isn’t interested, but the men nag at him for so long that he finally gives in and goes to the loan office. And when Deul-ho calls out to him, loan shark curiously Dae-soo turns respectful. Dae-soo gives Deul-ho’s homeless getup the once-over, and Deul-ho says casually, “This style is trendy these days.” Uh, I don’t think so.
Deul-ho questions Dae-soo’s interest policies, and while Dae-soo feigns ignorance, a few casual threats of digging up Dae-soo’s past crimes are all it takes to get Dae-soo to cough up the money owed the homeless man.
As Deul-ho leaves, followed by the two dancing ajusshis, and the rookie loan shark asks who that was. Dae-soo replies: “The menace of Seocho-dong, who will find the crimes from even your past life.” Apparently, Dae-soo owes him one, which is why he gave up the money so easily—if you became homeless overnight, he says, you’d want a little allowance money too.
The ajusshis take Deul-ho to a bar to celebrate, where they are rejected and forcibly kicked out—into a pile of trash, no less. Eun-jo’s boss, high-powered Attorney Kim, recognizes him and laughs to himself.
Meanwhile, Eun-jo finally finds the man she was instructed to track down—except when she calls her boss, she’s told they’ve already got the guy, not having bothered to tell her. Rude.
She complains about it to her mom over the phone, and as they talk, Eun-jo spots a thief stealing a wallet from a drunken man. She calls out to the thief and chases him through the subway station, and he breaks into a run.
In his tunnel, Deul-ho talks to a picture of his daughter, telling her he did a good thing today, and asks permission for just one glass of soju. Aw. In his desperation to get away from Eun-jo, however, the thief runs straight past Deul-ho, kicking Soo-bin’s photo right out of his hands.
Deul-ho takes one look at the soju-soaked picture, furious, and chases after the thief, with Eun-jo trailing behind. They run through alleys until Deul-ho finally catches up, tackling the thief to the ground—and recognizes him. “Kang Il-gu,” he stutters. “What are you doing here?!”
As Eun-jo and the police approach, however, Il-gu thrusts the stolen wallet into Deul-ho’s pocket before he runs off. Oh no, don’t do that! Sure enough, when Eun-jo suggests that Deul-ho might be an accomplice, they find the drunkard’s wallet in his pocket. He’s taken straight to the police station for questioning.
At the station, Deul-ho remains silent, refusing to identify himself. When the officer erupts at him, Eun-jo is the one to leap to his defense, insisting that “all people are innocent until proven guilty” and that if he needs it, “everyone has the right to an attorney”—like she’s reading straight from her law textbook. Aw, she’s cute.
In jail, Deul-ho thinks back to the olden days when he was a hotshot prosecutor and was introduced to Chairman Jung as a promising up-and-comer. Interestingly, he initially tries to impress both the chairman and the chief prosecutor, acting obsequious and promising to serve the chairman well.
Chief Prosecutor Shin tells him he’s secured an important sponsor and hands him a case involving a petty criminal. Reviewing the case, Deul-ho realizes that the charge of arson is against a twenty-year-old named Kang Il-gu—and when Il-gu is brought in, it’s clear he knows Deul-ho from a long time ago. Deul-ho demands to know whether Il-gu’s testimony is true, and whether he really set fire to a construction site, which ended up killing someone.
Deul-ho yells at him to explain himself: “Tell me why you did it so I can help you!” Il-gu is furious right back: “You’re the one who left. You’re the one who left me for a better life—how could you, of all people, help me?!”
That hits Deul-ho hard, and he goes to track down Chief Prosecutor Shin and asks if his suspicion is right—that Il-gu is the scapegoat meant to cover up for a crime actually committed by Chairman Jung’s son. Il-gu, an orphan, had taken the blame in exchange for Chairman Jung’s promise to donate generously to his orphanage. Chief Attorney Shin’s response: “So what?”
Ugh. Desperate, Deul-ho begs for just one thing—to have the charges against Il-gu withdrawn. If that happens, Deul-ho will keep silent forever and erase the evidence.
Unexpectedly, Chief Prosecutor Shin gives his assent, saying, “You should do as you wish for once.” Why do I have a bad feeling about this?
Back in the present, Deul-ho’s assistant Ae-ra shows up to bring him out, yelling at “Oppa” to wake up—the security camera caught everything, and Deul-ho was proven innocent. Why didn’t he just say so earlier?
As he leaves the police station, he into Eun-jo, who recognizes him and apologizes for accusing him last night. He rattles off a legal code stating that what she’s done to him is defamation. Still, she feels really bad, and offers to treat him to a meal.
