We’re a little late weighing in on Pied Piper, which premiered on tvN a couple weeks ago, but I’d been increasingly antsy to see what new things the Liar Game production team would trot out, and if nothing else, had to at least cover this episode. (And it is nothing else as of now—as much as we’d love to continue the show, time is another matter entirely.)
But this first outing is winning in every aspect—it’s tightly written, acted, directed, and edited to near-perfection. It’s a solid introduction to a solid cast of characters, even if some of them are only here for so long. Which all goes to say: If you’re not already a nail-biter, Pied Piper is primed and ready to make you into one.
SONG OF THE DAY
Kim Bo-hyung (of SPICA) – “Our Story (Eng. version)” from the OST [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
A group of protestors against what they see as media manipulation by one man, Kang Hong-seok, take over a building and use it to hole up against the rapidly encroaching police.
But a little girl, hidden in a surprisingly peaceful alcove of the roof as the world loses its mind around her, reads the tale of the infamous Pied Piper, who played his pipe to lure the village children of the medieval Hamelin to their unknown fates.
That same book is soon tossed from the roof, and catches fire (symbolically?) once it touches the ground. An ominous black shadow in the shape of a man covers it before we cut to opening credits.
The same evil corporation whose name was spray painted on the protest building, K Group, seems to have run into even more trouble lately—five of their employees have been taken hostage in the Philippines, prompting the group to send a professional negotiator to secure the hostages’ freedom.
Meet JOO SUNG-CHAN (Shin Ha-kyun), the police negotiator assigned to the task. He gets rockstar treatment by K Group’s Chairman SEO GUN-IL (Jeon Guk-hwan), who puts him on a private jet with a briefcase full of dolla dolla bills.
As for whether the hostages’ safety can be negotiated or not, Chairman Seo parrots back a line Sung-chan once told him about his own prolific skills: “If you can’t negotiate a deal, not even God could.” It’s less important that the hostages be saved, so much as making the public believe that K Group tried their best to save them.
Sung-chan’s plane lands in Cebu City in the Philippines during the midst of their annual Sinulog Festival. He’s the only somber-looking person amongst all the colorful costumes, weaving his way through the busy streets with ease until he ends up in a seedy bar.
He places an order in English to the bartender, which is actually a code phrase. Next thing he knows, he’s being transported with black bag over his head to the hostage site, which is nothing new to him.
He explains his job like this: “A good negotiation starts with getting a grasp of what I want, and what the opposing party wants. It’s easier to face an opponent who doesn’t really know what he wants. Some opponents want you to show emotions, like good will, friendship, or trust. But actually, you can give those anytime, because they’re free. The problem is, in most situations, it almost never happens that both sides get what they want.”
As he’s transported from vehicle to vehicle to the island of Mindanao, he continues, “‘Win-win’ is a lie made up by idealists. The way to do it, then, is to make the opponent accept my proposal whether he wants to or not. To make him believe on his own that he wants it, or to make him want something he didn’t know he wanted. That’s the way I negotiate.”
Sung-chan meets with the hostage-takers, and the negotiations are unfortunately in English. He won’t give them the code to the briefcase without seeing the hostages alive, and any attempts to crack it open by force would render the money inside useless.
The hostages are trotted out in pretty poor condition, but Sung-chan sticks to his side of the bargain and opens the briefcase. Because Chairman Seo wanted to be cheap, there’s only enough to fully buy one hostage at the ridiculous price they set, and Sung-chan’s job is to make that money work for all the hostages.
This makes the hostage-taker angry, but Sung-chan keeps his cool when a gun is held to his temple. The man seems to listen to all the reasons Sung-chan gives as to why it’d be bad for their futures to shoot the negotiator, but then he turns his gun on the hostages.
Despite Sung-chan telling him that there’d be no deal if he shoots now, the man points his gun at another hostage, and shoots.
Possibly, the shot could’ve come from the footage of another hostage situation being shown to a group of police officers by Team Leader OH JUNG-HAK (Sung Dong-il).
The case may be infamous, but Jung-hak provides the officers with a different perspective on the mindset of the hostage-taker, and how they can best handle volatile men with a grudge against the world when negotiating for people’s lives.
