Golden Cross: Episode 1
Here was my thought process in the moments before watching Golden Cross’ premiere episode: If you’re bad, it would be a relief. Then I don’t have to worry about having to recap you. Maybe you’ll be bad. You could be bad. Sure your writer wrote Gaksital which I loved, but that was a historical action drama. Oh, she wrote Scales of Providence too, the taut legal thriller? And wait, also Green Rose? Crap. What if you’re good? I bet you’ll be good and THEN WHERE WILL I BE.
Granted I always want a show to be good, but if it can’t be good I’d rather it be terrible so as to save me the angst of figuring out whether to recap it, or how that will happen. Happily-sadly, Golden Cross is good—a really solid, tight, beautifully shot thriller with complex characters and a lead pair I already love. Crap.
With that in mind, this is only a first episode recap—there may or may not be follow-up recaps. Don’t ask me if we’re going to stick with it because I don’t know!
SONG OF THE DAY
Lee Juck – “병” (Disease) [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We open on a festive atmosphere as a family gathers to see their son being sworn in as a prosecutor. Our hero of the hour (and drama) is KANG DO-YOON (Kim Kang-woo), a good-natured young man from a happy middle-class family. Manning the camera is his bubbly little sister HA-YOON (Seo Min-ji), and she calls together the family for a photo op.
As Do-yoon takes his oath, his family watches happily. But scenes are intercut with the swearing-in, featuring his father looking anxious as he changes the percentages on a report. An efficient series of split-screened snippets shows us the crux of the matter: Dad takes a bribe of some sort, looking sick to his stomach as he does, and then Ha-yoon winds up dead from a blow to the head.
It makes the evening news immediately—not surprising given the juiciness of the story. As the news tells it, a father took a golf club to his daughter’s head and killed her in rage after hearing she had picked up a sponsor. It’s framed as an in-the-heat-of-the-moment murder, but we know better. There’s more to this.
Big bro Do-yoon is out celebrating with his buddies when he gets word and races to the station. Dad is already there in cuffs, head hanging, looking lost. Do-yoon is in disbelief that his father could kill his sister, but all Dad can do is mumble, “I’m sorry.” As the truth sinks in, Do-yoon grabs his father and screams, “Why?!” The million-dollar question.
We get a quick montage with more snippets of activity: A reporter snaps secret photos. A chic woman takes a call. Our heroine takes down a man with a judo flip. All these are unconnected, seemingly, until we pull back and see that we’re looking at a giant wall of television screens. Watching it all is a man whose face remains hidden.
Three months earlier.
We’re in the modest home of the Kang family and it’s Dad’s birthday. Cheery Ha-yoon is the mood-maker, while Do-yoon notices their mother’s dark face and tries to lighten her spirits. Clearly we’ve joined them in the midst of an ongoing issue.
It comes out soon enough: Dad’s good-for-nothing younger brother ran off (yet again) with more of their money, and Mom is especially pissed because she was on the cusp of buying her own business. With Dad set to retire in a few years, she was pinning her hopes on opening her own place to bring in money, and snaps at Dad when he assures them that he’ll take care of them. He fidgets shamefacedly and asks his wife to understand and let it go, but she’s in no mood and storms off. At that Do-yoon can’t contain his own frustration—Dad works at a bank! Can’t he get a loan or fix it somehow?
Do-yoon declares that when he’s a full-fledged prosecutor he’ll put Uncle behind bars, then storms out too. His sister follows him out to soothe his temper, and he really can’t stay mad in the presence of her sweetness. Ha-yoon has him smiling in no time and wheedles him into consenting to her wishes to pursue acting, having been recently discovered on the street.
They make a sibling fist-bump and head inside laughing… and then we pull back and feel the presence of someone else. Watching.
We meet another set of characters at a posh book launch featuring a former financial minister, Kim Jae-gab, who speaks charismatically about South Korea’s economic future. Ex-Minister Kim’s illustrious family is in attendance, which includes his prosecutor granddaughter SEO YI-REH (Lee Shi-young). Yi-reh looks disinterested, while her family rubs elbows with the financial elite.
