Saturday, February 10, 2024

Directors in Focus: Yoon Jong-bin | Narco-Saints (2022) Review

Director: Yoon Jong-bin

Notable Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Hwang Jung-min, Park Hae-soo, Jo Woo-jin, Yoo Yeon-seok, Chang Chen, Choo Ja-hyun, Kim Min-gwi, Hyun Bong-sik, Lee Beong-ryeon

Episodes: 6

Coming to the end of my journey with director Yoon Jong-bin, I took a journey with his most recent project, his first foray into television, with the Netflix original limited series, Narco-Saints, based on true events about a man who happens upon a fish-selling scheme that he falls victim to, which ends up being a "laced" situation. Unaware of what was in the fish he had traveled from South Korea to Suriname to gather and sell for profit, Kang In-gu (Ha Jung-woo) finds himself working for the NIS when it is brought to his attention that a powerful drug lord, a local pastor named Jeon (Hwang Jung-min), screwed over his life. Hellbent on getting revenge and a boatload of promised cash in the process, In-gu agrees to help the agent that approaches him, and thus a journey of drugs, bloodshed, and a little worship for good measure ensues.

I will admit up front that I have not seen many series in my thirty-three years of existence. I've always been a film person, even when my tastes weren't really developed as a child, and I only really watched certain anime series or kids' shows that aired in the US. I have only seen a handful of long-running series and have almost completed none in general, so my knowledge and perhaps even my expectations of television and its quality aren't quite where regular TV goers would be, but I digress. That being said, I did find Narco-Saints to be quite a tense and rather quick-moving saga. The 6 episodes flew by, and both became a strength and weakness for the show. It is brisk and leaves you trying to catch your breath, but at the same time, there isn't a ton of character development, and some of the relationships never feel like they get as much time as they should. I think by the end, all of the characters' motivations are crystal clear, and there are some nice twists and turns that I didn't see coming, but I wish there was just a little more time to let some of those emotional investments really sit and stew a bit longer. I was emotionally invested, and I liked the moral ambiguities of various characters throughout, including our lead hero, but just wanted a bit more in that department.

So, diving into the characters, Ha Jung-woo as In-gu is sort of an every man who is down on his luck and only wishes to get his family (a wife and two children) out of their mountain of debt. They run a tiny restaurant and can barely make ends meet. When In-gu gets an opportunity to travel out to the small country of Suriname to mass catch and export cheap fish back to South Korea for an enormous profit margin, he feels the stars aligning is almost too good to be true. Well if it were as promised on the surface, we wouldn't really have a show then. As you can imagine, things go awry, as I previously mentioned, and In-gu's journey from a no-one to a man learning to adapt in a dog-eat-dog world, well, it is fascinating. His quick thinking begins to develop and helps him out of more situations than he probably ever wished to find himself in. His desire to help his family out of their situation is what drives him, and money seems to fuel his blood. He is a great baseline character that is very easy to relate to and makes for an easy protagonist to route for, even when his morality seems to shift at times, you never forget why he is doing what he does, and Ha Jung-woo sells that so well.

Hwang Jung-min also deserves all the praise as Pastor Jeon. He is a menacing evil drug lord that hides behind the facade of religion. Well, the thing is that he truly believes the way he twists the word of the bible around and can successfully indoctrinate and brainwash his followers with both his corrupted religious spew and also from a bit of help of his own product being worked into their systems. He is a complex antagonist, and watching him go from calm and collected to utterly terrifying in the blink of an eye is something to behold. Hwang revels in this character with every scene and every bit of dialogue, and you can tell he is having a ton of fun. It never feels hammed up, and he truly dedicates himself to the role. I hope to see Hwang take on some more villainous roles in the future, given the right script of course. He absolutely nailed it. Taiwanese actor Chang Chen is also in the show and plays a Chinese gangster. He acts mostly in English and does a great job playing as a major threat to both Jeon and In-gu. Rounding out the cast, I'd like to give special mention to Jo Woo-jin, who Ki-tae. I think he is one of my favorite actors, and I won't say much about him for fear of spoiling, but he is just a fine actor, and I'm glad to see him earning more and more recognition. He even bagged some awards for his performance in this series, and well deserved, I might add.

Narco-Saints is a short yet very impacting and extremely entertaining piece of crime thriller. Again, it's based on actual events, so you can imagine some things were spun for the sake of the show, but as it is, it makes for a compelling time. The characters are memorable enough, the many scenes that are spoken in English are surprisingly good (if you've seen much Korean cinema, the acting from Westerners and English being spoken is typically rough, but that is not the case here), and everything on a technical level is just well polished and adds to the feeling of everything. An interesting setting and a crazy story; I certainly recommend this to pretty much everyone that likes a good crime-based show. It's intense and gets a strong recommendation from me!

Written by Josh Parmer

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