By Rebekah Eve Daniel
For those drama addicts keeping an eye peeled for ‘Fight the system’ shows (P.S. the secret Netflix category code for which is 26705), K-drama Vincenzo sets up to hit the nail on the head, misses the mark by just an inch.
Song Joong Ki holds up his end of the bargain with his suave and drip. But it is Jeon Yeo-been as Lawyer Hong Cha Young who takes the audience by surprise as a knee-slapper of a heroine. Her “Chaaan” and heel flip, while holding a frosted cake, in Episode 1 brings to mind the expression, “~.~” on anime faces. Hong Cha Young’s internal character expressions in anime-like iconography, exult viewers with their ingenuity and break away from heroine tropes.
The drama begins with Vincenzo, an Italian Mafia, returning to Korea to unearth heaps of gold bars from under a run down building called the Geumga Plaza. Vincenzo finds that there’s work cut out for him against the Babel Group, an evil conglomerate that is vying for the same Plaza, to build its own Babel Tower. As Babel Group’s depravities surface, Vincenzo teams up with a ragtag group of tenants to thwart Babel Group’s plans.
The scheming, strategizing and courtroom drama against Babel culminating into slow motion walking montages are indulgently satisfying. But what the drama makes up for in the satisfaction of a scheme well-done, it comes short of in the message.
In the back and forth between Vincenzo’s dark backstory and his newfound torch of justice against Babel, we are sold an inexplicable character arc. Flashbacks of Vincenzo cutting off ears (!!) leaves us wanting an explanation to his current role as a champion for the victims of the Babel Group. In that, the drama succumbs to the usual formula that needs its hero to be righteous, often without explanation. Unlike Vincenzo, the overarching villain inhabits a linear arc, moving from evil to more evil, chalked up to his psychopathy. But the psychotic villain frothing with bloodlust undermines the message that corporations can be evil—period—psychosis, or no psychosis.
Corporations routinely suppress unfavourable drug safety results to profit from drug sales (Purdue at the center of the Opiod crisis), buy off or silence whistleblowers, spread false but favorable information to raise stock prices, and even murder those who stand in the way of their bottom line, cases in point being Ken Saro Wiwa, Berta Cáceres, massacres and rapes by Barrick Gold in Papa New Guinea and Anvil Mining in Congo. Corporations are rational when they work towards profits even if along the way lives and wellbeing are assailed. This greed and power-hunger rationally intrinsic to the capitalist system is overshadowed by over-the-top psychosis, played by Vincenzo’s villain. Aghast at his hockey-stick wielding murderous thrashing, viewers may absolve the banks, newspaper publications and the criminal prosecution system that support Babel in raising its profits at the cost of others, of their misdoings. The drama is also showing inklings of letting the villain’s brother, who has profited off the misery of people, slide.
The vilification of one person and their portrayal as insane, reinforces the rotten apple theory. Vincenzo’s villain joins the ranks of Lex Luther and Maxwell Lord, as rotten apples hungering for domination that, if spit out, would let the system back on track. The system, however, is a rotten tree rooted in greed and accumulation, and if rotten apples are borne out of it, they are symptoms, not anomalies. Fight-the-system shows need to upgrade to an overhaul of the whole rotten tree rather than waste time scheming against the rotten apples.
Without letting perfect be the enemy of good, I admit that Vincenzo’s schemes have been all the rage. But as the drama comes to a close, I hold out hope that the final episodes will tie the knots and show the system for what it really is: an accumulation at any cost, rational money making machine.
Rebekah is a lawyer by day and binge-watcher by night.