We meet YEO MYUNG-HA (Jo Yoon-hee) as she and the other members of her SWAT team infiltrate a building occupied by masked, heavily armed men. They clear hostiles floor by floor, eventually ending up on the roof, where one last hostile holds a female hostage in front of him as both a human shield and an overt threat.
Myung-ha uses one moment of distraction to disarm the perp, which is the exact moment her superior, Team Leader HAN JI-HOON (Jo Jae-yoon, the first familiar Liar Game face), bursts through the doorway.
This was actually just a timed exercise, and she was five seconds too slow. Plus, she put the hostage’s life in danger by trying to take down the perp herself, a move which she vehemently defends because she had the feeling that he wouldn’t have shot the girl. What if the two were lovers, she argues, and he never had any intention of killing her?
Team Leader Han sends everyone else out of the room to speak to Myung-ha privately, though her suspicions prove to be correct when the two officers who played the hostage-taker/hostage roles wonder how she knew they were in a relationship. Now they worry Myung-ha won’t make the SWAT team because of them.
Luckily, Myung-ha doesn’t actually want to be on the SWAT team, as she explains to Team Leader Han. She’d rather be put on the crisis negotiation team, headed by Team Leader Oh, who just so happens to enter the room in time to hear it.
Both Team Leader Han and Oh, heading different departments in the same police force, end up in a weewee-measuring contest over whose methodology (shoot first, or talk first) is more superior. Myung-ha cuts in to say that she didn’t shoot during the exercise because she’d rather try to resolve a situation with words than with force.
Since that’s exactly the qualification needed to join the crisis negotiation team, Myung-ha’s accepted. She knows that Team Leader Oh played up the contest in order to see how she reacted under pressure, and he must’ve been impressed.
Of course, she was probably expecting something a bit more glamorous than the police department basement, which has clearly been used and abused as a junk room for way too long. There she meets the only two other officers on the task force: JO JAE-HEE and CHOI SUNG-MO.
Team Leader Oh takes the meager team out for celebratory dinner and drinks that night, which they’re having to do on a budget since their department gets very little money.
Since they can only be deployed to a scene if they’re sent, and since the police always wants to send the SWAT team in first, Oh tells them that they have to be their own cheerleaders.
They all look up as the news broadcasts the dramatic release of four K Group hostages, and they’re quick to look up the corporate negotiator responsible. Jae-hee, the professional profiler, takes one look at Sung-chan on the screen and makes his own deductions. Still, they all collectively sigh that they’ll never have the money or glory the geeeenius Sung-chan enjoys.
At the ensuing press conference, Sung-chan takes questions about his murky ties with K Group (he’s sealed merger deals for them in the past) gracefully, but hits a hiccup when stolid reporter YOON HEE-SUNG (Yoo Joon-sang) questions the supposedly disease-related death of the fifth hostage.
The more he probes, the more Sung-chan dodges, but he’s sticking to his story that the fifth hostage definitely did not die during negotiations. Hee-sung boldly asks if he brought the body back, then, but Sung-chan has an answer for that too—it was buried in order to prevent an outbreak.
Hee-sung doesn’t even let up when Sung-chan plays the martyr and offers his sincere apologies for failing in his duty to bring back all five, and asks above the din, “Is your apology sincere?” I wonder.
The next morning, Sung-chan meets with Chairman Seo and his brother-in-law KANG HONG-SUK, Executive Managing Director of K Group, a name we first saw spray painted on the front of the protest building.
Chairman Seo points to the casino and hotel he’s currently building, but asks for Sung-chan’s advice when it comes to dealing with all the opposition that’s currently blocking the project’s completion.
But Sung-chan learned from Chairman Seo not to even give a compliment for free, so his advice isn’t either. He proposes a trade instead—proper compensation to the family of the dead hostage in return for his geeeenius. Though Sung-chan actually caring strikes the chairman as odd, he grants the request, and Sung-chan upholds his end of the bargain in return.
Afterward, the assemblyman he was introduced to inside approaches him. It’s clear that the two of them aren’t strangers, and weirdly enough, ASSEMBLYMAN JUNG asks if Sung-chan’s seeing anyone these days. “Why, so you can do a background check on her?” Sung-chan replies, implying that this has happened multiple times before.
