K-dramas may be best known for their romances, but it’s also produced some excellent thrillers and mysteries. The latest addition to that list may be Big Mouth (2022), the comeback vehicle for Lee Jong-suk (Romance Is A Bonus Book ), who has returned to dramaland after completing his military service. It doesn’t have the elegance and subtlety of Beyond Evil (2021) or Stranger (2017-2020), but Big Mouth is cleverly-plotted and absorbing so far. With its exaggerated villains, violence and stylised prison settings, this drama has the feel of a glossy graphic novel.
The noir thriller is about a lawyer who winds up in prison on false charges and is then mistaken for a dreaded gangster. Alongside multiple murders, there are secret societies, smooth-talking villains, a nefarious scheme that uses prisoners as guinea pigs and much more lurking in Big Mouth. Here's why you should start bingeing on this K-drama, which is down to its last four episodes.
Park Chang-ho (Lee) is a down-and-out lawyer who is nicknamed Big Mouth. Once he's thrown in prison, he’s identified as the gangster Big Mouse — which should warm the cockles of every pun lover's heart — even though Chang-ho doesn’t have any connection with the underworld. However, he goes with the lie because it keeps him safe in prison. Other inmates respect him because Big Mouse is a shadowy and much-respected figure in the criminal world. The question is — who is the real Big Mouse? To the drama’s credit, Big Mouth has stretched the mystery out over (at least) 11 episodes. Who’d have thunk it was possible to keep the audience in the dark for so long?
Despite Big Mouse repeatedly showing off his power and manipulating events to his own advantage, we have no idea who he (she?) really is. In episode 12, the show makes a grand reveal, but we can't help wondering if this isn’t another red herring. Writing duo Jung Kyung-soon and Jang Young-chul have done a fantastic job of keeping everyone in the dark. Now they've got four episodes to tie up all the tantalising loose ends. Let’s hope they don’t stumble in this last stretch.
When you're watching a thriller that's going to unfold over 16 episodes, you know that some characters must do an about-face. Good guys have to reveal themselves to be bad and bad guys must display some redeeming qualities. That's how the narrative arc of thrillers work. True to form, Big Mouth has twists in its tale. The shadowy gangster is gradually revealed to have a considerate side. He seems to be on a mission to uncover a truth that many powerful people are trying to cover up, which makes him more of a vigilante than a villain.
The more surprising reveal is among the bad guys. Early in Big Mouth, we’re made aware of a secret collective made up of rich, elite men who are behind some horrible crimes. As the drama goes on, we realise that the one who seemed most idealistic and principled is not what he seems to be. By episode 12, the buffoonish villain of the early episodes seems to be the one you should feel sorry for because he's clearly outmatched. By whom? You'll have to watch to find out.
Big Mouth has two directors. One of them is Bae Hyun-jin and this is his first show. The other is Oh Choong-hwan, whose last three credits are Start-up (2020), Hotel del Luna (2019) and While You Were Sleeping (2017). That’s reason enough to watch Big Mouth because the only thing connecting Oh’s previous three (very different) dramas is good storytelling.
In Big Mouth, the directing duo are doing an excellent job of camouflaging the weaker bits in the writing through their visual storytelling. A key element is the dark and ugly prison environment that the directors have created. The prison in Big Mouth is a labyrinth of cruelty and corruption. This setting is important because without it, a lot of the events in the story stretch one’s credibility. Take, for instance, the abrupt changes in Chang-ho's personality. There’s a scene in which Chang-ho, who was mild-mannered at the start of the drama, beats up another man for having threatened his wife. The only reason this violence doesn’t seem uncharacteristic is because we’ve seen the horrors he’s had to survive in prison. He’s been forced to adapt and think on his feet and it makes sense that a prison as violent as the one he’s in, has cultivated a brutal side in Chang-ho.
Through both the prison environment and the behaviour of powerful men, Big Mouth offers a subtle critique of the class system and macho masculinity. While the drama’s take on domestic abuse is simplistic and its depiction of the abuser teeters towards caricature, the storyline urges the audience to think about what we consider to be powerful and manly characteristics in people.
With apologies to fans of Lee Jong-suk and Yoona, who plays the drama's female lead, the acting credits in Big Mouth go to its supporting cast, which includes Kwak Dong-yeon (Vincenzo ), Yang Kyung-won (Crash Landing on You ) and Ok Ja-yeon (Mine ). We remain hopeful that the last four episodes will give Kwak and Ok more to do because, despite their brief appearances, they've raised the curiosity of audiences. Plus, we need to know if the fandom that picked Kwak's Jerry as the real Big Mouse was right all along. Kim Joo-heon as Mayor Choi has also proven to be a scene-stealer. Most of the minor characters have a theatrical, over-the-top quality to them. Kim’s quiet and restrained demeanour offers a sharp (and welcome) contrast.
As far as the show's leads are concerned, they're saved by the script and direction. Lee is known for playing charming romantic heroes, but as the bemused Chang-ho, he has to show off acting chops and that is often a struggle for him. Similarly, Yoona's bland performance as Chang-ho's wife has managed to make a well-written character feel largely forgettable. However, while they may not be excellent, both Lee and Yoona are watchable. Most importantly, you find yourself caring about their characters and their rock-steady relationship is an anchor for a show that’s constantly unsettled by treachery and deceit.
Big Mouth is available to stream on Disney+ Hotstar.