Yi-reh’s father SEO DONG-HA (Jung Bo-seok) is a director at the Financial Policy Bureau, and he chats with his protégé MICHAEL JANG (Eom Ki-joon), the PAX Korean Branch President. I’m not totally sure what those are but basically: They deal in money, and make lots of it. Michael comes off as a shark, suggesting pleasantly to his old “teacher” that he give up his Hanmin Bank to PAX.
Seo Dong-ha scoffs that the acquisition would be illegal, but Michael only has to name a price—200 billion won—for him to change his tune. Michael says they’ve got a new investor and the sale will happen anyway—it’s just that this way, Seo Dong-ha gets to take a cut.
So Seo Dong-ha sidles over to his father-in-law, ex-Minister Kim, and whispers in his ear. The old man looks over at Michael and trades a nod. The deal is on.
With that, Seo Dong-ha gets to work planning his deal, alongside a lawyer and the head of Hanmin Bank. A Hanmin employee is singled out—Kang Ju-wan, aka our hero’s father, aka the fall guy. He’s strapped for cash, which makes him manipulable, plus he has the requisite background needed. Absolute secrecy is emphasized, as well as speed.
On to Michael Jang, who receives a visit from the posh HONG SA-RA (Han Eun-jung). He’s playing a video game in a fancy-looking game module (you get a bit of an overgrown manchild vibe from him, though he’s also got a ruthless streak), and Sa-ra is the president of the Golden Cross club, though she reports to Michael like a secretary.
The matter at hand: Casting has proceeded with the girl he requested—Kang Ju-wan’s daughter. Ah, so Ha-yoon wasn’t “discovered” on the street; she was targeted. Michael chuckles that she’s just right, though I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean as an actress; he tells Sa-ra to proceed.
Interestingly, Sa-ra seems to dislike both the plan and Michael, but she doesn’t push too hard.
At Hanmin Bank, our fall guy Kang Ju-wan (aka Dad) is putting in a late night writing up a report. He was given the assignment to evaluate the credit of a company, which is almost fully secured and therefore completely safe. And yet, the order was to devalue its rating. He puzzles over the strangeness of this.
Ha-yoon drops by to deliver snacks, and they have a warm father-daughter exchange as Ha-yoon broaches the topic of her acting hopes again. She’s obviously been working on her family in bits and pieces, and says she wants to make money and treat her parents to nice things. The agency is all ready to set her up and give her company lodgings, but her parents have been the sticking point. Dad finally relents and gives his consent, and Ha-yoon lights up, promising to do a good job.
At the Seo family breakfast table, it’s all business between Yi-reh’s father and grandpa (that’s Seo Dong-ha and ex-Minister Kim) until pouty Mom cuts in. Yi-reh sends a few veiled barbs at her mother, speaking in icy formalities that make me wonder what the tension is—is this a flighty stepmother, perhaps? On the other hand, she clearly adores her father and speaks mostly with him.
On to an art gallery, where it’s Mom’s face (and body) on display on the walls in a photo exhibit. It’s tastefully done, but that’s not the point: Mom is posing nude for her boy-toy lover’s photos. It’s into this gallery that Yi-reh walks, taking in the photos with dismay. She glares at the young artist and storms up to him—he called her here to see the photos. She asks why. “To piss you off,” he smirks.
In comes Mom, who says sarcastically that Yi-reh’s daughterly concern is quite touching. Yi-reh retorts that she’s here because she doesn’t want Dad or Grandpa humiliated—she’s ashamed to have Mom as her biological mother and snaps at her to keep her side activities discreet.
Then Mom storms up to the artist, who spills a string of excuses about just wanting a reason to see her again. But the moment she slaps his face, he orders his friend—the tabloid photographer lurking in the gallery—to take photos and spread them far and wide. “How dare you treat my love like crap?” he demands.