Which brings him to the restaurant where the lady love whose call he ignored (cameo by Kim Min-seo) is the chef. His normally dour expression melts into a bright smile when he sees her, and he relates the story of his near-death experience with the hostages animatedly.
He endured all that, he cheerily proclaims, in order to come back to her. He even hands her a necklace, though she’s disappointed that it’s not a ring. Ah, so that’s the issue between them. That, and the fact that she claims to now know who he really is.
“Even though I can’t give you anything, or prove anything to you, don’t you need at least one person who trusts you and is willing to risk their life for you?” she ventures, though this line of conversation is making Sung-chan visibly uncomfortable.
When she adds that she wants to meet his parents in regards to their possible marriage, he suddenly acts as though he’s just received the most important phone call of his life. He goes to take the fake call, and pulls a ring box out of his pocket while he does so.
While he’s outside, the suspicious black-clad man in the restaurant suddenly gets up from his chair to command everyone’s attention. They’ll have to give it, or else he’ll blow the place up, as he strips off his coat to reveal the suicide vest he’s wearing underneath.
Sung-chan sees all the frightened people running from the restaurant, and heads toward the entrance. The bomber keeps a family of three, ladylove Joo-eun, and another hostess as hostage.
Keeping his panic in check, Sung-chan immediately launches into negotiator mode, promising to come to a resolution the bomber can be happy with. But the bomber won’t be so easily placated—he’s kept five people specifically, and he’ll leave only after one is dead.
“Why don’t you try choosing who I kill?” the bomber asks, as he turns around and reveals his face. It’s the surviving brother of the hostage who was shot from the Philippines, come to take revenge. Ooohhh.
Team Leader Han and Team Leader Oh mobilize their people to head to the active hostage scene, since they need to be ready for anything. Inside, bomber JUNG HYUN-HO wonders why he should listen to a single word Sung-chan has to say, when Sung-chan ignored his pleas to save his brother.
“I wasn’t the one who killed your brother,” Sung-chan calmly replies. But him saying that he did his best to save them isn’t enough for Hyun-ho, who also doesn’t buy the argument that his five hostages are innocent. Sung-chan has ten seconds to decide who he kills, or he’ll kill everyone, including himself.
“The child,” Sung-chan finally says, shocking the parents of the little girl. He named the child because he knew it would give Hyun-ho pause, and pause he does, at the thought of killing just that girl.
So Sung-chan uses this opportunity to ask for a rule change—every five minutes, he’ll pick someone to save. Eventually, it’ll narrow down to just one person, giving Hyun-ho the one victim he so desperately wants.
The little girl is evacuated first, and he brings her out himself before turning to go back in. Myung-ha recognizes him and tries to stop him, since he’s just a civilian, but Team Leader Oh is willing to hear his assessment of the situation first. Especially since the person he wants is really him.
But Team Leader Oh wisely notes that Sung-chan’s presence could actually give Hyun-ho more reason to set off the bomb, if it’s as Sung-chan says. But Sung-chan loses his cool since the woman he loves is in there, which is all the more reason Oh thinks he can’t carry out this negotiation objectively. He compares it to how even the best heart surgeon can’t be allowed to perform surgery on his own family. (“Challenge accepted!” said every medical drama ever.)
Sung-chan tells them how he changed the rules on who gets to live or die, which is exactly why he should be allowed back in, but Team Leader Oh isn’t having it. Points for him not being a dick about it, he’s just trying to do what he’s been trained to.
Inside, Hyun-ho grows nervous when the five minute timer starts running out, so he grabs Joo-eun up by the arm and tells her to call Sung-chan. She asks if he’d call his brother in the same situation, and volunteers to be the one person who stays behind. If he has her, that means he can let the rest of them go.
Myung-ha is worried for Team Leader Oh as he prepares to go inside to negotiate, but he charges her with keeping Sung-chan in check and him apprised of any new information. “Be careful, Uncle,” she says at last, revealing their hitherto unknown family ties.
