KDRAMAGUK : Korean Drama Soup

a landing site for quick, completely biased, and totally snarky korean drama reviews


Friday, May 4, 2012

City Hunter (2011)

City Hunter
(May – July 2011)

who’s in it
Lee MinHo (Boys Over Flowers, Personal Taste)
Park MinYoung (Sungkyunkwan Scandal)
Lee JoonHyuk (Three Brothers, Equator Man)
Kim SangJoong (My Man’s Woman, Life is Beautiful)
Goo Hara (KARA – idol group member)

what’s it about
In 1983, at night in the hostile waters of North Korea, a South Korean special forces group awaits evacuation after a clandestine assignment to infiltrate Pyongyang. However, instead of rescue, they are systematically executed by their own military. One survivor—Kim SangJoon—makes one of those maniacal blood vows to avenge the murder of his comrades.

Fast forward to now: Lee MinHo is the son of one those fallen comrades, one that had also been Kim SangJoon’s best friend. So naturally, to get the gears moving on his grand revenge, Kim SangJoon steals away his friend’s infant son into the jungles of Southeast Asia with the purpose of hoarding tons and tons of illicit drug money in order to train the kid into a lean mean handsome killing machine. Well, a lean mean killing machine, anyway, the handsome is just a lucky genetic bonus (for us).

The two converge upon Seoul like night vultures to exact their brand of justice—unfortunately, plans go awry when our faux-playboy slash secret-hunter-of-corrupt-politicians Lee MinHo finds himself questioning his purpose in life after falling in love with beautiful presidential guard Park MinYoung.

20 episodes


first impressions
After the first episode of City Hunter, I was a smidge dismayed. Let’s see, we had several big explosions, a submarine, a couple of mass murders, jungle drug lords, landmines, and elephants—and that was all under one hour. Honestly, it felt like a hot mess, like some badly done sixty minute mash up of Lee JunKi’s 2007 kdrama thriller Time Between Dog and Wolf and the crazy 2008 Ben Stiller and Robert Downey, Jr. action spoof Tropical Thunder. Was this going to be yet another long nonsensical glare-athon mixed with some unintentional machine gun comedy? Everything about this premiere hour sat ill with me, the tone promising all kinds of mayhem that I normally feared of a typical action series.

At the time, I thought to myself, “MinHo, hon, I love ya, but I don’t know if I’m ready for this one.” The show was relocated to my back shelf and left to percolate. Months later, after the show concluded its broadcast run and kdrama fans around the globe unanimously loved it, I decided to go back for a second try. City Hunter fans, let your concerns ease away, the above is only my first impression of City, I have generally nice things to say south of here.

wildcard factor
As everyone knows, Lee MinHo is quite the CF princeling, a celebrity who can seduce people into buying almost anything, from coffee to Cadillacs. Realistically speaking, even in a fictional setting, the groundwork for the main character of this drama was a bit...um, how can I put this nicely...absurd? The concept of a trenchcoat-wearing city slick crusader called the City Hunter was a pretty tough sell: skinny pretty dude who looks like some sort of Burberry model is raised in the drug cartel jungles of Asia to master the art of assassination while cultivating superhuman ninja skills that can take out hordes of nefarious men in a frenzy of swirlies and kickeroos, and of course, not only is he a devil of a prizefighter, but an uber nerd with a surreal brilliant techgeek robot mind like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook guy). This was a textbook example of improbable perfection...but Lee MinHo actually turned this far-fetched concept into a pleasing watch. I tell you what, he was good, really good at creating just the right persona and making you buy into it. Even if a part of you didn’t completely believe, your disbelief was no match for his self-confidence.

Lee MinHo goes undercover.