So she treats him to meat, and Eun-jo once again offers to be his attorney if he ever needs one. He looks at her business card and asks, “Why did you become a lawyer?” She responds, awkwardly: “Um… so that the innocent aren’t wrongly accused of being criminals.” LOL.
Deul-ho isn’t satisfied with that, calling it a fairy-tale answer, and asks for a better one. But when Eun-jo asks what he does and why he looks so familiar, he avoids her, orders a fifth serving of meat, and calls her stingy for not buying him any more.
Meanwhile, the same arson case from three years ago—the one involving Il-gu—has resurfaced, as the police have found another suspect: a man named Mr. Byun. According to the charges, Byun set a fire in order to hide the body he’d murdered.
Understandably, the resurfacing of the arson case gets Chairman Jung all jittery. He calls Chief Prosecutor Shin, who assures him that the prosecutor’s office will manage what Jo Deul-ho failed to do three years ago, when he withdrew the prosecution’s charges against Il-gu. Now, Chief Prosecutor Shin hands the case over to Ji-wook to supervise the case from start to finish.
On the defense side, Eun-jo’s boss, Attorney Kim, gives her that same case, and she can’t believe how lucky she is to handle such a big case on her own. She thanks Attorney Kim in excitement, and then greets the defendant, Mr. Byun, with a huge smile on her face. She’s adorable. Naive, but adorable.
Mr. Byun denies all of the charges and his own affidavit, saying he’s completely innocent. When the prosecutor kept asking question after question, he may have answered some questions vaguely with “That could have happened.” Eun-jo assures him that Geum San will do everything in its power to help him.
That night, Deul-ho tracks down Il-gu, who is living in the streets with a bunch of delinquent youths. Il-gu, as expected, is not psyched to see him, but Deul-ho just wants to talk.
He demands to know why Il-gu is living like this, picking pockets and attacking people. Il-gu: “Of course I’m living like this. What else would I do? Did you think I would study really hard and become a prosecutor, just like you?” Il-gu accuses Deul-ho of being just as pathetic as he is, having accepted bribes three years ago. “I knew it the moment you stopped coming to the orphanage—that you’re garbage!”
Oh boy. Deul-ho grabs Il-gu by the collar and yells at him: “If I had just done as I was told three years ago, I wouldn’t be here, at rock bottom. Because I saved you, my life is ruined—what did you do that’s so great, huh?! Tell me, you punk!”
One of Il-gu’s friends cuts in by knocking Deul-ho out with a baseball bat. They’re ready to go to town on him, but Il-gu stops them, and they back off. Phew.
Flashback to years ago, when Il-gu was a sweet boy who looked up to Deul-ho like he was the sun. When he’d gone to Deul-ho’s office to deliver some homemade kimchi that the orphanage priest made, however, Deul-ho had been anxious to not look like a loser in front of Chief Prosecutor Shin, given Il-gu cash to buy snacks, and told him not to come back. Ouch.
Il-gu had been pissed, of course: “Do you think we’re beggars or something?” he’d said, throwing the bills back in Deul-ho’s face. From there, it’s easy to see how it got worse.
In the present, Deul-ho is back in his tunnel, sitting alone with his head bowed. Unexpectedly, it’s Il-gu who tracks him down this time, not quite so angry anymore and maybe ready to patch things up.
They sit outside over a couple of bowls of convenience store noodles. The mood gradually eases, and soon they’re back to bickering and swiping at each other like brothers, chasing each other around the table and eating ice cream. So sweet.
Il-gu suggests that they go back to visit the orphanage, and they tell each other to start living properly, insulting each other. “Hyung!” calls Il-gu, as Deul-ho walks away. “I’m sorry about last time!”
And then a rushing truck smashes right into him.
Dammit, show! Deul-ho runs back to Il-gu, screaming for help, but it’s too late: Il-gu is dead.
At Il-gu’s funeral, the kids from the orphanage mourn for him. The orphanage priest comforts him: “Deul-ho, Il-gu was really grateful for you.” Deul-ho can only watch in silence, remembering what a good kid Il-gu was.
At a park, Deul-ho overhears the news of the resurfaced arson case, and the newly accused Mr. Byun. He realizes that this is his fault: If he hadn’t buried the truth three years ago, withdrawn the charges and hid all of the evidence, this wouldn’t have happened.
He leaves the park, shedding his tattered clothes and walking with a new fire in his step. He gets a haircut, a new suit, and a new pair of shoes, and off he goes to the Seoul District Courthouse, where Mr. Byun is being accused of murder and arson.
