NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Yes, I know I have been inactive for a very long time. I was finishing my schooling at NYU and starting a new job, and it was impossible to work on this blog. Personal reasons also kept me away for a while, which I may talk about at some point. Now that I have graduated and am gainfully employed, I can dedicate more time to this, and I fully intend to do so. Some projects that are on the horizon include a video essay series and a podcast, which will see updates in the near future.
If you told me that my favorite show of the last five years would have been a mafia drama where people used parties, bees, pigeons, shamans, and zombies to stop a capitalist overlord from tearing down an apartment building, I would have told you to stop reading fanfiction.
But, here we are.
Studio Dragon’s Vincenzo (2021) has been out for a few months, and it was an absolutely wild ride beginning to end. There’s something about it that keeps you watching, and it somehow delivers on both a satisfying conclusion and making you want the show to never end. It is honestly the most surprising show I’ve watched in a long time. I was here for typical K-Drama shenanigans in mafia framing, but what I got was much, much more. The acting was great, the cinematography was incredible, and the writing – oh my god the writing.
However, what gives the show a special place in my heart is the villain. I have to say, I can’t remember the last time I was this compelled by a villain. Even Orphan Black, my favorite show of all time, took its extremely compelling Season 1 antagonist and redeemed them – the character stayed compelling, but the reasons completely changed over time. I have not seen a show in a long time where the focal point is a character who is genuinely irredeemable.
And, to be honest, I love Vincenzo’s pure-evil reprobate with all my heart.
Villains who lack good qualities are hard to write. They often turn out like omnipotent superpowers or emotionless cardboard cutouts (or caricatures of real people with real issues.) There is also a weird trend in popular discourse that if you like a character, you must like everything they stand for. To avoid this problem, the trend has been to make villainous characters sympathetic, or have something about them that offset their evil.
But, let’s be honest, “old school” Disney villains like Ursula, Scar, and Maleficent are more fun.
The other alternative to making a completely reproachable villain is the twist villain – a character who we have come to know in one capacity, and then is revealed to be someone completely different. Whether it’s a secret identity or an aspect of their personality they’re hiding, there’s some sort of reversal. The main issue that arises is that the villain might be more compelling if it’s not a twist. If the villain is going to be secretly evil, without a shred of good, why bother making them pretend to be a good person?
The fact that Vincenzo is able to pull this off so well is a testament to how good the writing is. A twist villain who also falls into the “pure evil” category, but manages to be compelling without compromising the integrity of the earlier parts of the story – that’s really hard to do. But it works. That’s what throws me so hard. It works. It takes these tropes and it doesn’t subvert them (a trope isn’t always a bad thing) but instead executes them perfectly.
So, while everyone else on the planet is talking about Squid Game, I’m going to take some time to talk about my favorite antagonist on all of television. This will be a five-part series on why the villain of Vincenzo is one of the best villains – if not the best villain – on television this year. The series will spoil the entire show, so I strongly encourage you to watch the show first before reading it. However, if you’re not sure whether or not to watch the show yet and are looking for more in depth reasons to watch, then this series might help you come to a decision.
The series will be as follows:
- Introduction + Acting – YOU ARE HERE
- Other Character Interactions
- Scene Analysis #1
- Scene Analysis #2 + Conclusion
For those of you who haven’t watched the show, this is the last warning. I will be spoiling the entirety of Vincenzo in this character analysis.
Introduction: Episode 4
At the end of Episode 4 of Vincenzo, Vincenzo Cassano (Song Joong Ki) and Hong Chayoung (Jeon Yeo Bin) have decided to burn down the tyrannical Babel Pharmaceuticals – literally. Disguised as a cleanup crew, they evacuated the building, sprayed it with gasoline, and disabled the sprinkler system. While safely tucked away in a van, Vincenzo flicks his signature Cassano Family lighter and drops it into a trail of gasoline, blowing the building sky high.
The chairman of Babel Group, Jang Han Seo (Kwak Dong Yeon) gets out of his car and panics upon seeing the damage. As we come to realize, however, he’s not scared because of the loss of revenue. The building blowing up is a problem for his safety…from another source.
A black car pulls up.
The door opens.
A pair of black Oxfords hit the ground.
Jang Han Seo stares, horrified.
Stepping into focus, wearing a scowl that could kill – and probably has – is…
…Chayoung’s former law intern.
Jang Junwoo, the plucky himbo we’d come to love for his awkward English interjections, was secretly Jang Hanseok (italics intentional) Han Seo’s half-brother and the true owner of Babel Group.
