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24 Jan 2024

Review: Black Knight – Last week, HJ and I watched a Korean drama from 2023 called Black Knight. The original Korean title is Taekbae Gisa, which literally translates to “delivery driver.” It is a post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi story, and it caught my eye for a number of reasons. For one, it was recommended by one of my students last semester. When I took a look at in on Netflix, I saw that it was only six episodes long, and that each episode was only about 45-50 minutes. That was a selling point for me, because Korean dramas tend to be way too long, especially in terms of the length of each episode, but also often in the number of total episodes. I was intrigued by the idea of something we could get through relatively quickly, so we decided to give it a shot.

“I thought the idea behind it was quite clever, not to mention very timely considering the recent pandemic.”

The first episode opens with a brief bit of world-building. The premise is that the earth has been struck by a comet and Korea has been turned into a desert. Food and water are scarce, and the air is contaminated to the point that special masks are required to breathe outside. These masks apparently use a special mineral (“oxynium,” or something like that) to purify the air. Residential areas around Seoul (where the drama takes place) have been divided into different zones: the refugee zone, the normal zone, the special zone, the core zone, and the A zone. These zones are very carefully segregated according to social status, with the A zone being where the Cheonmyeong Group—the corporation responsible for the technology that keeps the country running—is located.

And that’s about it—a very quick, bare-bones “prologue.” There is more world-building that happens along the way, but there are many things that are never satisfactorily resolved. To give one very small example, the air is constantly referred to as being “contaminated” (or “polluted”), but I didn’t remember anything in that brief prologue that explained why or how it was contaminated. I thought perhaps I had just missed it, so I went back and watched the prologue before we watched the second episode, but no—they just said that a comet hit the earth and Korea became a desert. Either the “contamination” they refer to in the show is simply dust (which isn’t really contamination or pollution in my mind, not by itself) or it’s something that is never explained.

This goes beyond just not explaining things properly, though. I think the biggest weakness of the show is that it seems to be trying to fit way too much story into six relatively short episodes; you get the feeling that the show skips over and compresses a lot from the webtoon on which it is based. To give another example, in the very first episode we are introduced to the idea of “hunters,” refugee groups that have turned bandit and ambush delivery drivers in order to steal their shipments. Very early on in the episode a group of hunters ambush the legendary delivery driver known only as 5-8. This scene serves to show us 5-8’s combat prowess as he takes out the entire group, so it definitely has a place in the narrative. At the end of the scene, though, 5-8 stands over the prone hunter leader, pointing a gun at him. He pulls the trigger... but the hammer clicks on an empty chamber, and he says, “That’s a shame. Next time there will be bullets in it.” I guess this tells us something about 5-8 as well, although it’s not clear if he knows the gun is empty—if he thinks the gun is loaded, it says something very different than if he knows it is empty. The real problem, though, is that there is never a “next time.” We do see the hunters again briefly in a scene with Sawol, another important character, but we never see them ambushing any more delivery drivers. It just seemed weird to introduce this threat and then ignore them for the rest of the show. (Chekov probably would have been annoyed as well.)

The delivery drivers themselves were also apparently a lot more fleshed out in the webtoon, with three different delivery companies being represented. Here, there is only the Cheonmyeong Group and their drivers, including 5-8 and his small group of “resistance fighters,” who mostly come from refugee backgrounds. (Incidentally, this resistance group is called “the Black Knights” in the webtoon, which is obviously where the show gets its English title from—but this is never explained, nor is the phrase ever even uttered.)

I hesitate to criticize this too much, as the relative shortness of the drama was one of the things that originally attracted me to it, but having now finished it... well, I kind of wish they had spent a little more time with the story. It just feels like it could have been fleshed out a lot more. Put it this way: After the third episode, HJ and I were talking about the show as a whole and we both came to the conclusion that there was no way they were going to be able to wrap everything up in three more episodes. Surely there was going to be a second season, at least! But they did in fact wrap everything up. Narratively speaking, the story came to a satisfying conclusion, but there’s no denying it felt rushed. While I like the trend of individual episodes being shorter than the 80-85 minutes of other Korean dramas I have seen, I think we could have done with at least two more episodes, possibly even more. The story had me hooked enough that I would have welcomed more of it.

And we did indeed enjoy what there was. I know I’ve spent the entire entry so far criticizing the show, but that’s just me wishing it could have been even better. I thought the idea behind it was quite clever, not to mention very timely considering the recent pandemic: In this future, Korea has become a desolate place where everyone has to wear masks outside, delivery drivers are the heroes keeping society going, there is a forced vaccination drive, etc. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the webtoon finished serialization in August 2019—before the pandemic. The correspondence between the story and the pandemic wasn’t perfect, but it’s genuinely creepy how prophetic it now seems.

Otherwise, I thought the acting, the production values, etc. were all quite good, and while the story was set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, it wasn’t as soul-crushing as Squid Game. It was a pretty decent sci-fi show with some social commentary (all good sci-fi contains elements of social criticism) that was fun to watch. Of course, I imagine that if you are familiar with the webtoon you will probably hate it. For example, you will probably be shocked and confused to discover that Sawol, the young girl who is the protagonist of the webtoon, plays second fiddle to 5-8—and is now also a guy for some reason. I never read the webtoon, though, so obviously I’m not too fussed about that. (But I am now kind of interested in reading it to get the full story and to see just how much the Netflix version changed. For example, was the show altered to be more of a commentary on the pandemic?)

Anyway, I thought I’d just post a quick review for anyone who might be looking for something fun to watch on Netflix and has an interest in Korean dramas. It’s not perfect, but Black Knight might keep you entertained for a little while.

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