OCN has gifted us with some notable gems in the recent past, particularly in a certain time slot. Occupying Saturday and Sunday at 22:00 was the sci-fi police show Tunnel, of which broke the record for the highest ratings on the channel, after the drama previously filling the time slot, Voice, set it. Next, the unique clone-centric Duel came to take its spot on Saturday and Sunday nights. Now that Duel has ended, another show has come to usurp its position in the renowned time slot; gracing the screens of OCN viewers with its dark presence — Save Me.

Save Me‘s premise and dark aura is what makes it so spellbinding. It definitely doesn’t feel like your typical K-drama; its penchant for dark topics and themes more wonted in a Korean film rather than on a network show — its novel subject matter more feasible in a Hulu or Netflix original series.

Note: the following includes details of sexual assault, suicide and violence. Reader discretion is advised.

Save Me‘s plot is relatively easy to follow thus far. In 2014, a family of four moves from Seoul to the small town of Muji-gun due to financial difficulties. However, things don’t go as planned when they reach their destination, and they are conned out of their living quarters. They promptly find a less than ideal living space, and a mysterious cult leader (played by Cho Seong-ha and known to his followers as the spiritual father) proceeds to take special interest in them — resting his unsettling gaze on Seo Ye-ji, as the attractive high-school daughter, Sang-mi.

As Sang-mi and her limp-legged twin brother, Sang-jin (Jang Yoo-sang), start school, things quickly go south. Sang-jin falls prey to some raptorial bullies, which prompts him to commit suicide. The family dynamic unravels from there, as the mother develops an acute mental disorder and the naive father (Jung Hae-kyun) begins devoting himself wholeheartedly to the cult. In the fourth episode, there is a time skip to 2017 that shows how each character fares in the aftermath of 2014’s tumultuous events.

Despite how linear the plot is, there are still some things that remain a mystery for now — for instance, the tea that was “touched by the spiritual father” and the holy water that supposedly acts as a cure-all. The tea immediately sways the wayward alcoholic in episode one to follow the cult’s teachings, while the holy water prompts the father of the family to begin seeing his misfortunes as a part of “the Almighty’s” grand plans and occupy himself within the cult. It is uncertain at this point whether the tea and holy water truly have magical hypnotic properties, or if it simply invokes a placebo affect on those who ingest it.

Also, the purpose of the ominous asylum within the cult’s headquarters are unknown at the moment. It is implied from all the screaming from within the walls that it acts as a torture chamber, but beyond this, there is no further information given about it.

In addition to the multiple sexual assaults, death by suicide, grisly bullying, violence, implied rape, and emphasis on the inner workings of the sinister cult, the show furthers its dark quality by highlighting some pessimistic themes. I’ll sum up the driving message of the drama with one line: people can be absolutely shitty.

The most obvious point should be the show’s criticism of exploitative religion — shown by the scene that provides intercuts between the small Buddhist organization that the dad takes the mom to in order to cure her of her mental disorder and the spiritual father’s rousing sermons. This scene provided an interesting juxtaposition between the two, as the Buddhist monk’s half-assed attempt to pretend he is being possessed by Sang-jin’s ghost is laced with humor, while the sermons are treated quite seriously.

However, it is made clear that both the Buddhist organization and cult are corrupt. The mom’s condition worsens after visiting the temple even as her husband is forced to cough up all his savings to pay the monk, and her sanity is shown to have slipped even further after the father finds solace within the cult.

The show doesn’t appear to castigate organized religion as a whole — just the deceitful ones. It is made clear within the first episode that the spiritual father’s cult is not a legitimate church (although he is in the process of trying to turn it into one). However, it may seem like it is one. After all, they help rid their community of crime, give aid to the needy, and do other things typically expected of a church. Sure, there are shady things literally going on within the walls of the organization and amongst the ranks of the leaders, but don’t these types of things occur within established churches as well? This raises an intriguing question: what exactly defines the boundaries between a cult and a church community? Is a cult and an unethical established church essentially the same thing? Considering Korea’s recent church crises and scandals, this is an interesting topic to explore.

For effect, Save Me plays up the bad qualities of people. It delineates that those with wealth and influence get away with everything while poor people are basically helpless. Sang-hwan (Taecyeon), a boy in Sang-mi’s high school, is privileged with having a father who was a two-time elected governor. As a result, his homeroom teacher avoids getting him in trouble when he talks back to the teacher, and his classmates avoid picking fights with him even as he stands up for Sang-jin — the outcast.

