Monday, May 29, 2017

'Queen of Mystery' Reimagines Sherlock Holmes as a Korean Housewife

Queen of Mystery, or Mystery Queen, is a K-drama series revolving around Yoo Seol-ok (Choi Kang-hee), a prosecutor’s wife whose lifelong dream is to become a police detective.  Hence, she likes investigative TV shows and mystery novels, and has been extensively reading and researching about anything relating to crime-solving.  All these help her in becoming a keen, intelligent lady detective.  However, she is unable to pursue her passion due to her demanding mother-in-law, who tends to underestimate her and expects her to focus on being a good housewife.  But after impressing a young police substation chief with her skills, she starts assisting him in a couple of petty cases around the neighborhood – unbeknownst to her mother-in-law, of course.  This leads her to cross paths with a rugged police detective named Ha Wan-seung (Kwon Sang-woo).  They start off as clashing rivals, but they eventually work together on solving mysteries.

What initially drew me to Queen of Mystery is the apparent fact that it’s somewhat inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, as I’ve always loved trying out everything Sherlock Holmes.  However, there’s actually no semblance between the Sherlock Holmes mythos and Queen of Mystery, save for the two main characters obviously referencing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson – with Seol-ok rhyming with Sherlock, and Wan-seung rhyming with Watson – and Seol-ok serving as an off-the-books consultant to the police, just like Sherlock Holmes.

Nevertheless, it’s a great mystery comedy show on its own.  It’s smart, funny, and well-written.
It’s at its best whenever it focuses on Seol-ok and Wan-seung.  They have fantastic chemistry.  Watching them banter and get on each other nerves while being effective crime-fighting partners is a sheer delight.  You might ask if romance developed between them, and how that could come about with Seol-ok being married (Korean culture doesn’t look favorably on divorce).  Well, I won’t spoil anything.  There might or might not be any romance between them.  Either way, it’s significantly unimportant to their wonderful dynamic as a mystery-solving duo.  In addition, the show also makes it a point to surround them with likable supporting characters and develop enjoyable interactions among them.

Another great thing about this series is the writing.  First of all, it does a superb job in peeling off layers of its plot.   For example (some minor SPOILERS in the rest of this paragraph), Seol-ok’s reasons for wanting to be detective actually goes beyond being a hobby.  Another example: Wan-seung is actually born with a silver spoon in his mouth, choosing to become a police officer due to a lifelong crusade.  Another: the touching reason behind Seol-ok’s meek dedication to her difficult mother-in-law.  Another: everything about Inspector Woo’s arc.   Those are just some of the many instances in which the series, as it progresses, constantly reveals that there’s something more to the characters and the story as what were initially let on.
Second, the cases they work on are also highly compelling.  Again, nothing about it is what it seems at first.  Most importantly, the writing does a great job in making its audience get really invested on each case.  There’s never an apathetic feeling of “it’s just another case.”  Example: sometimes, the victims are introduced early on and have interactions with the main characters.  It gives them personalities and makes the audience feel for them.  Thus, when the crimes are committed, they don’t just become “random victims.”  There’s more impact; there’s more emotion behind the need for justice to be served.

Third, the characters are written to be flawed but well-realized.  Especially, Seol-ok, who isn’t portrayed as a “superhero.”  Yes, she’s a very skillful detective, but she isn’t perfect.  Her persona and struggles as a housewife make her grounded.  She makes mistakes.  She doesn’t always wrap cases up neatly.  She isn’t as ultra-competent, uber-intellectual as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes.  And this only makes her a more interesting character.
But this show isn’t completely flawless.  It also has some negatives.  The slow-pace isn’t always a problem, but it really takes quite a while before things happen, and this could get tedious sometimes.  As a result, the slow-pace is bothersome at such moments.  Episodes could have benefited from some scenes being carved off.  On the other hand, the last two episodes felt rushed. (Mild SPOILERS in the rest of the paragraph) It’s like it didn’t have enough time to put resolution to the series’ overarching mystery.  That’s probably why the series has an open-ended finale (like Signal, which earned such manner of finale).  Now, I certainly won’t mind a season 2 (it’s in talks of having one), but I would have preferred a definite wrap up for it (it’s no Signal).  It’s so annoying that it left a lot of things unresolved. 

Overall, Queen of Mystery proves to be a fun departure from the Sherlock Holmes concept.  It’s not a perfectly smooth-sailing series – it’s occasionally wobbly – but the smart humor, thoughtful storytelling, and delightful characters make it a very enjoyable one.

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