Yi-reh grabs the camera and smashes it on the ground. She thrusts a few bills into the tabloid reporter’s hands—millions of won—and says that should cover his losses. He blusters at her for the offenses he could sue her for, and she just tells him to go ahead.
Mom tells the reporter that she can’t have him spilling all about her to the press, and presses her diamond ring into his hand. The reporter is amazed at the amount of money that just got dropped in his lap.
At work, Dad Kang Ju-wan worries over some bank numbers—specifically, the BIS ratio that determines a bank’s solvency, which is currently in the safe zone. But the orders from up above are to drop the ratio, and Dad doesn’t know how. At least not safely, not logically. I can surmise that Seo Dong-ha is trying to put his safe bank into peril so Michael Jang will buy it at an artificially low price (and put millions into his pocket), but from the outside it looks like lunacy.
Dad has his principles, and he takes up his report without altering a thing. A friend stops him on the way, trying to talk him out of career suicide. But Dad is resolute.
When the bank’s President Kwon sees the numbers, he chuckles at Dad’s stubbornness. He takes a sideways approach, mentioning that Dad recently took a loan against his house because his wife wanted to set up a business. He offers to set up that shop for him, since Dad is a faithful employee who deserves rewarding.
Dad takes President Kwon at his word and thanks him, only to have the president blow up in his face for not getting his message. He reminds him of an incident in the past, which we see in flashback:
June 29, 1998. Seodong Bank. Inside, citizens demonstrate against the bank’s unfair lending practices, while a crowd of riot police wait for their orders. Dad is among the protesters.
The riot police are dispatched, and pandemonium breaks out. Seo Dong-ha and a team of bankers enter the bank, and Dad slips away to grab the bank’s master key. But Seo Dong-ha sees it right away and demands it from him. Dad refuses, pointing out that the higher-ups ruined things for everyone, ordering around their faithful employees and now casting them all out.
Seo Dong-ha argues that this reorganization is the fastest way to revive the economy, and that they’re all feeling the pain together. Dad disagrees, arguing that the execs took bribes and never had to take responsibility for their actions. Why is the company cutting everyone loose but saving the necks of their executives?
Dad is taken down by police and beaten. And as a result of his actions, he was charged with obstruction of justice and destruction of property, and even sent to prison. “Can you endure that nightmare again?” President Kwon asks.
Dad is flabbergasted, wondering why you’d want to tank your own bank. President Kwon explains that a buyer has surfaced, and when Dad calls it “our bank,” he yells, “You’re just staff!” Then he lays on the compliments, saying that Dad works so hard and that’s why he’s being afforded this special opportunity.
Dad gulps. He looks at the gorgeous house the president is offering him and hears his wife’s voice ringing in his ears. He asks for one day to think it over.
Of course, our bad guys know that this means he’ll cave, and Seo Dong-ha swings into motion, taking it as a done deal. He prepares to leave on a business trip and his lawyer makes a call confirming arrangements with Sa-ra, who we now see is also the CEO of SR Entertainment, the agency that scouted Ha-yoon. Uh, why does she have a plane ticket to Hong Kong for Ha-yoon? Ugh, I don’t like where this is going.
In the meantime, Do-yoon helps Ha-yoon move into her new lodgings, which are luxurious and awe-inspiring. She hasn’t signed a contract yet, but will after her upcoming auditions for a drama in China. If she fails, she can’t stay. Ha-yoon worries about failing her audition, while Do-yoon does the annoying oppa thing and teases that she’d better not unpack.
Ha-yoon gets word that she is to leave immediately on her audition, so Do-yoon drives her to the airport. He nags her the whole way there about taking care of herself, and sends her off with worried face. She assures him that everything will work out, and gives him an encouraging fist-bump.
In the airplane, Seo Dong-ha seats himself next to Ha-yoon, who’s friendly and chatty. He seems pleased with her, which I find creepy in the extreme.
But Ha-yoon thinks little of it and arrives in Hong Kong in high spirits, taking everything in with wide eyes.
