Dramaland justice: The vigilante edition
The concept of justice is one of the backbones of K-drama storytelling. We’ve looked at some ways dramas deploy justice — through compensating their heroes/heroines with a gift, and delivering a swift kick of comeuppance for those that need to be punished. But what happens when our characters are living in a world where justice isn’t delivered?
When heroes and heroines are faced with wrong and evil-doing, they’re mostly divided into two camps: those that grin and bear it with faith that it will all work out in the end, and those that take justice into their own hands. The first group make up the bulk of K-drama stories, and is the rhetoric of the “Candy” heroine. Love it or hate it, this dynamic is all over dramaland, and is more about justice (fundamentally, girl vs. universe) than we sometimes think. The second group, though, is where we get the more wild and wooly tales of heroes and heroines pursuing justice at all costs: the vigilantes of dramaland.
Heroes and heroines that take justice into their own hands are a favorite figure in storytelling. They’re full of daring, determination, and often devil-may-care desperation. You might not always approve of their methods, but you can’t disapprove of their zeal. And it makes for some good drama.
“Vigilante” is a word that came into English through a typically twisty path, and its root meaning is around the persona of a watchman, guard, or the concept of keeping a vigil. The first K-drama hero that comes to mind with this definition is, of course, Lee Min-ho as the eponymous City Hunter. The name says it all. Like the start of many tales of vigilante justice, City Hunter met with a combo of tragedy, realization, and some questions with a capital Q that acted as the catalyst to his story.
Stories don’t always take the time to capture the moment when something shifts for the hero/heroine and causes a ripple that disrupts everything moving forward, but I loved that City Hunter took the time to do this. The line has stuck with me all these years because of the decidedness in the hero’s voice. Sitting in the aftermath of the mess around him, he says: “I am going to change now.” Is it a prediction, pronouncement, or a little bit of both? Either way, it’s the trigger for him to become a beacon of justice in Seoul, taking down corrupt pieces of the puzzle, bit by bit.
Another well-loved solo vigilante in dramaland is Ji Chang-wook as the “night errand boy” and eponymous hero in Healer. He might start off as a for-hire operative, but it quickly gets personal for him. Like City Hunter, he works his vigilante magic to slowly peel away layer by layer to get at the truth in his past. Both of these heroes have quite a bit in common, and are driven to uncover the truth, understand their true identity, and deliver justice to those who evaded responsibility for their crimes.
It’s important to note that for these vigilante stories to work, the existing justice system and/or circumstances have to be rotten. When truth and justice are not attainable through “ordinary” means, the measures our vigilantes take are then justified (by the rhetoric of the story, anyway). For heroes like City Hunter and Healer that go rogue, they’ve been either deceived, abandoned, or harmed (or all of the above) by those close to them. The truth, for them, is only attainable if it’s forced out of people and situations. And because they seek the truth, and have met with obstacles when trying to reveal it through more traditional means (read: legal, sane, safe), we can stand behind their vigilante methods.
The solo hero with a dual identity makes for a great vigilante hero, but vigilante justice in dramaland is just as sweet when it’s delivered by a group. Because what’s better than one vigilante? A group of them banding together like a dysfunctional-but-functional family.
We’ve seen this dynamic in dramas like Mad Dog, Lookout, and even Neighborhood Lawyer Jo Deul-ho. It’s just as fun to see these characters butt heads as it is to see them get in sync with each other, joining forces to defeat and expose a common enemy.
All the dramas I’ve talked about so far have been from the action/crime thriller side, but the defiant justice-seeking hero/heroine can be found in other genres as well. Of course it looks a lot different — it’s often more about one person standing up against the hegemony. After all, a protagonist don’t have to dress in all black and fight in hand-to-hand combat to be in the same group as other action genre vigilantes.
Melodramas like Time and Secret, for example, might seem like the polar opposite of the dramas mentioned above, but they still hold a lot of the same elements. A hero/heroine meets with injustice and tragedy (wrongful death, wrongful imprisonment) that is either covered up, or considered unworthy of further investigation (slipshod investigation, convenient cover-ups). Since the law didn’t provide them with justice, the protagonist must seek it out herself — and that’s exactly what these heroines set out to do.
Rom-coms are another place we wouldn’t expect to find the concept of vigilante justice — but we can even find elements of it here too, if we look. Take the group of contract-holding secretaries in The Secret Life of My Secretary, for example.
This group of side characters formed almost a secret society where they not only united against injustice done to themselves (abuse of power, denial of permanent jobs), but those injustices committed by the company that affected others as well. From the infamous arowana fish, to a detailed log of bribes and embezzlements, these secretaries fought for justice just as hard as any night errand boy or assassin. After all, seeking justice isn’t only for those with ninja-level skills — it’s for everyone.
While stories about vigilantes pursuing justice are highly skewed in the action genre direction, it’s a storytelling element that can be found almost anywhere. Because the concepts of justice, equity, and fairness, are so universal, when we’re presented with a well-crafted story about the pursuit of justice, it’s something we can all empathize with. Dramas know this, and use it to build cathartic, relatable, and enjoyable tales.