This was a huge wild card, in my opinion, as the character description on this guy was so hilariously implausible. I mean, how does someone raised for most of his life in a jungle become a hacker expert? How? Anyway, if Lee hadn’t done such a good job shrinking down the exaggeration into a credible person, this show would have flopped all ten thousands ways silly. They were really lucky to cast him.

snoozer moments
At 20 episodes, despite an involving story with both episodic and umbrella arcs for our hero to overcome, it still got a little repetitive and fell into the rut nearly all 20+ dramas do—it’s what I like to call the “Falter Zone,” a purgatory period that usually happens a little past the middle but far too early to start the big push toward the end. A drama will hit a point where it doesn’t quite know what to do with itself so it kind of loses focus for an episode or two, or three. Some dramas never recover from the Falter Zone and go downhill from there. City did recover its groove, but anyhow, during City’s more accessory moments, some of the revenge schemes felt circular and belabored, some of the emotions from the main characters already played out. I would have preferred more variety in the interactions between the younger and older cast, as well as smaller steps in the relationship between Lee MinHo and Park MinYoung, which to me, felt a little too quick and far too easily progressed. I mean, cute and fun for sure, but the level of attachment didn’t match the short length to get to that point.

soju guzzling (angst factor) 

Most of the misery stemmed from daddy issues, every kind of resentment that could possibly fester between men and their sons were in this one. Although, I have to say, for a show that talked about revenge a whole lot, it managed to be very bright. Maybe a benefit of being a summer drama...

what didn’t work
One aspect that I found a little disappointing was a storytelling choice to keep an ace character mostly apathetic until practically the end. This person turned out to be a gear in the show that was rather critical to the vehicle’s movement: Chun HoJin. The connection between Chun HoJin and Lee SangJoon, the leaders of the old guard, and Lee MinHo and Lee JoonHyuk, the next generation, should have been more deeply explored from the very beginning for it ended up being a nice quadrangle summing up City’s core conflict. There should have been more mix and mingle between these four men, more time spent poking at them, together and apart, solidifying comparisons, really tangling their fishing lines up. 

Mega spoiler to follow between the brackets, please do not highlight hidden text if you have not seen the show. Hey you, I really mean it!

[ Not only did the two older men represent the balance of power between right and wrong and the moral ambiguity in between, but they also represented the two warring sides of Lee MinHo. The schizophrenic intensity of Kim SangJoon was an uncontrollable virulent presence from beginning to end, and the man never strayed too far from the crazy. The counter to Kim SangJoon’s darkness was supposed to be the ROK president, Chun HoJin, who’s character decided to pursue a path of righteousness after the tragic events of 1983. Unfortunately, his emotional point of view never felt as wholly explained, and definitely not as effectively as his angry counterpart’s, and that was a pity. 

I wanted there to be more early interaction between the president and Lee MinHo, either as the Blue House tech or as the City Hunter, so we could believe that a gradual and genuine bond had developed between the two (occasional chatting about the tutoring progress of the president’s daughter or providing IT help really doesn’t rank as significant bonding time). Their relationship was one of the few interplays in the show that really felt awkwardly engineered for plot accommodation, a set up quickly done for a later shock reveal. Basically, I wanted the president to be a more active presence, instead of the role he took as a passive observer. I wanted to believe that the final decision by Lee MinHo was actually a hard choice, and not just the obvious one.

We never really knew the president as a complete person, and let’s face it, he was kind of a wimpy character throughout. In fact, if we’re comparing father figures, and there were a lot in this show, even Choi IlHwa’s story (Lee JoonHyuk’s father) was better told. Just as Lee JoonHyuk and his father’s story had a strong impact, imagine if we had liked, hated, or invested in Chun HoJin as much as we had in Lee SangJoon, could the final showdown not have been even more the awesome? We didn’t get any development on Chun HoJin until, as far as I was concerned, it was way too late.]

what did
Pretty much everything after episode 2, actually. 