At home that night, Dad drinks soju while his wife has a frustrating call with the woman whose shop she’s trying to buy, who wants the cash soon. So when she asks Dad if there’s truly nothing he can do, he finds his conflict tearing at him. Do-yoon steps in to ask Dad for a drink, and they head out for a father-son chat.
Do-yoon has looked into a loan for himself and asks Dad to get a loan for the rest. It’s quite a huge sum they require but Do-yoon is frustrated that Dad is saying it’s not possible without even trying, and pushes Dad to do whatever he can to borrow that money. He doesn’t mean illegally, but I’m sure he wouldn’t object to Dad pulling strings or calling in favors, and he seems to eye Dad’s rigid principles as a lack of spine and competence.
In a flash of anger, Dad says fine, he’ll do it and prove he is capable.
Ha-yoon arrives in her luxurious suite and runs around in excitement. Her “manager oppa” calls, but the tone quickly turns dark: She’ll be joined by “the man who’ll make you a star,” and she has to make him happy if she wants to make it. So do whatever he wants. Ugh.
Ha-yoon understands the subtext and grabs her bags to leave, but just then Seo Dong-ha walks in. He grins. Fade to black.
In the morning, Do-yoon arrives at the prosecutor’s office and calls his sister. I love-hate the moment as Yi-reh walks into the same lobby and chats happily with her father—Do-yoon’s worried, she’s cheery. And Yi-reh’s conversation is so mundane and friendly, in contrast to what her father has just done.
On the other end of the call in the Hong Kong hotel room, Seo Dong-ha hangs up the call and goes to Ha-yoon, who is huddled on the bed ignoring her phone, blocking out the world. Seo Dong-ha leaves her with a smile and a “See you later.”
Yi-reh walks into her office with a chipper attitude and has a teasing exchange with her co-workers about her workaholic tendencies, joking about not having a boyfriend. Do-yoon enters the room to say goodbye to them, as he’d been working here during his probationary period; now he’s a trainee and will no longer be reporting here.
It’s cute that Yi-reh is the head prosecutor here and speaks to him in banmal, while Do-yoon is the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed rookie. He promises to survive the training and return here, and Yi-reh promises to buy him coffee if he does. They’re so cute. I want them together already.
…except for the part where your father defiled my sister, that is. Seo Dong-ha returns to Korea in excellent spirits while the background music sings, “Imagine me and you, I do, I think about you day and night…” Oh, did your night of raping give you the warm fuzzies and delusions of romance? (God, the details in this show. Well done but UGH.)
Ha-yoon, on the other hand, walks through the Hong Kong streets feeling devastated.
Seo Dong-ha arrives in a building and uses a black card to gain access to a locked door—the camera lingers on the insignia, bearing a shield with a cross. He joins his father-in-law Minister Kim inside and is instructed to take a meeting with President Harrison (for whom Michael works).
He runs into Sa-ra on his way out, who asks about his recent rip. He says it went well thanks to her and heads out… but looks up in alarm at the last moment. Sa-ra has been joined by a man, and for whatever reason the sight of them rattles him deeply. The elevator doors close on his shock.
Do-yoon tries calling Ha-yoon all day, but his calls go unanswered, amping up his concern. He pulls up to her villa that night just as Ha-yoon is pushed into a van by her “manager.” She resists but is overpowered, and Do-yoon takes off after them. Go go go go gooooo.
Ha-yoon arrives at the Golden Cross building, casting around scared looks while her manager ushers her along. Do-yoon arrives just a few steps behind her and sees them heading up in the elevator, but he can’t gain access tries the doors anxiously, shouting her name.
Ha-yoon is led into the inner rooms to meet with “the CEO.” Which CEO that is, we don’t yet know.
Do-yoon looks around frantically for another way up, finding nothing.
The camera pulls back and once again lands on the multi-screen wall, being watched, as ever, by our man in the shadows.