Han Seo panics and tries to salvage the situation. He starts screaming at the wreck about how he’ll get the people who did this, Hanseok silences him. He doesn’t have to shout back at him, he doesn’t have to physically overpower Han Seo. All he has to do is quietly tell his brother to be quiet, and his brother complies in abject fear.
We have barely encountered Hanseok’s true nature.
We already know.
Jang Hanseok is a force to be reckoned with.
I swear to god, when this twist happened, I was jubilant. This isn’t a new trope – on tvtropes.org, it’s called “Beware the Silly Ones”. But this is the best execution I have seen of this trope yet. And I am not exaggerating. Every time I watch the show, I get chills when I encounter the true Jang Hanseok again. My friends who’ve watched the show at my suggestion have been just as impressed as myself, and we join forces on the regular to analyze our favorite villain.
Perhaps motivated in part by my love of villains, perhaps also motivated by my love of 2PM’s Ok Taecyeon, this will be a very, very deep dive into Jang Hanseok, to help us understand how to write villains – and how to direct them, as filmmakers.
PART 1: Ok Taecyeon’s Acting
We can’t analyze Vincenzo as a whole without addressing the acting. I was thoroughly impressed by the acting of everyone in the show – some roles were definitely played more for comedy, but I was never taken out of the immersion. Song Joong Ki and Jeon Yeo Bin have amazing chemistry together, and there isn’t a Geumga tenant I didn’t like.
However, the show rides on Taecyeon’s acting more than Song Joong Ki’s. Since we know that Vincenzo is a consigliere from the first minute of the movie, there are no twists in regards to his character or what he’s capable of. So yes, Song Joong Ki’s acting is brilliant, especially with how he subtly shows emotion and throws himself completely into any and every disguise.
But if Ok Taecyeon didn’t sell us on Jang Junwoo, Jang Hanseok wouldn’t be nearly as shocking or compelling as he is.
Taecyeon has to make sure that we’re just as caught off guard as the other characters when we find out who Junwoo really is. However, there has to be at least some consistency between the role of Junwoo and the role of Hanseok, otherwise it’s not believably the same person. Taecyeon’s acting is literally the hinge on which the plot swings.
The use of English is probably one of the more interesting traits that’s shared between Hanseok and Junwoo. As Junwoo, it comes across as a quirk, almost to establish a childishness. It also implies that Junwoo has a problem assimilating in Korean culture, since he defaults to English constantly. He even states a lack of understanding by asking questions in an almost joking manner – “Koreans forgive you when you beg, right?” It implies that Junwoo is a “safe” character, because he is (allegedly) more focused on not causing a faux pas in this new space. People feel comfortable sharing sensitive information in front of him because they think he’s a fish-out-of-water American. (Without getting into spoilers for Burning, it’s like Steven Yeun’s character in that.)
However, when Hanseok is himself, he is able to fully articulate himself in both languages – using English is a choice as opposed to a default. He will talk business in Korean with a degree of fluency his brother doesn’t have. However, if he needs to, he’ll use English in negotiations – and since his lawyer accomplice Choi Myunghee (Kim Yeo Jin) struggles to do the same, this implies his reach is broader than any of his minions.
Hanseok uses English as a scare tactic as well. Since it is a language he grew up speaking, he expresses himself in anger with English. The angrier he is, the more English he tends to use. Take the car scene, where he screams “STAY. IN. THE CAR.” After beating the car to a pulp, he says, “Am I dreaming? I’ve never lost twice in a row in my life.” Then, to Choi Myunghee and CEO of Wusang Law Firm Han Seunghyuk (Jo Han Chul) he says, “This isn’t real. What is this?!” He does these things in English to establish the severity of the situation. Han Seunghyuk tries speaking English with him, but he’s not nearly as fluent and goes back to speaking Korean. In this scene, speaking English is a form of power that Hanseok wields.
The use of English also establishes a closeness in stature to Vincenzo. There are only three characters who speak more than one language fluently – Hanseok, Vincenzo, and the manager of Geumga Plaza, Cho Youngwoon (Choi Young Joon). These characters all have one up on the rest of the cast in some capacity (though Cho’s actual role in the story isn’t revealed until much later.) And, since the main conflict is between Hanseok and Vincenzo, the fact that both are fluent in another language establishes them as relatively evenly matched, making for a fantastic rivalry.
