Updated: Feb 5
In many k-dramas, military life—and men—are usually adored and glorified. But Netflix's excellent 6-episode k-drama "D.P." begs to differ. With a level of courage and unflinching commitment to a sensitive topic never before tackled by k-media, Netflix once again brings another difficult and socially conscious drama to the fore. In "D.P.", we get a glimpse of the horrific levels of abuse suffered by Korean men during their military service and why they need to run away.
"You can't handle the truth!" screams the iconic Col. Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson) in 1992's military thriller A Few Good Men. Watching D.P.—the six-episode military k-drama on Netflix about military desertion, hazing, bullying, and abuse—seems to be a test of Jessup's admonition. As each episode progressively shows darker and more difficult topics, from physical abuse to suicide, one must ask: Could Jessup be correct? Can k-drama really handle this much damning truth?
All South Korean men, between the ages of 18 and 28, must perform at least 18 months of military service with almost no exceptions. D.P. is the brutal six-episode Netflix adaptation that reveals the hardships of abuse, bullying, and other harrowing experiences in the Korean military through the eyes of its D.P. (deserter pursuit) team. Ahn Jun-ho (Jung Hae-in, in an unexpected career turn from his romantic roles) and his partner, Han Ho-yeol (Koo Kyu-hwan, from Peninsula) are tasked to chase down the deserters at any cost. Through their difficult hunts, we learn why some men would much rather risk life and limb than ever go back to their barracks.
Han trains his junior Ahn in the methods he uses to catch deserters, with empathy and imagination being his most prized techniques. Each episode in D.P. skillfully tackles the story of one deserter, but a steady undercurrent runs through the entire series that shows us why Ahn, Han, and everyone else in their platoon are the way they are. Together, they catch over 30 deserters, but when some deserters' stories start gnawing into Ahn's conscience, it is up to him to do something about the abuse he has long ignored around him. Will he finally step up and stand for the victims and risk his own life and military career? Or will he continue to accept that this is the way "it's always been," and that one couldn't possibly change a near-infallible juggernaut such as the Korean military?
Really, what can one man do?
Trigger warning: Abuse, suicide, language, rape.
Such a departure from the usual k-drama romantic or thriller fare may be incredibly hard to watch for some but thankfully, the skillful direction of Han Jun-hee, the amazing source material from webtoon creator Kim Bo-tong, and the incredible cast all make D.P. a compelling—and surprisingly sensitive—k-drama that does justice to its dark themes. As the audience, we learn to feel and hunt along with Ahn -- and the show's ability to tap into our empathy is certainly its strongest suit. How we are taken from judging a "cowardly" deserter to understanding his circumstances (and even siding with him and his decision to go AWOL) in every episode is a testament to the artistic skill and insight drawn from the entire cast and crew. However, this is not to say that D.P is pure seriousness. The offbeat and perfectly timed antics of Han (Koo Kyu-hwan), as well as many genuinely heart-warming moments littered across the show, provide much-needed comedic relief and a humanistic perspective.
D.P. is not merely a cat-and-mouse hunt—it also shows the darker consequences of abuse, such as how victims become bullies, how deserters resort to crime and abuse to survive, and how soldiers are driven to suicide. To the show's credit, D.P. does not toss these topics around carelessly or exploit them for cheap shock value. While the show is grounded on real tragedies, such as traumatized soldiers murdering comrades and the high number of suicides among Korean soldiers, it handles these tragic topics with a steady hand, a sense of respect, and genuine empathy.
In a country that holds military service sacrosanct, and in a medium that usually glorifies military service in a haloed light (think 2016's Descendants of the Sun), D.P. is an incredibly courageous and extremely risky departure from the feel-good vibes that regular k-dramas deliver for two reasons: First, it has zero romantic relief that k-drama viewers have come to expect, and second, for such controversial content, it actually managed to cast several high-profile actors despite the obvious risks to their careers.
It would not be a stretch to say that a local Korean company would never have produced D.P despite being a popular webtoon that attracted nearly 10 million reads. With the unflattering light blatantly shed upon Korea's military, the drama would have needed Netflix and independent funding to get anything of this scale and this level of controversy off the ground—and they did. With Netflix's earlier successes in creating more socially-conscious Korean shows such as the dark teen drama Extracurricular and the grief examination Move to Heaven, D.P. continues that contrarian tradition. With D.P., Netflix once again establishes itself as the go-to house for difficult content that domestic production companies in Korea may never touch.
The courage it must have taken its cast and crew to bring D.P. from webtoon to a global stage is a testament to the desperate need of the victims' voices to be heard. But beyond its domestic implications, D.P. goes right at the heart at what it means to have power and brazenly challenges the supposed innocence of the bystander who does nothing. Despite some lulls in the pacing, it is clear that D.P.'s excellent ensemble performance, its wonderful balance between the brutal and the comedic, and its unflinching commitment to depicting the realities of abuse make it one of the most impressive and noteworthy k-dramas of 2021.
Stream if: You want to see a socially conscious and important issue being tackled onscreen. Or if you are interested in what military training and life are like in Korea.
Skip if: You are uncomfortable with topics such as abuse, rape, and suicide.