TYPE OF REVIEW : GOOD OL’ REVIEW
SBS’ Payback (법쩐/Law Money is a thoroughly engrossing series. Its fast-paced and careful storytelling effectively lay out the stakes in this drama that fuses together familiar K-drama elements of law, corruption and revenge. But it is having family and relationships at the forefront and as a centerpiece of the narrative that allows for dynamic character-driven twists and turns. All brought to life by an excellent ensemble cast and a slightly gritty, though polished production.
Payback focuses on Eun Yong (Lee Sun Kyun), a money trader who goes from spending time in juvenile detention to becoming the owner and investment head of a global private equity fund. While growing up, he sees and experiences first hand the injustice that is served at the hands of underground cartels colluding with the law and government. And when this corruption hits very close to home, he turns his attention to using the money and power he’s amassed to fight for the justice he knows is right.
He is joined in this fight by former prosecutor and military officer Park Joon Kyung (Moon Chae Won) and his nephew Jang Tae Chun (Kang Yoo Seok). Eun Young grows close to Joon Kyung when her mother took him in after an incident on a train. Meanwhile, Eun Young stood in as Tae Chun’s father figure and their experiences as a family (along with his mother) drive Tae Chun to become a prosecutor himself.
Their ultimate target is Myung In Joo (Kim Hong Pa), the godfather of an underground economy that has made him one of the country’s most powerful individuals. Even if in the shadows. Each of Eun Yong, Joon Kyung and Tae Chun have their own reasons for going after the big guy. And eventually, those reasons will clash as each determine which approach is best for the endgame as well as for their own goals.
Key in the fight is Chief Prosecutor Hwang Ki Seok (Park Hoon) who is also Myung In Joo’s son-in-law. His ambitions drive his every move, which includes being privy to his father-in-law’s shady dealings. But there’s always a limit to what one can take. And he soon must make his own difficult decisions, including having to deal with Eun Yong and company.
As the series peels back the curtain of the inner workings of corruption and manipulation, Payback challenges the idea of how far one can go for their ideals. Whether it’s seeking revenge or just simply trying to get ahead in life, the characters in this series must constantly ask themselves how far would they go. At a few points, they even ask if one must become a monster in order to fight a monster.
The series depicts the give and take within each character and between the characters. They make decisions that you might not see in similarly themed series. And they discuss options that would feel far too contrived in other circumstances. The series also slyly points out how some of things that may seem unjust or scrupulous are actually engrained in black and white as the law of the land. And it’s all about how one is able to use that existing law to their own benefit. Even if they might step on others in the process.
The struggles and the decisions that come out of them provide the backbone for the great character moments throughout the series. Payback maintains a proper tone across its 12 episodes. There are no side trips or unnecessary distractions. The 12 episode count certainly helps to tighten up the story. And with the overall story focused on the issues at hand, it opens up the many opportunities for the cast to truly shine and elevate already engaging material.
Payback‘s fusion of familiar themes makes for a refreshing approach and another piece that makes the series stand out from the rest. Seeing the scheming and maneuvering by all the characters keep you on the edge of your seat. It really feels like the series respects its audience by the way it lays out all the pieces on the table as it slowly, but carefully puts them together for what is an ultimately satisfying conclusion.
The back and forth between characters and the relationships that form and/or break because of those conflicts really make for a dynamic and exciting narrative that is not common to see. Especially when similarly themed series can begin to feel too much alike with nothing new to offer.
And there is also plenty of action as well. It’s almost like a cherry on top. But the thrilling action sequences always work hand in hand with the story.
Again, the cast is just excellent. Lee Sun Kyun is always a powerful lead, whatever the role may be. He uses his charisma to full effect here with a character that can often slip into a grey area. He is also able to foster a great chemistry with his fellow leads that make each of their scenes electric. And you are left in awe at many points throughout the series thanks to him.
You can always expect a strong performance from Moon Chae Won as well. Here on Payback, we see a nuanced performance from her in which she is able to give such depth to a character that on the surface might feel one-dimensional. Moon Chae Won, as she is one to do, helps to fully realize Joon Kyung by way of her chemistry with her fellow actors as well as in quiet solo moments that showcase just how talented she is.
Kang Yoo Seok has had some solid supporting roles so far in his career as well as his leading man turn in the popular Light On Me. But Payback is certainly his biggest mainstream role yet. As Jang Tae Chun, he must be able to keep up with an experienced and veteran cast. And he absolutely does that. Quite effortlessly too. He more than proves his worth and with this performance, makes a clear case for even bigger and better roles in the future.
Park Hoon, also with many dependable supporting roles over the years, delivers a dynamic performance as Hwang Ki Seok. With perhaps one of the more interesting characters of the series, Park Hoon has to thread a needle in order to keep Ki Seok from becoming a forgettable antagonistic character. And he definitely does that. The evolution of Ki Seok is one of the bigger character developments of the series. And Park Hoon has no problem navigating the juicy material for the character. Another performance demanding bigger roles as well.
You can tell veteran Kim Hong Pa relishes his role as Myung In Joo. The ruthless and cutthroat boss is another character that could’ve devolved into a one-note villain. Yet, seeing the character’s progression (or decline) through the series helps to make the chase and endgame one that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Kim Hong Pa does an excellent job at giving Myung In Joo the gravitas necessary to make the character a worthy adversary. And in turn, makes the story one to truly immerse yourself in.
Kim Hye Hwa, Choi Duk Moon and Kim Mi Sook in supporting roles also deliver great performances that add to the dynamic world Payback establishes.
Overall, Payback is an excellent series to start off 2023 with. Its tight storytelling allows for a fast-paced and thoroughly engaging time. Being focused and avoiding unnecessary distractions allows for the story to seamlessly unfold. And that in turn allows for an excellent cast to bring interesting characters to vivid life for a truly character-driven narrative. I have no doubt Payback will be on my year-end favorites list. And it’s only February!
4 thoughts on “Good Ol’ Review: Excellent Cast Powers SBS’ “Payback” as a Tightly-Written and Thoroughly Engaging Drama”
Watched it for Youseok, but stayed for a good show!
He’s great! Hope he gets bigger roles.
One of the better revenge/law dramas