Meanwhile, his friend Dong-cheol (Woo Do-hwan) is expelled from school and becomes a social pariah for fighting against Sang-jin’s bullies at the crucial moment of his suicide while the bullies only have to write apology letters. Later, as he seeks revenge against one of the wealthy bullies, he gets sent to a juvenile detention center while the bully in question escapes punishment.

The bullies themselves are shown to be almost sociopathic, showing no ounce of remorse for Sang-jin’s suicide and violently beating up Sang-jin’s father as he comes after them for retribution; only stopping as they fear getting punished. The non-interventionist classmates aren’t much better. They embody the bystanders that my elementary school guidance counselor always chastised — the ones that do nothing but whisper and stare as their classmate gets beaten down in the cafeteria; the ones that don’t have the initiative to even send an anonymous note to the teacher about the bullying because “it isn’t their business”.

Even in the wake of Sang-jin’s suicide, the classmates essentially sweep the incident under the rug and instead spread rumors about Sang-mi — who they dub as someone who sleeps around — being the cause of Dong-cheol’s and the bullies’ fight. The bullies are not held socially accountable for their involvement in Sang-jin’s suicide, and the incident is brushed off as a result of his mental issues. The bullies’ vileness, the classmates’ non-interventionist complicity, and the resulting dire outcome is played up to ugly extremities.

The intent is to criticize those involved in this process by holding up a mirror to showcase bullies and bystanders in all their hideous glory. The cynical approach that the show chooses in regards to ending the storyline makes it much more affecting — we feel frustrated and angry that there is no form of karmic retribution for the perpetrators, but that’s ofttimes the reality. And then we realize that we perhaps have more in common with them than we might like to think. 

The last weighty theme that the show tackles is the silence of sexual harassment victims. There is no outright genital touching or nudity shown onscreen. However, Sang-mi’s visible discomfort at the spiritual father’s hand sliding up her thigh, and Apostle Jo (Jo Wan-tae) invading her personal space and caressing her face make it clear that she is facing sexual harassment. These events make it clear that sexual harassment isn’t always overt groping — it can be any unwanted physical contact.

The men that commit these acts are clearly abusing their positions of power, and they do the things they do to her knowing full well that they can get away with it and that she wouldn’t speak out against them. And they were right, she didn’t. Its made clear that it isn’t her fault; she wasn’t wearing revealing clothing, and she wasn’t by any means seducing them. By showing this, Save Me wisely handles the sensitive topic by offering some insight into the plight of sexual abuse victims while avoiding the trap of perpetuating misconceptions about it.

Moving onto the characters, Sang-jin seems to have always appeared as an outsider because of his limp and timidity, being bullied both in Seoul and Muji-gun. The scenes where the bullies forced him to take off his pants and take compromising photos of his genitals is quite similar to a scene in the manhwa Lookism, which I enjoyed a lot due to its realistic portrayal of bullying. I also saw some comments drawing comparisons of the bullying storyline to the early installments of the School franchise as well (although I’m not as familiar with the series). Sure, perhaps one could argue that his suicide was utilized to spur on the plot — to start the family’s downward spiral and act as a catalyst for the father to join the cult. Nonetheless, his character arc serves as a poignant look at what bully victims often have to go through.

I consider myself blessed that I’ve never personally experienced bullying, but his story line really made me think and attempt to mentally place myself in the shoes of someone who was being bullied to the extent that he was. It took me through the mindset of someone trapped in a cocoon of timidity, like a tortoise stuck on its back; unable to get up without the help of others., but unable to confide in others. It made me think about what it would be like to be faced with the same cycle over and over again; to be faced with the inescapable fate of being a social pariah every single day of my life, and eventually feel so hopeless that I come to the conclusion that the only way out would be to kill myself.

Dong-cheol is another martyr-like character. Because of his family’s low status, he is pretty much doomed to getting sent to the detention center the moment he tried to take revenge on one of the bullies. He is brought through the wringer; the bullies, their parents, and Sang-hwan’s father all use him as a scapegoat for the Sang-jin incident as well as the revenge stint. For now, he isn’t very well-developed or realistic; his character seems to be more of a symbol of the sufferings of those without money or status. His brooding attitude, steely eyes, acumen for fighting, and heart of gold has appeared to have made him a fan favorite at the moment.

Personally, I find the spiritual father to be the most interesting character because of the mystery that envelops him. I’m sure everyone is curious as to what his motives are for starting the cult. It doesn’t appear to be for money, as he turns down the money that a man offers him in the first episode. Despite sexually harassing Sang-mi and proclaiming her as “the virgin Mary that shall lead the cult to the boat of salvation”, he hasn’t appeared to have done anything more to her even as her father joins the cult.

