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'Vincenzo': playing chess with bad people

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Korean mafia drama Vincenzo is a thrilling examination of the far reaches of pure evil. In photo: Song Joong-Ki, Jeon Yeo-bin, and Ok Taecyeon. Photo from NETFLIX PHILIPPINES

I'm typically very poor at binging on shows as an adult. A truncated attention span perhaps, or just a desire to do something else instead. “Vincenzo,” though, was surprisingly easy to get into. At first, because my grandpa watches the show and I wanted to find something to talk to him about. (He has also seen “Crash Landing on You” and “Descendants of the Sun,” and that's about where our K-drama intersection lies.) Then I found myself getting into it, getting, really into it, then reaching a point when I had run out of new episodes to watch. It may not be for everyone, but this series has proven to be such a rewarding viewing experience for me.

“Vincenzo” is the story of a Korean-Italian consigliere for the mafia, played by Song Joong-ki. He heads back to Korea to empty out a vault full of gold bars, but becomes the de facto leader of a group of tenants in a commercial building where the vault is hidden. He gets embroiled in the tenants' legal battle against conglomerate Babel Pharmaceuticals and their team of sleazy lawyers.

(Spoiler warning: I will begin mentioning details about the show after this point.)

I love how this set-up made for a fantastic hybrid of legal drama/thriller meets slice of life sitcom — writer Park Jae Bum balances these two moods very well throughout the show. Every single character had a clear purpose. The reason for that, I realize, is because the show is designed as a long game of chess: each piece has an alter-ego. Vincenzo vs. Jang Han-Seok (played by dilfinator Ok Taecyeon of boy group 2PM) leading the pack; Hong Cha-Young (Jeon Yeo-been) vs. Zumba-loving Choi Myung-hee (an amazing Kim Yeo-jin) as their respective consiglieres.

And it really does feel like a game of chess, with each episode designed to elaborate on the hows and whys of a player's move. It's as though you're teased by the satisfying click of a chess piece hitting the clock, in anticipation of the response. In this case, Vincenzo reveals himself to be leagues beyond everyone else, almost too good to have a worthy adversary. (Though without saying much, discovering the chink in his armor was worth the wait.) Song plays Vincenzo with great bravado — this character will definitely cement him as one of the all-time greats. He could have been a flat antihero trope, but the show takes time to explore his ethos with depth. Towards the end of the show, there are several philosophical discussions about good vs. evil, and the lines throughout “Vincenzo” do get blurred often. What is good and what is bad? Is it bad to hurt bad people? How can we effectively deal out justice in a corrupt system?

“Vincenzo” is the story of a Korean-Italian consigliere for the mafia. The set-up is made for a fantastic hybrid of legal drama/thriller meets slice of life sitcom. Photo from NETFLIX

Power and justice are prevailing themes on the show. That's why I really enjoyed the chemistry between Vincenzo and lawyer Hong Cha-Young, the other half of Team Rocket. (A controversial opinion for the SongSong hive. Sorry, guys.) The story wasn't heavy-handed about their romantic arc; it would be suggested once in a while, but it was clear that they were united by their wits and desire for vengeance. Ultimately, becoming Vincenzo's “consigliere” awoke Cha-Young from her own disillusionment. Yes, she knew that the law is full of scumbags, but Vincenzo introduced her to a new brand of justice. And she had to reckon with accepting that as her own.

In a time when attaining justice feels impossible, Vincenzo made me examine where my own principles lie. How do I draw the line between what is fair and what is above the law? How am I going to hold people — and myself — accountable? In the last few episodes, the tenants of Geum-ga Plaza become fully radicalized into vigilantes after multiple run-ins with corrupt cops and politicians. There's also a wonderful scene in the penultimate episode where Vincenzo tells Cha-Young that he would like to protect what little virtue she has left as he faces off with Han-seok one final time. At this point, he says, they will no longer be vigilantes but monsters. Cha-Young tells him this: "To be honest, everything we did was so cruel that it was hard for me to endure. But do you know why I supported you? There's no law that can punish a monster like Jang Han-seok."

I suppose that's how to best sum up what Vincenzo is trying to say: some people are just so evil that they truly deserve to be hurt right back. Vincenzo assigns himself as judge, jury, and executioner for the powerless — a burden that he says he will take on for as long as evil prevails. I may not exactly agree with this thesis statement, but it does make me wonder: what price are we willing to pay in order to right what is wrong about the world?