Right off the bat, what struck me was the exposition of this show—in that it didn’t feel like clunky exposition. A premiere episode is always going to be heavy on the exposition given the volume of information that needs to be conveyed, but there are people who can convey information skillfully, and those who don’t. Golden Cross has a deft hand in doling out information and zooming past beats that are zoomable, cutting to the point of a scene in an efficient way that struck me as very, very promising.
After all: a revenge drama set in the world of finance? We’ve seen it before, and that could go in so many different directions, many of them bad. Done poorly it could be an utter yawn. But done smartly and with sharp execution, suddenly even the most mundane detail can become fraught with tension, and this drama has that skill. That, more than the story itself, has me engaged. Not to sniff at the story itself; it’s just that we’ve barely gotten to it, so that’ll remain to be seen. But once you know you’re in good hands, that trust goes a long way in allowing me to feel invested and sinking into the world.
All that said, all the slick execution in the world couldn’t make up for characters I couldn’t care about, so I’m glad that this is a cast that draws me in. I already love Kim Kang-woo from his previous work, but that was no guarantee I’d love him here; thankfully I find his adoring oppa role both heartwarming and heartbreaking, since we know he’ll soon be undergoing a change. Revenge and bloodlust will do that to a person.
But it’s a lovely way to begin his character’s trajectory, as the nice guy who just wants to have a nice normal life and provide for his family. I feel for the friction with his father, who is a good man caught in between bad men with stronger wills (and bigger pocketbooks) than him, and his greatest virtue (his integrity) is both the reason his family is struggling and the source of his downfall.
I sympathize with Dad for wanting to do the right thing all the time and sticking up for those beliefs, but I also see how that has shaped his children’s worldviews, and probably not in ways Dad intended. Do-yoon is frank about not going into his line of work out of some idealistic conviction, but rather because it’s a good job that’ll bring in good money, and then he can be the provider. You feel like there’s an unspoken end to that sentence: …since Dad isn’t it. And he’s fully willing to jump ship from prosecutor to lawyer if money necessitates it. Ha-yoon, too, is spurred to accepting that ill-fated acting offer more out of the promises of money than for acting itself. It was a little harsh of Do-yoon to go off on his father for not being able to rustle up a 200 million won loan, because lordy is that a lot of money. But seeing his meek father uphold his principles and end up with the short end of the stick has probably made him the man he is today.
So in this sense I like how money in Golden Cross isn’t merely money—that is to say, a goal or a craving or a tool to wield—but symbolic of deeper character moments. The same goes for Yi-reh’s family (and can I say, I really enjoy how monumentally screwed-up it is), where Mom flits around having affairs and throws diamonds around like they’re nothing. Not to mention Evils No. 1 and No. 2., aka Grandpa and Dad, who are obscenely rich already and yet always in search of more.
Which isn’t to say that every money-related aspect of this show is an automatic boon: I have a feeling that the financial maneuverings will be complicated and over my head, inasmuch as I don’t know much about stock markets or financial dealings and frankly have little interest in learning. There will probably be lots of secret meetings with big financial words thrown around that mean little to the average viewer, and talk of credit and acquisitions and insider trading that’ll make my eyes want to cross.
So what has me coming back for more is knowing that despite those plot intricacies, I think the show keeps its eye on what’s important, which is how all this stuff affects our characters on an emotional level. There was a brief stretch that was Do-yoon-less, and I realized as soon as he came back onscreen that having him featured front and center will be crucial to keeping MY interest level high. Once the setup is complete, I do think that will happen.
Golden Cross’ ratings weren’t very high in its first two outings (in the 5% range) so it probably won’t be much of a hit. I’m not surprised, because it’s an intricate show that requires a lot of your attention (no zoning out if you want to follow what’s happening!), and it doesn’t have enough makjang extremes to draw the big audiences. What it does have, though, is careful attention to detail and a lot of interesting characters, with protagonists you want to root for (while understanding that they’re gonna go through quite the bout of emotional turmoil once Yi-reh realizes her beloved Daddy isn’t the man she thought he was). Smart, snappy, and dense—we could do worse.
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