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K-drama ● Review: Black Knight

English Title: Black Knight

Korean Title: 택배기사 [lit. delivery man]

Director(s): Cho Ui-seok

Screenwriter(s): Cho Ui-seok

Studio: Project 318

Released: 2023

Runtime: 6 episodes, ~45m each.

Starring: Kim Woo-bin, Esom, Kang Yoo-seok, Song Seung-heon, Nam Kyung-eup

My Verdict: Post-apocalyptic dystopia with truck-driving delivery man hero. Not bad in any respect. Mostly tight at 6 episodes. Can use more wow factor.

Black Knight is based on the webtoon of the same name by Lee Yoon-kyun that ran from 2016 to 2019. Please note that I have not read the webtoon so the review is purely of the series.

Black Knight

● The opening simply has a voiceover narrate the premise: a comet impact killed all but 1% of the Earth’s population “forty years ago”, leaving the air severely polluted and the Korean peninsula a desert. In Korea, segregation of the survivors into three classes followed with “refugees” left outside of the system. The corporation Cheonmyeong built underground and aboveground districts and invented the “air core” which supplies oxygen, large-scale units for the underground and small-scale units in masks for the individual.

● Cheonmyeong also runs a delivery service, a competent version of FedEx in which delivery men actually deliver on time and actually to inside the home, including installation of oxygen tanks if necessary. They are armed and are expected to defend their truck of goodies against refugees who have become “hunters”.

General District
General District

● It is in many respects the usual post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction serving as not-so-subtle social commentary on the state and problems of the current world, real or otherwise, expressed in a highly simplified manner. These elements are recognizable, perhaps too much so. Below are a few examples (to avoid spoiling):

  • The government and the corporation control resources and therefore the population.

  • Neglect or excessive use of force on the population, including elimination.

  • The cause of the environmental catastrophe is thankfully a comet and not humans breathing (“climate change”) but, given the imagery, the message may be the same.

  • The population has QR codes on their right hand (“mark of the beast”) which allows them to make purchases and to unlock their own doors. No doubt this is also a means for monitoring.

  • There is near-constant mask-wearing, albeit for oxygen supply rather than filtering. Again, given the imagery, the message may be the same.

  • Mandatory vaccination and its implications. (In this regard, I am surprised this is even on Netflix.)

● The story follows a delivery man designated “5-8” (Kim Woo-bin) who is famous for his physical strength and skills. Sa-wol (Kang Yoo-seok), an adolescent male in this series but a female in the webtoon, is a “refugee” who has been in part raised by Seol-ah (Esom) in secret. Refugees in the general district is illegal and Seol-ah is a major in the military, so she is taking a risk. Sa-wol has aspirations to become a delivery man.

5-8 (Kim Woo-bin)
5-8 (Kim Woo-bin)

● As a sidebar, the wordplay in the title is quite clever. Although 택배기사 can be translated as “delivery man” or “courier”, 기사 on its own can mean “knight”, depending on the Chinese or native Korean term it is actually referring to.

● Although 5-8 is a main character (and he is obviously the titular character), Sa-wol features quite prominently right from the beginning, almost to the point some may not be certain which is the lead character for those who are used to works with just one.

Sa-wol (Kang Yoo-seok)
Sa-wol (Kang Yoo-seok)

● Unlike typical K-drama which can be slow, intentionally or otherwise, the plotting of Black Knight can be described as mostly tight. Having said that, the pacing is strange in the first three episodes as it tries to introduce quite a few elements in order to set up and signpost what follows without being too slow or fast. As such and together with the above point, it sometimes feels like it is lacking direction even though it is clear enough where it is going.

● Although enough to maintain interest, it could use more dramatic tension in the earlier episodes. On a related note, 5-8 can be more active initially but that is the nature of the circumstances.

● In any case, the pacing and dramatic tension do pick up in the latter half of the series.

● As for characterization, 5-8 is thankfully not a company yes-man who becomes the good guy, nor is he the stubborn hero. But, like some hero templates, he does have issues from the past. Either way, he is coolly pragmatic. He does his job as a Cheonmyeong employee in order to survive and to be in a position to achieve his bigger goals that address the injustices of the world, which is the primary problem/conflict. Kim Woo-bin looks the part and does a good job just being cool and confident in his abilities.

● Meanwhile, secondary conflicts include Seol-ah’s disapproval of the system. Thankfully, she is not the cheesy “solider who wakes up”. Like a milder version of 5-8, she is pragmatic in the sense that she goes along with the system as much as she honorably can but at the time rebel passive-aggressively as much as she can manage.

Seol-ah (Esom)
Seol-ah (Esom)

● The other secondary but significant conflict is between the chairman of Cheonmyeong Ryu Jae-jin (Nam Kyung-eup) and his ambitious son Ryu Seok (Song Seung-heon). The former wishes to work with the government and be more considerate to the refugees whereas the latter does not. This has obvious implications for what unfolds.

● The performances are adequate, which is a good thing. No one draws unnecessary attention to themselves either way. If anything, there can be more confrontational scenes between the characters.

● The cinematography is good. There is the obvious use of a warmer palette for exterior daytime scenes and even interiors where the refugees live, an admittedly simple but effective way to convey the feel of a polluted desert wasteland. A more balanced palette is used for nighttime scenes, and a cooler palette is used for the clean interior environments in which citizens live. There are exceptions, with obvious enough reasons when one sees it, but that is generally the case.

● Shot composition, camera angles and film editing are both conventional and unpretentious. It shows what is necessary with the appropriate amount of cutting at the right time. For this genre, it is tempting to over-stylize and end up trying too hard. Thankfully, it avoids this.

● Costume, set and vehicle designs are generally good. Interior sets, whether real or CG, are executed well and look impressive enough.

● However, the CG of the desert wasteland is a little lacking at times; the landscape itself is fine but the dust storm and the movement of the vehicles within are sometimes too fake. Dust storm interaction can be difficult and with a budget associated with a series, one does not expect the kind of quality seen in a feature-length film such as Black Hawk Down (2001). Although it is not jarring, this is 2023 so a little less fake would be nice.

● The action is not bad but it can definitely be better. In short, some set pieces lack the wow factor and some are too cheesy. For example, one need not have firearm experience to see the usual entire lack of reloading, the heroes’ unrealistic near-perfect accuracy and the nonsensical positioning during firefights for the sake of cool action.

● All that being the case, the action picks up in the final episode even if some of it remains somewhat cheesy.

● Given this is a mere six-episode series, the ending is quick and relatively neat with very little denouement as expected. Although the atypical quicker pacing of this K-drama is its strength, it is also paradoxically its weakness in some ways. The premise and setting may not be particularly original but it is intriguing enough. A little more time will enhance the worldbuilding, the buildup to the climax and give more opportunities for the main characters to develop. Nonetheless, it is a good production which I enjoyed.

Making a delivery...
Making a delivery...

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