Police Unit 38: Episode 1
Who knew that my heart would ever ache for a tax collector? But that’s exactly what happens in OCN’s new crime comedy Police Unit 38 where an ordinary man’s life is turned upside down when he crosses paths with a con artist fresh out of prison. While the premiere spends more time delving into these two characters, we can rest assured that there will soon be more personalities added to the tax-collecting-scammer team.
Once the team is formed, it’ll be time to con the men who con the system, and they won’t even know what hit ’em.
Note: This is just a one-off recap, but a smooth talker like Seo In-gook can go ahead and steal my heart for the rest of this series.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
A man runs through a crowded street—this is BAEK SUNG-IL (Ma Dong-seok), whose mind thinks back to an earlier conversation when he’d been asked for help. His coworker had strongly believed that what they did was right and had little faith in the government they both worked for.
Sung-il, however, had been reluctant about leaving the financial secure job as a civil servant, and presumably that was the last time he saw that coworker… until now.
We see Sung-il dash into the building and race upstairs to the roof. He’s breathless by the time he arrives at the parking garage, where he spots a lone, locked car filled with smoke—his coworker is unresponsive.
He yells and pounds on the window in desperation, then decides to use his fists to punch his way through. One, two, three… crack.
Six years later. The tax collection bureau at Seowon City Hall is abuzz with busy workers, save for the team leaders who are engrossed in either Solitaire, or in Sung-il’s case, studying English. Today’s lesson is interrupted by the need to collect taxes out in the field, which follows the departmental slogan: “We will chase you to the end and collect!”
He and his team are met with an icy welcome when they arrive at the factory. The owner barges out screaming that he’s penniless, and the team disperses to try (and fail) in speaking with the rowdy workers.
Having to go out into the field to collect taxes in person is all part of the job description for Sung-il, where each and every day follows the same routine: wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, get beaten up, be cursed at, or driven out by angry residents, and go home. Lather, rinse, repeat.
All of his hard work is to support his family, who are all asleep when he returns home. His wife has fallen asleep from managing the finances, and Sung-il pockets one bill to use as his allowance.
Sung-il sits through an uncomfortable meeting over lunch with his boss, who reminds him of how much his team, Team 3, is severely underperforming this year. His boss agrees that he should work harder to make up the 20 billion won deficit, and makes a passive-aggressive remark on how Sung-il could eat right now.
So it’s back to work for Sung-il, who spots an employee screaming at his wife over the phone before he turns to his right-hand woman, CHUN SUNG-HEE (Sooyoung) for the file on the person who owes the most taxes on their list. That person is MA JIN-SEOK, who despite all previous efforts to place him on the blacklist and freeze his assets, still leads a life of luxury and resides in a penthouse apartment.
He tells his team that they’ll be paying Ma Jin-seok a visit today, then gets pulled aside by a fellow team leader who asks to borrow some money. He can hardly believe it when he hears the man had been scammed recently, though that would also explain the other angry employee.
Section Chief Kang claims the scammer was such a smooth talker, it didn’t even register that he’d been conned at first. As Sung-il’s team exits the building, they cross paths with the mayor of Seowon, CHUN GAB-SOO (Ahn Nae-sang).
In the van, when Sung-il voices how only the gullible fall victim to con artists nowadays, Sung-hee matter-of-factly remarks that she was scammed once too, and she learned a lot from that experience.
Unfortunately for our team, Ma Jin-seok is tipped off about the tax collectors’ arrival. He orders the building security to stall them in the lobby while having his wife stow away the valuables throughout the house. His case will be dismissed soon enough, and then the tax collectors will have no grounds to come after him, he adds gruffly.
Downstairs, Sung-il nor Sung-hee will let a few security guards stand in their way. They exchange a look, then try to push their way through. In the struggle, Sung-hee reaches in for the guard’s access card, then runs inside alone.
She makes herself look presentable on the elevator ride upstairs, and the lady of the house reluctantly lets her in. Sung-il and the other guys aren’t too far behind, while Sung-hee introduces herself to the woman who hesitantly identifies herself as Ma Jin-seok’s wife.
Sung-hee gently notes how the couple still lives under one roof despite being divorced, then reads out that her ex-husband currently owes 5.77 billion won in local and federal taxes. That’s when the others arrive, and the team combs the place from top to bottom, discovering gold bars, luxury brand items, and cash under the cushions and mattress, inside the appliances, and every other nook and cranny.
Jin-seok arrives while the team is busy assessing all the valuables, and he is not pleased to find unwelcome visitors in his home. He throws his ex-wife’s phone into an expensive vase, then points out that it’s illegal to search someone’s home after sunset.
He catches the housekeeper delivering water to the tax collectors and uses her to make the point of how people are easily influenced by money. He promises to increase her salary if she can down the expensive bottle of water without stopping, reminding her of her children.
So when the housekeeper opens the bottle and drinks, Jin-seok chuckles, having proven his point. He argues that tagging his house with repo stickers is useless, then insults them by throwing the cash in their faces.
He isn’t afraid of the so-called repercussions because those don’t exist for men like him. The government couldn’t take away all of his other properties and riches through illegal means. And why’s that? Because the law is in favor of rich men like himself.