A wrench is thrown into their plans when three hostages are released suddenly, meaning that Joo-eun’s negotiation strategy worked. Sung-chan, already a barely contained nervous mess, loses his mind when Myung-ha tells him that Joo-eun is the only remaining hostage.
He tries to blow past her, and when she tries to stop him, he grabs her by the shoulders and bodyslams her into the nearest set of bus seats. In return, she clings to his back to physically prevent him from going, unless he can drag her there.
It ends up enraging Hyun-ho that Sung-chan hasn’t shown up, and Joo-eun tries her best to calm him down. It only makes it worse when he realizes that Sung-chan hasn’t even told her the truth of what happened in the Philippines, though it seems to calm him when she says that, despite whatever took place, it was probably a misunderstanding.
A noise from the entry hall jolts him back to his mission, and he grabs Joo-eun in a chokehold to use her as a human shield. It’s Team Leader Oh, who quickly gets to the negotiations by asking Hyun-ho to explain why he’s so angry with Sung-chan, his erstwhile savior.
Meanwhile, in the bus, Myung-ha manages to overpower Sung-chan, twisting his arm into submission. Just when she seems to have calmed him down, his phone rings—it’s Joo-eun’s phone, but Hyun-ho’s taken over the other end.
But it’s a disguised voice, not the voice of someone who just wrested someone else’s phone away. Waitaminute. The disembodied voice instructs Sung-chan to go where there aren’t police, and in order to do so, Sung-chan acts like he just took a run-of-the-mill call so as not to arouse suspicion.
Team Leader Han, in direct contradiction to what he promised Team Leader Oh he’d do, tells his team on standby that the police commissioner okayed the shooting of Hyun-ho should they get a clear enough shot. Uh oh.
Team Leader Oh, on the other hand, knows that Hyun-ho is looking for a way to vent and offers to listen to his story. What seems to have an effect is his offer to help Hyun-ho get the truth out to the public, if that’s what Hyun-ho wants, and it is.
Trembling with Joo-eun’s phone in one hand and the detonator in the other, Hyun-ho tells Team Leader Oh how his kind hyung ended up being killed so ruthlessly. Oh asks if that means his brother didn’t die of disease, which is when Hyun-ho finally says that it was Sung-chan who killed him.
Sung-chan sneaks into the restroom to take The Voice’s call, still thinking it’s Hyun-ho. The Voice knows everything that happened in the Philippines and uses that to prey on Sung-chan, who asks what else he could’ve done given the situation he had.
The Voice seems almost resigned to hear Sung-chan defend his actions even now—and because of that, his girlfriend is about to die. What’s also strange is how The Voice knows what the SWAT team is planning, and gives Sung-chan one minute to go in front of the media and confess the truth in order to save Joo-eun.
He goes straight to Reporter Hee-sung, who’s been covering the story from nearby, and begins to tell his story by first dropping to his knees. “I’m not a hero,” he confesses. “I’m a con artist, a scammer. I cheat people.” The hostage-takers from the Philippines demanded five million dollars for five people, he adds, but K Group gave him just one million, knowing it would pay for one life at best.
But Chairman Seo didn’t care how many lives he could save with that money, and only wanted K Group’s image maintained. While Director Kang does everything he can to block the potentially damning live stream, Sung-chan admits that he knew, at best, he could only save four people with what he had been given.
And, what’s worse, is that he’d made up that plan before he even went to the negotiating table, so that the remaining hostages believed that the killing was unplanned and random. When really, he played the hostage-takers so that they would take the deal after shooting one of the hostages.
Even now, Sung-chan says he wouldn’t have changed his strategy if he was put in the same situation again. “If there was one thing I missed, it’s that rather than the terrorists, I should’ve first persuaded the company… No, the chairman, that his employees were not numbers, but living people. Each and every one was a person whose family was anxiously waiting for them.”
He bows in apology, which is when The Voice pipes up in his ear: “I enjoyed hearing your excuses. But what do we do? This isn’t being broadcast anywhere.” Sung-chan demands an answer, but The Voice is gone.
Hyun-ho, who’s been holding the phone to his ear this entire time, can’t seem to believe that Sung-chan wouldn’t even answer his call. Joo-eun apologizes and slips out of his slackened grip, but he holds up the detonator in warning.