Besides her, he doesn’t seem interested in any women. We only see that charismatic persona that he puts on as he delivers his rousing sermons to the members of his church and the righteous act he puts on as he interacts with others. Yet all of this seems to be just a mask. It is unclear at this point whether he actually believes what he preaches, if he has a menacing purpose behind what he does, or if he’s just a well-intentioned extremist.

On the other hand, Apostle Jo, the spiritual father’s right hand man, has much less ambiguous motives. At first, you see his pretentious smiles and you feel as if something is off about him, but it isn’t palpable quite yet. There is tension whenever he is onscreen, like a sharp needle pressed up against one’s skin. His mask is peeled back slowly. At first, you can dismiss him as a cold-hearted pragmatist as he brutally beats up the drunkard in episode one to get him to take a bath and change clothes.

However, as he smiles as he presses himself against Sang-mi while stroking her face on several different occasions, the needle presses harder and harder against the skin as his presence becomes more ominous. The moment when we see him in the fourth episode attempting to rape a woman and beating up a young boy who witnessed the event in order to silence him, the needle pierces the skin. The tension is broken and he is entirely unveiled as a vile person. If the spiritual father was the most interesting character, Apostle Jo comes a close second.

Park Ji-young, as the rigid Apostle Kang, is the spiritual father’s right hand woman. Not much is known about her thus far, but she also has potential to become a really interesting character. She seems to be more conscientious than Apostle Jo, chastising him and giving looks whenever he makes unnerving comments about Sang-mi’s appearance. But, as they say, appearances can be deceiving.

Sang-mi herself is the only one in the family to sense something off about the cult. Like Dong-cheol, she is portrayed as flawless — blameless in whatever she does, and this makes her character feel unrealistic. However, she seems to serve more of a functional role than anything else. Before Sang-jin died, Sang-mi never hesitated to come to his defense when he was getting bullied. As her dad becomes immersed in the cult, she calls the cult devotees crazy and professes the cult’s beliefs to be ridiculous, she echoes a sentiment likely on the tip of the viewer’s tongue.

In this way, she appears to be the audience surrogate for now — representing what we would like to imagine ourselves to be if we were placed in the crapsack world that the family resides in. Who wouldn’t like to imagine themselves as the hero — the only sane man? But, if we were actually thrown into that situation, would we really act the same way? Could we actually be the one to fearlessly risk our safety and social status to defend someone else? Could we actually be the one to act as a voice of reason even as those around us become deluded?

Although, like Dong-cheol and Sang-mi, Sang-hwan serves a thematic purpose — namely, to symbolize how easily people with clout and wealth can get away with things — he is the most realistic and relatable character so far. He isn’t a righteous hero; he feels like a human being with flaws — at the moment leading up to Sang-jin’s suicide, he chooses to delegate himself to the role of bystander by walking away from Sang-mi as she pleas for his help; avoiding the potential trouble that fighting against the bullies could have got him as to not cause difficulties for his father. Later, he doesn’t testify at Dong-cheol’s trial, so that his father isn’t faced with anything that might inconvenience him in the upcoming governor election.

One could argue that his decisions contributed to Sang-jin’s suicide and Dong-cheol’s detention center sentence, and that he made the wrong one — that he could have saved a life and prevented his friend from going to juvie at the small expense of risking his dad’s election chances. But honestly, whose call is that to make? Both choices involve a measure of self-sacrifice that deserves to be commended. I could definitely sympathize with the difficulty he faced in making the decisions and consequent self-doubt and regret he felt. In 2017, he undergoes some development because of the events of 2014. When a college classmate of his gets coerced into drinking alcohol, Sang-hwan speaks up for him after being reminded of Sang-jin.

The last thing that set up the series dark tone was the immaculate editing. A lot of the scenes are color graded in a way that dark blue hues are emphasized, while eerie ambient music drones in the background, adding another brooding touch. There is a dark undercurrent present throughout most of the scenes, including the happier ones, like the family laughing over dinner. The macabre presence of the spiritual father somehow always seems to loom in the backdrop, even if his face isn’t explicitly shown.

So far, Save Me is very intriguing, compelling, and dark — just how I like my psychological thrillers. Since I happen to take a morbid interest in humanity’s dark underbelly, anything that portrays people by invoking a sense realism with a heaping dose of cynicism, is right up my alley. As long as it continues to progress without oversimplifying themes, introducing unnecessary plot points, or stagnating the characters, I will be more than happy to continue diving deep Save Me‘s dark layers.

If you or anyone you know is in need of professional guidance, a list of helpline services from around the world can be found here: www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres/

(Images via OCN)