This month is our annual Switcheroo Month, so Comics Editor Carol is leaving comics behind and writing about the South Korean television drama, Vampire Prosecutor.
“Vampire Prosecutor? Is the vampire a prosecutor or do they prosecute vampires? Or both?” you ask.
“Yes,” I answer.
“Does Vampire Prosecutor take a bite out of crime?”
“How many vampire prosecutors would a vampire prosecutor prosecute if a vampire prosecutor could prosecute vampire prosecutors?” you ask.
“Just stop,” I say.
A title like Vampire Prosecutor sounds like something that might just be plain fun if produced by the CW, but genre doesn’t mean the same thing in South Korean television. If you come in thinking it’s all fun and vampire prosecution, well, you might be in for an unpleasant surprise. Vampire Prosecutor is fun. There are funny episodes and great banter. It’s cleverly written. But the show’s gore and violence levels are pretty much the same as the gore or violence levels I associate with South Korean cinema, particularly in Vampire Prosecutor‘s second season. Not only do we hear things, with exquisitely ghastly foleying, we see things, too. So Vampire Prosecutor is rated mature for violence, gore, and Det. Hwang Soon-bum’s gross eating. It’s a serious show, though it’s not all gloom. Screenwriters Han Jung-hoon and Kang Eun-sun have a strong understanding of their form and a playful sense of metafiction. And while I imagine Vampire Prosecutor would be sixty-five times better if I spoke Korean and caught all the subtleties of when Det. Hwang drops his honorifics and when he doesn’t, it is already very good. The show has a nice balance of drama, horor and humor. Not to mention Vampire Prosecutor‘s fascinating fashions. Prosecutor Min Tae-yeon’s fashion is as central as Olivia Pope’s is in Scandal.* Vampire Prosecutor pops his collar and rolls up the sleeves of his jacket. Sonny from Miami Vice doesn’t even understand how much Vampire Prosecutor has to deal with. Vampire Prosecutor Min Tae-yeon has a lot on his plate.with. Vampire Prosecutor Min Tae-yeon has a lot on his plate.
Vampire Prosecutor’s intriguing jackets.
Min Tae-yeon (Yeon Jeong-hoon) is a prosecutor in the city of Seoul. He’s been assigned to the “Prosecutor-Police Joint Special Investigation Unit.” The unit is even more awkwardly named in Korean and is a career graveyard according to the older, powerful men who created it. They are not, however, troubled like I am about the justice implications of joining government’s investigatory and prosecutorial arms in one prosecution headed unit. They are kind of corrupt themselves. Min’s team includes junior prosecutor Yoo Jung-in (Lee Young-ah), intern and all-around science and computer guy Choi Dong-man (Kim Joo-young) and Prosecutor Min’s old friend Det. Hwang Soon-bum (Lee Wong-jong). It’s clearly a team that while not explicitly set up to fail is set up to be too small to ultimately succeed. But the team’s supervisor, Chief Prosecutor Yang believes in them. Prosecutor Yoo is determined to do good work. Intern Choi is generally enthusiastic. But Hwang is not happy, because he’s heard that this unit leads nowhere, but had offered to do anything if Prosecutor Min would help him out solving a case and Min did. See, Min is the very Vampire Prosecutor of the title. He was already good at blood spatter analysis, but now that he is a vampire, he can envision the death of a victim precisely. As he stands at the crime scene with only Det. Hwang staying quietly out of the way, he observes the blood spatter rise up and trace its journey backwards into the victim until he sees exactly how the victim died. You might think the visuals were adopted from Hannibal‘s Will Graham, but Vampire Prosecutor aired in 2011. The second season aired in 2012. Hannibal premiered in 2013.
If necessary, Prosecutor Min can take it further and drink a vial of the victim’s blood he obtains from the coroner. Coroner Yoon (Jang Young-nam) thinks he collects blood samples from his cases, but kinda creepily she doesn’t judge him. (Perhaps she watches Dexter). Second season’s Coroner Jo (Lee Kyoung-young) continues giving Min samples, but is more suspicious. When Min drinks the victim’s blood, we follow the blood down his esophagus into his circulatory system, into his brain and finally see the victim’s death as they did. Drinking a dead person’s blood, however, causes a vampire great pain and both Hwang and Min’s source of information and ethically sourced non-dead person blood at the mysterious night club** he goes to try to dissuade him from the practice. But sometimes it’s the only way to catch a murderer.