Lee MinHo traded in his jungle camo for Seoul cosmopolitan, getting a wardrobe upgrade from sweat and flip-flops to streamlined runway wear. This shift away from Rambo-in-training to supermodel chic wasn’t the reason why the show improved, but it was definitely a welcomed change. While City did continue to flirt cloyingly with the limits of plausibility, it made a pretty darn legitimate effort to not go completely batshit nuts with the plot. It managed to find a voice beyond its Japanese manga roots and find a more serious real world echo. The show did present itself to be intelligently scripted and executed, and did something that a lot of action dramas forget to do: find the heart. Characters were written as passionately emotional, but not so far crazy that they weren’t understandable emotions.

One of the things City did especially well was allowing the viewer to feel the same conflict as the protagonist. Because of Lee MinHo’s complicated relationship with his adoptive father, he was often in a position to opt for one version of revenge over another, and sometimes, he hurt innocents. City challenged the morality of our hero’s sometimes questionable conduct through Lee JoonHyuk, who believed that judgment via lawful means was the only right way to go. His conservative code of honor held up well against Lee MinHo’s brand of reckless Batman law. City opened a dialogue with its viewership about the real limits of any given criminal judicial system, and we participated in that dialogue by empathizing with the underlying debate that troubled both our leads: when the law fails, is it really okay to cross that hairy line between legal justice and vigilante justice?

Also, the drama looked great. Camera play was effective and clever, the action exciting. I have very little to comment on the actual execution of action scenes, which is very high praise. Usually I can go on for paragraphs just complaining about the pain I felt enduring abusive special effects. In fact, I even had a few “Oh, that was pretty cool” moments, which was totally great. Although, I do want to say, that scene with the shredded paper...you all know the one...really, he taped it all back together? Wasn’t there some fancy high tech machine that he could have bought to scan all the ink then piece it all together digitally? Ok, moving on...

By the time the credits rolled, I was pleasantly delighted to realize that I had enjoyed it. I would even call it MinHo’s best drama yet. Who knew he would pull off this kind of role so well? This skinny boy with his wiry little muscles made a real good showing as an action star. Move over, Lee JunKi! I’m joking, don’t you dare go anywhere, Lee JunKi—please I need a moment to silently celebrate that he’s finally out from his military service—happy, happy, ok, I’m done. Back to City, there was a real flair to Lee MinHo’s delivery, he managed to be cheeky yet debonair but never greasy, just like the drama itself.

notable scene(s)
It’s hard to properly flatter a show without giving away any key info, as the really powerful scenes tend to be filled with critical plot movements. And well, in these kinds of shows, you really should not be spoiled. Please don’t read the hidden text below if you haven’t seen the show. I really mean it. Don’t read any hidden text in this review if you plan on watching City. A lot my reviews are mildly spoilerish, but I will hide text if it’s a major slap-in-yo face spoiler that I can’t avoid writing about but would prefer watchers NOT read before seeing it. It’s for your own good, I promise, I’m looking out for you, chingoo.

MEGA SPOILER ALERT—highlight hidden text between brackets to read: [ As a fan of the character, the murder of city prosecutor and second lead Lee JoonHyuk was a big blow, but his memorial and the ripple effect that his death had on all the characters was the most powerful twist in all of City. As a drama’s crescendo moment, it was very shocking, and brave, and the right move. It was a completely unexpected character death, and therefore a piece of brilliant writing. As a viewer, I felt what the characters on the show felt: stunned speechless. As a story maneuver, it was unbelievably powerful. ]

what kept me going

Lee MinHo’s razzle dazzle 007 playboy charm and Lee JoonHyuk’s angsty good guy moral struggle—any scene that featured these two opposites together were especially great to behold.

Other factors:
predictability Hmmm, a little bit. Some of what went down at the end was surprising, but overall, it ended as I suspected it could, would, and probably should
cheese More than anything else, this one might have been saved from the ranks of junk food by the director’s sense of restraint
originality adapted from Tsukasa Hojo’s Japanese manga of the same name
eye-candy Park MinYoung was likable in this role, but she was decidedly more adorable than an especially convincing presidential secret service agent.

hair and fashion Pretty fashionable

a list: top 5 things to know about City Hunter
5: one is not like the others 
The first episode was not indicative of the subsequent 19 episodes.

