Search: Episodes 1-2 (Review)
Soldiers, mystery, and monsters at the DMZ? Sign me up! The opening week of OCN’s Search was exactly what I was expecting: an introduction to our hero, setup around our search team, and just enough of a hint at something gone terribly wrong to keep our interest going.
Note: This is an opening week review only.
EPISODES 1-2 REVIEW
I love a good military story so much that I jumped headlong into this drama without thinking very much about it. Throw in Jang Dong-yoon as the lead, and it’s pretty much a guaranteed win for me, even if I don’t wind up loving the plot. Here’s the consensus so far: if Predator and Doom had a K-drama plot baby that was set at the DMZ and featured a super handsome Korean actor, it would be, well, Search.
Even though there’s enough of a story to keep things going, if military stories low on plot, heavy on night shoots, and full of low-budget CGI are not your thing, you might want to pass on Search (I love all three of these things for some reason, so I’m biased). And if you’re just here to find out about the promised scene of a shirtless, sweaty Jang Dong-yoon playing basketball with his teammates and showing off some pretty sick skills, that scene can be found at the 18-minute mark of Episode 1, and is well worth watching. You know, for science.
But, if you’re game for the drama at hand, we’ve got a nice supply of soldier camaraderie, military maneuvering, gunfire, search squadrons, and an enemy that’s shaping up to be much worse than any soldiers from the opposing force.
Before we meet our hero formally, though, we get a big chunk of backstory featuring Yeon Woo-jin in a great cameo. Really, I’ve seen him so many in middling rom-coms I never thought he’d be so great as a soldier (but he is!).
Back in 1997, he and his team got called in to do a sweep of “Sector 21.” Everything is quiet when suddenly a landmine explodes – the soldiers are anxious to retreat when they see a defector waving a white flag. She’s from the North Korean military, she’s carrying her infant with her, and she confirms that she wants to defect to South Korea. It’s such a tense scene! A sudden stand-off with hidden North Korean soldiers turns into a bloodbath, and almost everyone dies, except the baby and some soldiers who will become menaces later — exactly 23 years later.
It’s after those 23 years, in the scorching summer of 2020, that we meet our hero SERGEANT YONG DONG-JIN (Jang Dong-yoon). He’s playful, cocky, and easy to like — and also vaguely reminds me of the character Song Joong-ki played in Descended From the Sun (except Search is certified schmaltz-free).
Dong-jin is the dog handler on a search team, and he’s counting down the days till he completes his military service, since he’s only got three weeks left. The team he’s on is young and green, but Dong-jin seems to know what he’s doing, and he has a good rapport with his working dog.
We see them in action tracking down a rabid wolf that someone reported, and this scene works to show us Dong-jin’s courage under fire, and the total greenness of his fellow soldiers when they accidentally shoot him, instead of the wolf, with the tranquilizer. It’s a funny scene, but when you think about it, it’s not that funny — if Dong-jin is going to head into rough waters with these guys, he needs to know they’ve got his back while he’s got his dog. Because there are bigger problems than wolves lurking in those woods.
We witness two soldiers getting attacked in a very Predator-esque fashion, and pretty soon a search team is dispatched to find the second soldier, after the first is discovered mangled and bitten. Dong-jin barely recovers from getting tranquilized when he’s dragged into joining a different squad on their mission. His presence has been specifically requested (gulp!), and bribed with the promise of some extra holidays, he agrees to go.
Officers from the KCST (Korean Chemical Special Team) are leading this particular mission, and if it’s not clear right away why this is a KCST mission, it’s abundantly clear later — they have the labs, the scientists, and all the rest that they’ll need to figure out what’s really going on. If they can survive, that is.
One of the KCST officers in command is FIRST LIEUTENANT SOHN YE-RIM (Krystal), who seems every bit the tough, no-nonsense officer. While the teams are getting briefed on the mission, she and Dong-jin clock each other and it’s all too obvious that they have a history together.
We learn later that they dated, and Ye-rim dumped him for reasons undisclosed to Dong-jin (and us). While their romantic backstory seems pointless in one sense, in another, it immediately colors their interactions in a way that makes it 100% more interesting. Two strangers walking through a sinister field hunting rabid wolves doesn’t just ring the same as an ex-couple with some unresolved feelings walking through a sinister field doing the same.
Speaking of sinister fields, this night mission of theirs is important because they learn that there’s a lot more than rabies in Sector 21, and what we learn in Episode 2 fleshes out our story a bit more.
Thanks to the CCTV footage from Dong-jin’s dog, strange markings/wounds on the located soldier, and oddly behaving blood samples, our team soon realizes that there’s something bigger going on than they thought. More than rabid wolves, or a renegade North Korean soldier, the enemy they’re just beginning to notice is more sinister than they imagined. It’s also closely linked to what happened back in 1997. And the surviving soldiers from that mission (now an Assemblyman and a high-ranking military officer, respectively) have to keep the secret a secret.
When our opening week closes, Dong-jin has been strong-armed into joining a final operation before he’s discharged. It’s a secret operation with high stakes, and the (evil) Assemblyman is backing it. And to make it even more dramatic, the man put in charge is CAPTAIN SONG MIN-GYU (Yoon Park). He’s a known troublemaker, and was being held by the military police when he’s tapped for this assignment. Apparently, he’s the dude that can lead this operation and contain the chaos.
I actually liked the drama a lot more by the time Episode 2 closed, since we’re left with a strong sense of where the story is going next: Dong-jin forced to join the special operation team that’s not only rife with conflict, but about to encounter some serious evil.
Search isn’t exactly a drama that pops, but Jang Dong-yoon is clearly the highlight here, and he brings a fun warmth to his role. Even if it’s just a ten-second scene when we’re watching him hesitate to run after his dog into a minefield, or where we’re hearing him complain to his superior about getting tapped for yet another mission, it feels like we’re watching a real person whose emotions make sense.
While Jang Dong-yoon might be the biggest draw, it’s also interesting to see Krystal in a role that demands grim faces and gravity, instead of long hair and levity. So far, I like her here. She’s very uptight and pinned up, and it kinda works. Also, we don’t get much of Yoon Park during these episodes, but what we do get is interesting, and my curiosity around how his character will clash with Dong-jin is what makes me want to come back for week two of this drama. I’m certainly not coming back for the CGI, that’s for sure!
I don’t want to give Search too much credit for being particularly thrilling or interesting, since it’s not — but it’s fun for what it is. OCN’s signature tone really works to the benefit of the story here as well, particularly in the scenes with Ye-rim sitting in a deserted lab analyzing blood samples. The dim lighting, cold metallic feel, and environment totally devoid of warmth — all this adds to the tension of her discovery (and our episode cliffhanger).
What military secrets are lurking in those woods? What will our team encounter as they start their mission? Are they just getting led into the lion’s den, or will they actually be able to surface this scandal and save lives? I’m actually okay with any outcome, and any arrangement of familiar plot devices — just as long as Dong-jin gets home safe.