That statement is a hard pill to swallow, which is when the housekeeper spits up, unable to finish the bottle. Sung-il berates Jin-seok for talking down to a woman whom he should treat like a mother, to which Jin-seok snaps back: “She’s not my mother.” Ugh.
He insults Sung-il by calling him a beggar, and the others have to hold the men back from physically tearing into one another. Sung-hee steps in when Jin-seok chucks his wallet at Sung-il’s face, only for him to push her to the ground. That move pushes Sung-il over the edge, and he clocks Jin-seok squarely in the jaw.
It isn’t long before Sung-il’s boss catches wind of the incident. He’s promptly escorted to the mayor’s office, where he apologizes for his behavior. His boss is called inside (though Sung-il hilariously mixes up the intercom message as a command), and Sung-il is told that he’ll be facing disciplinary action.
Sung-il returns to his desk where he drinks from a bottle of soju stashed in his drawer. There’s also an old photo of him and the current mayor standing under the tax collection slogan. Interesting.
Sung-hee is still at the office and sighs upon hearing the news about disciplinary action. She knows he isn’t the type to get easily angered, though those pointed moments usually get him in trouble. She offers to share the responsibility among the team so that their team leader avoids suspension, but Sung-il leaves wordlessly to pick up his daughter.
As they walk home together, she wonders why her grades haven’t been getting better despite studying harder. Sung-il checks an incoming text, then tells her that he’s in the same boat—he works hard but always comes in dead last at work, and his salary has always remained the same. They laugh over how similar they are, which is just adorable.
A passing car drenches them with water just then, and the student inside is a classmate of Sung-il’s daughter. Her father is none other than Ma Jin-seok, who pointedly walks up and personally apologizes to Sung-il’s daughter.
But since that’s not enough, Jin-seok takes out a few large bills before realizing his “mistake” and taking out smaller ones instead to pay for the dry cleaning bill. Sung-il politely declines, and Jin-seok says they’re now even for what happened today.
Jin-seok has one last comment to make, saying that Sung-il shouldn’t make his daughter walk home from school (Translation: “You can’t even afford a car, but I can.”). Sung-il’s daughter sweetly makes sure her father is okay, and they head home.
Sung-il can’t sleep that night, his mind still fixated on the idea of a car. His suggestion about getting a car is flatly turned down by his wife, but then he gets up to peruse his options online. Even buying a used car is too expensive, so he writes a post on a community forum about acquiring a car for all the money he has: five million won (about 5,000 USD).
In the morning, Sung-il get a call from a potential seller inquiring about his post. The male voice politely explains he needs to sell his vehicle in a hurry, so he can bring down his usual price to work with Sung-il’s offer.
Sung-il is dubious to why a seller would want to appeal to him, to which the caller says they can forget the deal if he isn’t interested and hangs up. The camera cuts to the caller: a young man, whose face we don’t see.
Still, that call has made Sung-il curious, and his team members convince him that it’s a fair deal if he checks out the vehicle himself. So he calls the seller back, but on the way to their meeting, the seller says something came up so he can’t make it. Sung-il needn’t worry though, since he’s sent someone else to meet him.
The seller sounds apologetic as he says not to bring up money at that meeting, since he owes that person some money. Sung-il is understanding and finds the car on the lot. Pleased upon closer inspection, Sung-il calls the seller to ask to buy the car today, though he gets skeptical when the seller says he can’t be there in person.
He’s told that his contact has all the necessary paperwork, and Sung-il can wire the money to him directly. He contemplates that for a few moments before agreeing.
Sung-il sends the money through an ATM and tries calling the seller again… but no one picks up. Uh oh. Realizing that he’s just been conned, he runs back to the lot where he flags down the car to ask about the seller. But the contact says he knows of no such hyung and that this car belongs to him.
Just then, Sung-il gets a call from the seller, who is withdrawing the money in cash as they speak. In an amused voice, the caller says Sung-il shouldn’t have sent money to someone he never even met. He should take care to proceed with caution next time, and only gets more amused as Sung-il’s voice turns from pleading to outrage.
Sung-il can head back home now, the caller continues. An incoming text notifies Sung-il of a paltry deposit to his nearly empty balance to pay for a taxi ride home, and he’s left with nothing but frustration and guilt.
Now it’s time to get a good look at our con artist: YANG JUNG-DO (Seo In-gook).
Let’s roll the clocks back to really understand Jung-do, on the day he was released from prison. He tells us in voiceover that the people of Korea have been fixated on money ever since the IMF crisis in 1997: “They call money their religion, their parents, and their friend.”
He makes sure to say goodbye to a gray-haired inmate who is too busy watering plants to bid him farewell, and he reflects on how the world has bred people like him to con others in his 30s. He’s even thought about why people are so easily deceived to such a simple idea like a con, and his answer is equally simple: each and every person is obsessed with money.
He’s given the keys to a fancy car once he exits the prison gates, and Jung-do walks us through the workings of a successful swindler: “When people look at money, you look at the person. Look at who the person is on the inside, not who they appear to be. Focus on a person’s EQ than their IQ. You need to become that kind of con artist, and if you achieve that, everything in the world will go as you planned.”
