Korean drama review: City Hunter
Pencil-pusher by day, crime-fighting vigilante by night, the City Hunter will keep you glued to the screen.
IN 1983, 21 South Korean special forces soldiers were sent to North Korea on a top secret mission. They completed their mission successfully, but were inexplicably executed by the same government who sent them on the mission.
The only survivor was Lee Jin Pyo, a bodyguard for the Blue House (the South Korean version of the United States’ White House). Burning with rage, he hatched an elaborate plan to bring down the five powerful men responsible for the betrayal.
He went through extreme lengths to ensure that his plans succeed: he kidnapped his mentor’s infant son from his grief-stricken mother. (His mentor was one of the 21 men killed.) He then brought the boy, whom he named Yoon Sung, to Thailand and trained him from a young age to be an efficient soldier. He then enriched himself through the drug trade in South-East Asia’s Golden Triangle.
It is now 2011, and the two are ready to launch their plan to bring down the “gang of five”. However, Jin Pyo warns Yoon Sung (Lee Min Ho) never to trust or love anyone lest he risks the lives of those who are close to him.
Everything seems to be going according to plan. Yoon Sung, who is apparently as brilliant as he is handy with his fists, arrives in South Korea with a newly-minted PhD degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By day, he is a pencil-pushing computer programmer at the Blue House, by night he sleuths and schemes to bring down corrupt politicians. His exploits soon gain the attention and admiration of the public who calls him the “City Hunter”.
Then, he meets Kim Na Na (Park Min Young of 2010’s Sungkyunkwan Scandal), who is trying to be a Blue House bodyguard.
Yoon Sung starts to break his father’s most important commandment: Love no one. But little does he know the lengths Jin Pyo would go to ensure his obedience.
This South Korean adaptation of the manga by Tsukasa Hojo may only have a passing resemblance to the source material, but it is certainly a slick, gritty and action-packed production. The series, which filmed its first episode in Thailand, has convincing action scenes, tightly-paced plotting and solid acting from its cast.
I’m particularly impressed with Lee, who became a Hallyu sensation after starring as the lead in Boys Over Flowers, the 2009 Korean adaptation of the popular Japanese manga Hana Yori Dango. His role in City Hunter is a step above the pretty boy roles he’s had so far, including 2010’s Personal Taste.
To prepare for the role, Lee had to train in Judo for months before filming began. Yet, his character isn’t the stony-faced, emotionless vigilante you’d expect him to be, what with the militaristic upbringing he’s had.
Instead, Lee injects innocence into Yoon Sung; a confident and capable warrior he may be, but Yoon Sung is also oftentimes naïve and flustered when it comes to matters of love. He also has a compassionate desire to fight for the downtrodden, which is very different from Jin Pyo’s unforgiving and ruthless way of getting justice.
It is this mix of danger and innocence that makes Yoon Sung such a compelling character, and Lee handles his character’s different facets capably.
At first, City Hunter may seem like an odd drama. The first episode, with its gunfights, explosions, street chases and bloodbaths, will lull you into thinking that you’re watching a full-on action series.
Then, these bits are briefly shelved and it becomes a rom-com: Yoon Sung vainly hides his growing attraction for Na Na by being an utter jerk and the latter brusquely puts him in his place while she tries to resist his charms. Hijinks ensue.
Then, it returns to “action mode”, with Yoon Sung scaling walls, hacking computers and expertly dispatching goons with guns and fists.
City Hunter could have ended up a schizophrenic mess, but fortunately, the writers have everything under tight control. The rom-com bits serve to build the relationship between our two leads so that we’re invested in them, and they succeed.
The drama is also tightly plotted and full of suspense with each episode ending with a cliffhanger. And don’t you love secret identities?
Yoon Sung also has a worthy adversary in Kim Young Joo (Lee Joon Hyuk of Three Brothers), an upright prosecutor who is determined to capture the City Hunter. The cat-and-mouse game between the two is a tight one.
This is not to say that City Hunter is a perfect show. There are times when things are just too convenient and far-fetched to be realistic. So, Yoon Sung is an MIT graduate and a phD holder at 28. Sure. And Jin Pyo seems clairvoyant; he is always lurking in the shadows when Yoon Sung is doing something against his wishes. But these are minor complaints against an otherwise superb, action-packed drama. My only hope is that the show doesn’t slump midway as some K-dramas are wont to do.
Rating: 4 stars
> City Hunter airs on Astro Beyond’s One HD (Astro Channel 393) on Mondays and Tuesdays at 9.05pm.