But what kind of vampire could be a prosecutor? Does he only take cases in night court? (Stop trying to be funny). Prosecutor Min isn’t your usual Dracula. He’s more like Carmilla. Dracula endured a kind of sleep paralysis during the day and avoided the sun. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, however, was only a little sleepy during the day and was unaffected by the sun at all. Unlike Dracula, Prosecutor Min can operate in the daytime and doesn’t burst into flames when exposed to the sun. And unlike Carmilla, he doesn’t experience a strange langor in the daytime. He might even be able to drink wine. In fact, Prosecutor Min has one up on both, he’s perfectly fine during the day. His only real problem is that he can’t take his team out to dinner like a boss should. Hwang understands, but Prosecutor Yoo and Intern Choi see it as strange, although in keeping with his aloof manner.Beyond limiting his capacity for team-building, Min’s vampirism doesn’t interfere much with his ability to perform his duties.
Vampirism aside, the relationship between the prosecutor’s office and the police is one of Vampire Prosecutor‘s creeper elements, as is Min’s tolerance for Det. Hwang’s “old school Seoul” methods. Det. Hwang is a good detective in the sense that he gets results, but his methods involve bullying, threats, violence, sketchy deals and discussions of nose-picking. Hwang bullies and threatens informants and suspects. He hits them and threatens to arrest them for crimes they might not have committed. He breaks and enters as part of his investigation. And he just walks around with food hanging out of his mouth sometimes. I would hope that if there is ever a Vampire Prosecutor 3, Hwang is prosecuted for his many incidents of brutality and gross eating.
Hwang is supposed to stand in for the everyman, not the cool ideal of Prosecutor Min or the hardworking, innovative Yoo or the tech and pop culture savviness of Intern Choi, the youngest member of the team. Hwang is the old cop who knows Seoul’s dark places like the back of his hand. He’s also the first to lower his speech, removing honorifics and using more intimate forms of address. It gets complicated with his colleagues. He is older than Min, but Min is his boss. He is friends with Min, so offers to “treat him like a younger brother.”
With Yoo it is even more complicated. She is a younger woman, but still his superior. When Hwang mocks her investigative methods in favor of his own, he begins removing honorifics and Korean’s very careful series of polite verb endings because for him, there is an inversion going on between experience, age, gender and who exactly should be speaking up to whom. Later on, there is a cute friendship between the rough-and-ready Hwang and the elegant and reserved Coroner Jo. They try to speak to each other as older and younger brother, but it’s so awkward for the refined Jo that they give up and stay the friends they are.
The series has a nice balance between weekly cases and an ongoing arc over twelve episodes. His first case concerns a copycat vampire killing, resembling the one at the scene where he was bitten. And over the course of twelve episodes, we learn more about the vampire killings and more about how exactly Min became a vampire. Just when you settle into the rhythm of the weekly case, the arc picks up, reminding us that the series’ opening car chase is still on Min’s mind. He pursued a suspect. There was an accident on the highway. And his suspect is stabbed by another man in a baseball cap and plastic rain poncho***, who sets the car on fire with a lighter engraved with sinister European occult symbols. And then Min was bitten. In Vampire Prosecutor, vampires only transform the first victim they bite. Min kept the lighter from the scene of the crime and by the end of Vampire Prosecutor 1, discovers a law firm using the same occult symbols and we are hunting more vampires who went to law school.****
Airing about one year later, Vampire Prosecutor 2 is darker, which is saying something. And Prosecutor Min begins to wear less interesting jackets, after the events of season one. Vampire Prosecutor 2 starts much more harshly than Vampire Prosecutor 1. It opens with a government official being rushed to the hospital after being shot by a sniper during a speech. The motorcade is stopped by soldiers who turn their guns on the motorcade and take the minister. They say that they are taking him to “our hospital.” The hospital turns out to be a secret facility run by a mad scientist who is performing experiments on some poor man kept chained and masked. Informed that the government official must be kept alive, the scientist transfuses blood from the masked prisoner. And as the be-suited men hunting the minister arrive, the minister sits up and hisses, transformed into a vampire himself.
