Korean Drama Proves CITY HUNTER A Force To Be Reckoned With!
Dec 15, 2011
One trait distinguishing a ‘good’ television show from an ‘exceptional’ one is that the story never takes its audience for granted. In other words, the show-runners take care to craft a premise and characters worthy of being followed from week to week, from episode to episode, in order to see where it’s all going. The writers understand that good drama requires an investment on the part of those watching – an investment of time, of effort – and, consequently, they take care to create a kind of internal mythology – a background from which characters and events spring. From there, the sky’s the limit as the audience grows to care more and more about the lives of these fictional people in the show. Otherwise, one program is no different from any other, but, thankfully, CITY HUNTER stands out as quality programming but together by folks who care enough about their audience to make sure every episode is the best it could be.
Like some of the best programs, CITY HUNTER relies on an idea somewhat larger-than-life. After all, this isn’t ‘reality television’; it’s quality drama, and every great drama needs a great conflict at its core. In 1983, terrorists strike at the South Korean government, causing five (South) Korean politicians to band together and plot a secret mission: they send a 21-man commando team on a daring assignment into North Korea to “take out” the men behind the terrorists. However, when ‘the Five’ receive word that their President will prosecute anyone who sanctions retaliation against the North, they instead conspire to have their elite team assassinated before they can leave enemy territory. One man, Jin-pyo (played by Kim Sang-Joong), survives; and he swears to avenge his fallen comrades by murdering the five politicians responsible for planning the raid, ordering their deaths, and covering it all up. In a curious development (that never gets fully explained until the last set of plot twists are revealed), Jin-pyo kidnaps his dead partner’s newborn son, Yoon-sung (played by newcomer Lee Min-Ho), and raises him as his own, teaching him how to be a lethal killer in order to extract his revenge on ‘the Five.’ Twenty-eight years later, Jin-pyo and Yoon-sung return to South Korea to avenge the fallen soldiers.
There’s plenty to like about CITY HUNTER. The first hour of the twenty episodes is one terrific set-up, and, in some ways, it reminded me of another television favorite of mine (Fox TV’s 24, with Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer). There’s terrorism, deaths, politics, and the military all thrown into a heavy, fast-paced yarn that lays the foundation for the mythology of events yet to come. Jin-pyo escapes to Thailand, with the young boy in tow, and, once there, he establishes himself as an international smuggler in order to amass a small fortune that will be needed for his grand scheme of revenge. Yoon-sung’s youth is heavily abbreviated – we’re basically given snippets and vignettes of his physical and mental training – but, eventually, he grows into manhood and accepts his father’s mission as his own. As the events unfold, Yoon-sung decides he no longer wishes the deaths of ‘the Five’ but instead wants to have their lives ruined publicly. Jin-pyo’s bloodlust forces him to join his adopted son in South Korea, and the two of them remain at odds throughout much of the program’s run. Needless to say, these two opposing forces for change are set to collide in a potentially bloody and brutal way, and the last episode of the show still manages to breathe life into the plot with some unpredictable tension. In short, CITY HUNTER is one wild ride through the themes of betrayal, commitment, and redemption.
To my surprise, there’s plenty more to admire about CITY HUNTER. While Gotham City had Batman, Seoul has its City Hunter (Yoon-sung under a short black mask), and he’s out to rid the city of its villains. But what starts out similar to a strongly cinematic ‘Batman Begins’-type story quickly evolves into something vastly more complicated by the relationships. Yoon-sung meets and, despite Jin-pyo’s demands, falls in love with a Presidential bodyguard, Kim Nana (played by the lovely Park Min Young, who somehow manages to steal every scene she’s in). Also, Bae Shik Joong (played memorably by Kim Sang Ho) soon joins Yoon-sung in South Korea, kinda/sorta serving as Yoon-sung’s butler, chef, and general man-about-town. Shik Joong is also the source of much comic relief throughout the program’s run; while some of the shtick is a more than a bit predictable, there are moments of pure comedy magic, such as when he spends the better part of “babysitting” a captured thug by reading to the man from a self-help of emotional improvement. As the audience is drawn further and further into the story, other characters – the IT department from the Presidential compound; Yoon-sung’s long lost mother; local police detectives; etc. – surface to drive the constantly shifting alliances into further treachery. Thankfully, the show is never all gunplay, car chases, and fisticuffs (though there are plenty of those!); it’s a wonderful mix of action and character that all lead to an explosive climax that’ll change everyone’s life forever.
Also, the show boasts some very fine production quality. Editing is swift, and locations are smartly used in ways that advance the story and add to some of the show’s central mystery. The writing is top notch, though there are a few relationships that perhaps relied too heavily on ‘coincidence’ than they do organic growth. The score is particularly good, though it occasionally relied too much on the same ‘pop songs’ that serve as an undercurrent to Yoon-sung and Kim Nana’s on-again-off-again romantic relationship. Still, it’s all handled with appealing professionalism. And it’s only ‘television’, after all, so it’s easy for forgive those excesses, sit back, and enjoy the tiny spectacle that is CITY HUNTER.
As TV audiences around the world go, there is plenty of potential for CITY HUNTER to be successful beyond Korea. As a matter of fact, US television is often seeking properties from other countries (there have been a handful of properties from the BBC that have received Americanized remakes for stateside broadcast, both theatrically and on television); I’d love to see some US-based production company grab up the rights to do a US version of CITY HUNTER. The story has plenty of layers – LOST, for example, prided itself on exploring fascinating coincidences within the relationships of its characters, and CITY HUNTER is no different – and I could definitely get excited to learn if a remake was in the wings. Not everything was perfect, but there was more than enough to keep my interest, to hang with the story, to want to know more about where these people were heading and to stay for the ride until we reached that destination.
For the record, this was my first exploration of a televised Korean drama, and I certainly hope that it won’t be my last. As I mentioned at the outset of this review, audiences flock to quality dramas, and I think CITY HUNTER had plenty to offer.
In the interests of fairness, I’m happy to disclose that the kind folks at YA Entertainment provided me with a screener DVD copy for the purpose of completing this review.