Jung-do takes out a notebook and uses one of his many phones to calls up his target: Section Chief Kang. He pretends to be a bank employee offering a special promotion to his loan inquiry, which turns out to be a ploy ordered by the gray-haired inmate.
Section Chief Kang readily gives his personal information, and Jung-do moves on to the following victim—the other angry employee we saw named Han Se-chan. The notebook contains a list of details, including relatives, so Jung-do calls Han’s wife to make a fake reservation for a large group at the restaurant she works at.
He switches lines to regretfully inform Section Chief Kang that he needs to make an initial deposit to obtain the loan. The five million won deposit is sent to the restaurant as a security deposit for the reservation, then Jung-do calls to inquire about buying a watch from an online seller for seven million won.
He switches phones to call up the restaurant and apologize for wiring too much money. Since it’s on the company dime, he kindly asks that the remainder be sent back. He switches phones again to make sure the watch is on its way—he’ll send the money once he sees the tracking label.
The deposits are made and the photo is sent, so Jung-do runs into the convenience store to retrieve the package. Now it’s time for the grand finale, as it dawns on all the victims that they’ve been robbed. Jung-do abandons one of the phones, his pockets now much heavier.
He heads to the club where he smiles at a pretty lady dancing. This is JOO MI-JOO (Lee Seon-bin), who seems to recognize him, and though he’s happy to see her, she greets him with a slap across the cheek.
He and Mi-joo had been in the car when Sung-il picked up his daughter in the rain. We see that Sung-il’s name had been next on the list, and Mi-joo had sent the text. It had been Jung-do who had passed them on the sidewalk and had seen Sung-il delete the text.
He had overheard Jin-seok’s comment about how Sung-il didn’t have a car, which sparked him to think of a new con: set up a buyer-seller meeting, but then swipe that money for himself.
So Jung-do had called the original seller pretending to be interested in buying the car while also pretending to be selling the car to Sung-il. He had told both the seller and Sung-il that he couldn’t make it, then kept watch as the meeting went down.
Now that we’re caught up to speed, Sung-il is told that it would be virtually impossible to get his money back. He throws down the last two bills he has left… only to come back and retrieve them moments later.
Sung-il looks out into the lot in despair, as Jung-do walks right up to him. With a little smirk, he asks, “Can I bum a light?”
Even if Sung-il doesn’t know the perpetrator’s face, that’s still a bold move on Jung-do’s part. Although Police Unit 38 didn’t introduce all of the faces plastered on the drama’s promo posters in its premiere, there are enough hints indicating that we’re headed in that direction. The show will soon have more than enough characters to entertain, so I don’t mind waiting to be properly introduced to them all. And if I know anything from writer Han Jung Hoon’s past works (notably Bad Guys) is that the people who will make up Police Unit 38 will be interesting personalities in their own right.
So I’m pretty happy with dedicating most of the premiere getting to know our team leader in Sung-il, played by the ever lovable Ma Dong-seok. He abides by the law, works hard to make ends meet for his family, and can see where the system fails for the common folk. His desires are simple and humble, and he can lose his temper in the face of injustice. But he also has a blind spot when it comes to modern scams, and to see him fall so easily to one was especially hard to witness.
Which makes me wonder just how Sung-il and the other tax collection bureau officials ended up on the gray-haired inmate’s hit list. Something tells me it has to do with the incident six years ago, when the coworker died in the car. My guess would be that he and that coworker played a part in blowing the whistle on the man, and now that decision is coming back to haunt him. But who knows when there’s so much politics going on in the bureau itself, where the many questions include how far back the relationship between Sung-il and the mayor goes.
But for now, I’m more interested in these first few encounters between Jung-do and Sung-il. Compared to the multi-threaded con used to introduce our resident con artist, the scam he pulled on Sung-il looks like a walk in the park. Him walking past Sung-il and his daughter was a near blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moment, and the setup was only too simple, much like the other tricks he pulled. Watching Jung-do’s smooth-talking abilities was so impressive and convincing that it was almost easy to forget that he’s ruining people’s lives in the process. And at present, he doesn’t really have to worry about those consequences, as long as his pockets get a little heavier.
So I can’t wait until Jung-do starts using his skills for good, to con the men who have conned the system like Ma Jin-seok. It would be right of Sung-il not to trust a man like Jung-do right off the bat, but both men have so much potential to learn a thing or two from one another. Once you beef up that team with more straight-laced minds like Sung-hee and more sly talents like Mi-joo, you’re left with a deadly team that isn’t afraid to pull the wool over your eyes.
- Con artists and civil servants team up in Police Unit 38
- Police Unit 38’s band of tax-collecting outlaws
- Police Unit 38 will lie, cheat, or swindle you for your taxes
- OCN drama pairs Seo In-gook as charming swindler, Sooyoung as upright civil servant
- Seo In-gook, Sooyoung for new OCN comic crime drama
- Bad Guys, Vampire Prosecutor returns with new drama for OCN