This sequence has a lot of historical resonance. South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979 by a rival faction in the government. In fact, one of his close friends shot him at a dinner in a secure facility. There was an earlier attempt in 1974, in which Park survived but his wife did not. There is a lot of resonance in this moment and in 2005, Im Sang-soo released his black comedy, The President’s Last Bang, covering the last few hours of Park’s life and the immediate fall-out of his assassination. The President’s Last Bang was intensely controversial in South Korea for its depiction of Park and about 4 minutes of the film were censored—and subsequently shown internationally with a blank screen during the censored footage. This opening scene in Vampire Prosecutor 2 has more resonance with the earlier failed assassination attempt in 1974, when a man fired at the stage while Park was giving a speech celebrating the end of colonial rule in South Korea. In the historical event, the assassin missed Park but killed Park’s wife, Yuk Young-soo. Their daughter, Park Guen-hye was just impeached and arrested for corruption. When Vampire Prosecutor aired, was a representative in the Korean parliament and the leader of the Grand National Party. I can’t say if the arrival of a new, much more politically minded and politically vicious female chief prosecutor, Joo Hyun-ah (Kim Bo-young), is related to Park Guen-hye’s ascension, but it is interesting.
So Vampire Prosecutor‘s secret bunker and draculized government official is not the same, but any event where a government official is shot by other scheming government officials who try to cover it up is resonant. And it sets the stage for a darker and more broadly political Vampire Prosecutor. The second season addresses secrets the Korean government keeps. Secrets that involve torture and hearken back to the days of dictatorship. At the same time, it cuts close again emotionally as Min tries to protect his team. We learn more about Coroner Jo, and he takes in Ji-ae, a little girl who was left at a crime scene.
She is part of the overarching focus on the ways that any crime’s ramifications move through time. We end the season with questions and unresolved issues that will probably never be answered or resolved. And while Vampire Prosecutor 2 was a more fragmented and uneven season than Vampire Prosecutor, I do want to know what happens to Min Tae-yeon and everyone else.
There were rumors that there would be a Vampire Prosecutor 3 and I had hopes, even as Dexter ended and then Hannibal came and went, that there would be another show with blood spatter in its opening credits. I even did some promotion of What We Do In The Shadows and SPL 2 making references to Vampire Prosecutor, but still no Vampire Prosecutor 3. Ultimately, OCN produced a spin-off in 2016, Vampire Detective. I tried, but couldn’t get into it. Vampire Detective Yook San’s casual wear just couldn’t compete with Prosecutor Min’s sharp suits and interesting jackets. But maybe it’s been long enough that I can let Vampire Detective do its own thing. At least it doesn’t have Detective Hwang, though first time I watched, Yook San did have a good friend with gross eating habits. On the other hand, there was at least one instance of a villain with flair.
*Donnie Yen is going to play Vampire Prosecutor in the inevitable Hong Kong television adaptation. He will wear no shirt and grappling will be central to his Vampire Prosecutor process. I will also note that someone else who becomes a vampire during the course of the show also begins wearing interesting jackets once he is draculized.
**The first time we enter the mysterious night club where Min goes for information about the man who bit him and murdered his suspect—and gets a glass of blood while he does—there is a song about “camping” in videogames playing.
***I would like to add that I love that this man is terrifying, but not cool. The plastic rain poncho is a great detail.
****POSSIBLE SPOILER: In fact, vampire prosecutor Min might prosecute not only a vampire, but a vampire prosecutor…
A vampire prosecutor would prosecute as many vampire prosecutors as a vampire prosecutor could, if a vampire prosecutor could prosecute vampire prosecutors, Carol Borden finally says. Vampire Prosecutor and Vampire Detective are both available online via Drama Fever.
(Thanks to Mark D. White for the wording of the first question)
This piece was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Apr. 20, 2017.