Deul-ho storms right into the courtroom, much to everyone’s shock. When he’s stopped by the judge, he presents his paperwork and declares, “Sorry I’m late, Your Honor—I’m the defendant’s counsel, Jo Deul-ho.”
Okay, so that was a final five minutes I wasn’t expecting. Since when is homelessness an issue you can just drop? Did he really choose to be homeless for three years? Was it just cost-effective to not have to pay for rent and showers? Is this a suggestion to save money on rent?! Explain yourself, show!
I do understand from a narrative perspective why the show would want Deul-ho out of the homeless scenario as soon as possible, but I wish they had come up with a more believable, or at least less ridiculous, way to do it. I mostly wish that the show had handled the issue of homelessness with more sensitivity, especially since it seems the theme is going to be about the modern extreme division between the rich and the poor and their power before the law.
The show had quite a few chances to think about poverty and unequal opportunities, which it did very well with Il-gu considering the time constraint. I loved Il-gu’s speech by the river, when he demanded to know why Deul-ho expected him to live a better life than as a hooligan. For people of disadvantaged childhoods, life has a familiar trajectory of limited opportunity; with what must have been a bevy of hardships for Il-gu, he needed guidance and help from people who believe in him, not a homeless, apparently failed prosecutor snapping at him to just do better. Since the show skimped out on the struggle of poverty, I hope that the show will continue to investigate that same struggle for opportunity for Deul-ho, just as it touched upon it for Il-gu.
Of course, if it doesn’t, and if I don’t ask too many questions about in-world realism, I think this drama has got a lot going for it. Willfully ignoring the last makeover scene, I have nothing but accolades for the rest of the episode.
I love all of the characters, which has to do very much with the incredibly talented cast. I feel like each one has great motives, with their own backstories contributing to their current decisions, but there is much more that we don’t know about them: Deul-ho’s life at the orphanage, for example, or Eun-jo’s deal with her mother and her stepfather, or Deul-ho’s relationship with ex-wife Hae-kyung, or the deal with Chief Prosecutor Shin and Ji-wook. The show has been great at showing why each character does things, with the promise that there is more to come, which is especially impressive in a first episode.
I don’t necessarily think that Il-gu had to die for Deul-ho to be motivated, but I think the show did a good job of setting up Il-gu’s character enough to see why it hit Deul-ho so hard. In a sense, it feels like the only things Deul-ho cares about are people (Il-gu, Soo-bin, Dae-soo, and even the homeless ajusshis that he didn’t really have to help), which explains why he’ll later become an attorney “for the people,” as the show’s taglines suggest.
In fact, that very detail promises a really satisfying outcome for the drama. We’ve already seen so much corruption that it makes my head spin. Although I wish Chairman Jung himself weren’t so two-dimensional and reliant on others to solve his problems, I can appreciate an underdog story where our hero has to fight his own—members of the law—to emerge victorious. Similarly, I hope that Eun-jo won’t have to lose that spark in her eyes and that optimistic worldview to understand that the law isn’t all-powerful. Kang So-ra is so sweet in this role that I can practically see bunny ears on her head, but she isn’t so naive that it’s a crippling bane to her (yet). It’s funny to see her in an innocent role that directly foils her jaded, experienced one in Misaeng, where she was also brilliant.
In fact, I’m most excited to see how the show will deal with the idea that the law is perfect and can solve everyone’s problems. Eun-jo likes to recite legal articles like they’re her multiplication tables, and I don’t necessarily want to see that faith break down. It’s interesting to think about the law from this lens, where the law isn’t evil in itself, as long as one don’t follow it blindly, but think about its purpose, its use, and the people before a bunch of words written by old people.
As for the acting, Park Shin-yang is doing a great job. I think he’s added some great flavor to Deul-ho, who is turning out to be a great character. Good people don’t tend to make interesting characters, so I love that Deul-ho often ignores the rules to follow the spirit of the law, not necessarily the mechanics. It’s fantastic that his first appearance is immediately seen in rule-breaking—he interrupts the defense, moves without the judge’s permission, and proves Chairman Jung’s faked illness with a toy spider. Park Shin-yang has immersed himself in this role with both enthusiasm and flair, just as he usually does.
All in all, this was a damn impressive first episode—fast-paced and lighthearted with loads and loads of potential for character growth. I love that it doesn’t seem to be episodic procedural but one big baddie that they’re going to take down. With a goal like that, there’s a ton of potential to say something important about the state of privilege in Korea—I can only hope that they’ll follow through.