Posture is important for an actor because it’s one of the primary ways we observe tension in a scene. If characters are standing at attention, it implies that there is a need to assert oneself, whether as subordinate or superior. Alternately, a character who appears relaxed portrays a disinterest with appearing inferior or superior. A shift in posture implies a shift in the dynamics.
Hanseok’s posture throughout the show is very relaxed, which implies a disinterest in exercising prowess over another. This plays a major factor when Hanseok is Junwoo. Appearing relaxed at all times implies that he’s willing to let other characters step all over him (which, as we find out when we learn his identity, is a power play.) It also makes him seem more lackadaisical and awkward, which means people look over him like he’s not even there.
Which, of course, is exactly what he wants.
However, the relaxed posture creates an interesting dynamic when Hanseok is his normal identity. Hanseok rarely stiffens or stands to attention – instead, his body remains relaxed, even when threatening another character. This communicates to the audience that Hanseok’s prowess doesn’t need to be stated by the character himself. If Hanseok were consciously standing upright the whole show, it would mean that he has to assert his power. But people are afraid of him no matter what he does. He has no need to appeal to show how powerful he is.
In fact, most of the posture shifts come from Hanseok bending down to someone shorter. It’s an interesting way of establishing dominance because rather than staying above you, he makes it a chore to come down to your level. He’s subconsciously always above you. The only other time that Hanseok shifts his posture is when the shift in power is disrupted – usually towards Vincenzo and Chayoung, but also towards Han Seo. These are the only times in which he stiffens, usually because he’s trying to calculate the next move. It is rarely, if ever, out of fear. I would argue that Hanseok never telegraphs feeling fear. (In fact, I will argue that, but in a later article.)
Ok Taecyeon’s ability to express emotion with his eyes is actually incredible. Most of Hanseok’s character is expressed through his facial expressions, often very subtly – which is interesting considering that the character is very over the top. However, it’s Taecyeon’s eyes that I want to talk about here, because so much of the character is wrapped up in them.
Hanseok and “Junwoo” both artificially widen their eyes – by which I mean, holding them open wider. I really hope that Ok Taecyeon invested in eye drops for the role because he does this so often. But what’s interesting is that Taecyeon communicates something completely different for both Hanseok and Junwoo by using the same tactic. For Junwoo, he portrays a childish quality; for Hanseok, he portrays a deranged quality.
Junwoo’s eyes communicate innocence, especially because they’re often held open for comedic effect. When Junwoo messes up, his eyes are wide. When he acts exaggeratedly, his eyes are wide. It gives him the illusion of a babyface, despite having a jaw that cuts you by looking at it. This is key for the misdirection of the first four episodes, because his face literally telegraphs his manchild status among the other characters.
However, Hanseok’s eyes.
Every time Hanseok’s eyes are wide you know something is wrong. He most often does it to get under the skin of another character – like he does with his minions constantly. He pierces Han Seo with his gaze constantly, to the point that Han Seo rarely looks him in the eye. After the reveal, when he does his typical Junwoo-isms like acting childish, he’s almost always doing it to catch another character off guard, and his eyes being open helps with that.
Where it most freaks me out is in the scene where Hanseok beats someone to death with a hockey stick. His eyes are wide the entire time, in a sadistic glee. As he’s threatening Chairman Jang in the same scene, he uses his eyes to completely disarm him. This gets under my skin like nobody’s business, especially paired with the high-pitched cooing he does. Which, of course, is the intent – to make you feel his gaze in your bones.
(Bringing another actor into this, Jake Gylenhaal achieves a similar effect in the movie Nightcrawler. No spoilers. Please watch that movie.)
WRAPPING UP…FOR NOW
It’s amazing how Ok Taecyeon is able to portray the character of Jang Hanseok so perfectly. Taecyeon mentioned that playing Hanseok allowed him to show “a different side” to himself, and while the pretense worries me a bit, I can see that he threw himself into that character. I don’t know what Taecyeon’s process is as an actor, but I would love to find out what he used to get into character.
That said, we can learn a lot from how Ok Taecyeon plays the role of Hanseok about how to portray both comic relief characters and villains. The shared traits not only keep the character consistent, so that he’s recognizable both as Hanseok and Junwoo, but they completely subvert our understanding of the archetypes these characters belong to. The consistency also makes it easier to see what is uniquely Hanseok – that being violence and power.
There is, of course, much more about Ok Taecyeon’s acting that could be unpacked. However, to avoid turning this into a dissertation, I am going to cap it here. We’ll come back to this when I do scene breakdowns later on, but I want to make sure there are at least some surprises!
For now, I say: ci vediamo!