4: something for the male fans

Pert and pretty Goo Hara of popular female idol group KARA featured here as the daughter of the South Korean president. She developed a crush on Lee MinHo.

3: oh no, they didn’t
City dared to do something that shocked even me.
See notable scenes section.

2: a gun + orange goggles = smoking hot
Lee MinHo looked damn fine in firing range goggles

And yes, that’s No. 2 on my list of things you have to know about this show. So what? I’m superficial, deal with it.

1:  Lee JoonHyuk

This city prosecutor was total badass.

total enjoyment factor 

This drama wasn’t perfect for me. It’s very likely I’m standing alone on this ledge, but ultimately the problems I had with the drama were not its bits and pieces, but as a whole product, it wasn’t as great a show as it almost was, which is a really dirty criticism to make, I know. It’s kind of like telling a significant other, “You’re an awesome person, but can’t you be even more awesome? Thanks.” It’s somewhat unfair, as the fact that City delivered such a credible show at all was impressive considering the wild scope of the story, but it’s a feeling I have, and I can’t shake it. I believed City for 80% of the time but there was always a 20% doubt factor. The show itself was always engaging, but it wasn’t always logical. Some of the characters felt better realized than others, some of the story better told than the rest, some parts more coherent, others more gloss than glue. It was that small percentage of “no way” that kept tripping me over when I went to give this one a numerical score. It was a good drama, but it was not a perfect one.

For example, on the one hand, it was a very serious show that aimed to discuss corruption amongst the ranks of ROK’s most powerful, and their somewhat puppet legal system’s inability to deal with the problem. As a city prosecutor who was ultimately a cog in the system but also a wrench in it because of his moral rigidity, Lee JoonHyuk was a very complicated character. You could cut him out and drop him into any really sober lawyer melodrama and he would fit. Our principle antagonist, Lee SangJoon, however, was almost a caricature villain, a complete personality overstatement—cut him out and drop him into any head-spinning reality bending action extravaganza and he would fit there even better. And then we had characters such as the Blue House IT department, even Lee MinHo to an extent, caught somewhere in between melo, romcom, and action. 

With that in mind, I offer up the analogy of an after work social: some are totally sober, others skunk drunk, a few slightly buzzed. While watching, the different states were not inharmonious, as the “a little bit of everything” mentality made for an entertaining party (aka show), but at the end of the night, there was a feeling that...well, frankly, not everyone partied at the same level. Some things worked really well together, some things felt out of place. City could have been a little less of everything, a little more of one thing. There was substance in this drama and good storytelling, but once in awhile, the show would step out of that rhythm and do something disappointing, whether it be in character or plot development, and in those awkward moments, it felt a little less original.

This is a drama that will appeal to a wide audience. After all, for a high concept show like this, I think everyone allows for some margin of error. Hell, it’s rare to even find a decent one, much less an action thriller that impresses, as this one did, so don’t get me wrong, I thought it was totally drama delicious, but not the kind served on a pillar of critique-repelling rice balls.

why this review is completely biased
I like Mr. Lee MinHo.

A must-see 2011 drama, in fact, one of the best dramas of the year.


  1. With due respect for your opinions, I stopped watching at episode 9, because this show is absurd.
    1- It is always difficoult for me to get over plot holes and irrational behaviour needed to move the plot forward, yet I can accept a little of it in a romantic comedy...
    ... But not in a spy/thriller story!
    2- If I decide to watch a spy/thriller I don't need the usual staples of romantic dramas
    3- The protagonist can't act to save his life

  2. I just watched the adorable rom-com like bits between LeeMinHo and Park MinYoung. The action and spy thriller parts of the series were still really well done its just not my thing anymore. I would have lapped this up when I was 20.


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