Team Leader Oh approaches then, trying to diffuse the situation while there’s still time. Who will care for his hyung’s family? Can he put his own family through another loss?
He inches ever closer to taking the detonator away, and Hyun-ho almost seems ready to let it go… but at the last moment, with a sniper rifle aimed at his head, he realizes he’s been had…
…And pushes the button. The entire floor erupts in flames with the explosion, and the media onlookers below reel from the blast. Myung-ha screams and runs to the scene, finding her uncle dead amongst the wreckage.
Sung-chan takes a much slower approach to the explosion site, as though his feet are unwilling to take him there. He sees Joo-eun dead, as The Voice chimes back in, “You still don’t know what you did wrong, do you.”
“Who are you?!” Sung-chan roars, but he receives no answer.
Yes, who IS he? What I love about The Voice is that this episode would’ve already been taut and thrilling without its addition, since I’d more or less expected something closer to a police procedural. (It’s hard not to, when that’s just what television does when cops are involved.) But the addition of The Voice adds in a whole new level of mystery and intrigue, since the only thoughts I had when the episode ended were “Who is The Voice?” and “Wait, Sung Dong-il was just a cameo?!”
I’m actually more upset about that last one than I’d like to admit, if only because his character was just so damn likable from the start. Sung Dong-il, always fatherly and a winning addition to any ensemble, seemed to really shine in this role—he played to his paternal strengths, and his knack for just seeming to know exactly what he’s talking about at all times. His was a character you could instantly attach yourself to, trust, and wish only good things for.
Which is why his death here comes as such a blow, even if I have to simultaneously praise the show for using him well and curse it for crushing our hearts into tiny, Sung Dong-il shaped pieces. Overall, this really was a fantastic pilot from top to bottom, with stellar writing, editing, and acting. But it’s the directing that shined most of all, at least in this first hour, consistently giving us amazing shots that helped advance the story or the feeling of overall tension without necessarily drawing that much attention to itself.
It’s a fine line, and one that can’t really be quantified, but there are definitely some talented directors in dramaland that like to leave their stamp on a show so that you know unequivocally that they directed it. Perhaps it’s because PD Kim Hong-sun is still relatively new to the game that ego’s not involved yet, or perhaps that’s just not his style. Still, I have tremendous respect for a director who can be stylish and add to the story while doing so rather than take away from it, as over-stylizing sometimes has a tendency to do.
The single most affecting shot of this episode, among many, had to be when the detonator and Team Leader Oh were the only things in frame. All we saw was Hyun-ho’s trembling finger hovering above that button and Team Leader Oh trying his best to control his expression, knowing that they were all just one muscle tic away from annihilation. Of course, that shot would have been nothing without the brilliant acting that helped to ground that scene, which made it so that we were helplessly glued to our screens and holding our collective breaths so as not to set off such a volatile man. Like us biting our nails or staying as quiet as a church mouse would’ve influenced anything on the other side of the screen. Because that would be insane. That’s what insane people do.
But then again, that’s the trick of all great television, isn’t it? Whether it’s able to immerse us so that we feel like we’re practically there with the characters, facing their same fears and struggles right along with them. That Pied Piper accomplished that in one episode is, frankly, pretty impressive. Plus, if this is just the first episode, what else is in store?
As far as characters go, Sung-chan doesn’t make it all that easy to like him, although we can try to understand him. What was perhaps most shocking about him as a person was the reveal that he’d planned for and fully expected the scenario that played out in the Philippines, and knew he could only make it out with four hostages. How does that sort of thing weigh on a man’s conscience? And how, specifically, does it weigh on his, if it does at all?
The thing is, he would’ve had me believe he was being honest and heartfelt during his not-a-live confession, if not for The Voice calling shenanigans on him. It introduces the idea that maybe it was all an articulate ploy to give the illusion of sincerity, which is a tactic we saw Sung-chan employ during the press conference. Add in the fact that he’s a professional manipulator who preys on people’s expectations for a living, and there’s no way of knowing if the person we’re looking at is the one we’re meant to see, or merely the one he wants us to see.