City Hunter [Drama]: Gripping right until the end

I only recently go over the feels that come hand-in-hand with the twenty-episode City Hunter (2011). This action/thriller drama is certainly one hell of a ride. This series is very loosely based on the manga of the same name by Tsukasa Hojo.

What’s it about?

Lee Yoon Sung (Lee Min Ho) had a childhood different to most; growing up in the Golden Triangle as the son of the drug lord Lee Jin Pyo (Kim Sang Joong), he has been trained to fight and use guns since young. His world is turned upside down when his father informs him of a plot for revenge, many years in the making. In fact, Jin Pyo is not Yoon Sung’s father; his real father was killed along with nineteen other special forces members in the seas off North Korea, after completing a secret mission for the motherland. Their murderers? The very country they were serving when they completed the mission; South Korea. Jin Pyo was the sole survivor of that mission, and after identifying two of the five men responsible for the slaughter, he left South Korea with infant Yoon Sung with the promise that he would return for revenge.

Learning about his true past, Yoon Sung understands it is his duty to help Jin Pyo, the father who raised him, get revenge for Park Moo Yul, the father whose blood runs in his veins. Leaving the Golden Triangle, Yoon Sung eventually makes his way to South Korea, working in the Blue House as an elite I.T. engineer. Wearing the mask of an immature playboy, Yoon Sung secretly becomes the “City Hunter”, seeking out the corrupt politicians responsible for his father’s death. But can Yoon Sung maintain his fake identity and obey Jin Pyo’s words to not fall in love when he encounters the determined and fiery Kim Na Na (Park Min Young)?

The Positives

Starting out with something I don’t always comment on; the soundtrack. City Hunter has one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in any series. In terms of purely instrumental music, during the action scenes it gets you pumped up and ready to see what’s going to happen next, there’s suspenseful music to get you on the edge of your chairs, and perfect tear-jerking music for those sad scenes. Adding in vocals only improves the soundtrack. My personal favourites include SHINee’s Kim Jong Hyun’s “So Goodbye“, Yang Hwa Jin Band’s “It’s Alright“, and Kim Bo Kyung’s “Suddenly“. All of the music just fits so well together, and suits the emotion and atmosphere of the series.

Moving onto three things that absolutely made this series for me, and went hand-in-hand with each other; interesting characters, solid acting, and plenty of raw emotion. As the centre of the main conflict, Yoon Sung and Jin Pyo are both fascinating characters. I like Yoon Sung’s constant struggle for a normal life against his struggle to be the hero of the series. In many ways, he is a very sad character, and you can’t help but feel for him with each new revelation about the truth affecting him in some way. Jin Pyo is arguably a sadder character, once you look past the psychotic exterior. Cool and calculated, you’re never sure what he is willing to do, and who he is willing to hurt, to get what he wants. For the majority of the series, I liked Na Na’s character; she doesn’t run away when things get scary, and she doesn’t back down from finding out the truth. I like that [SPOILER/] the writers didn’t try to keep Yoon Sung’s secret identity from her for the entirety of the series, because that would have been insulting to her intelligence [\SPOILER]. One of my favourite characters, however, is Yoon Sung’s parallel and rival, the prosecutor Kim Young Joo (Lee Jun Hyuk). He is trying to accomplish the same task as Yoon Sung in pursuing corrupt politicians, but in many situations, he has his hands tied by the law, finding himself falling behind the City Hunter. Unlike Yoon Sung, Young Joo is more of an “everyday” hero, trying to do what’s right, despite everything he believes in seeming to go against him. Of course, such beautifully complicated characters can only be truly appreciated if the actors playing them do a good job… and this cast is stellar. I cannot picture any other actor but Lee Min Ho playing Yoon Sung, Park Min Young is a fantastic Na Na, the role of Jin Pyo must have been created solely for Kim Sang Joong, and Lee Jun Hyuk is ideal as Young Joo. The main cast bring so much to the table and flourish in their roles. Other solid performances include Kim Sang Ho as Yoon Sung’s assistant Bae Sik Joong, Kim Mi Sook as Yoon Sung’s mother Lee Kyung Hee, and the adorable pair Ko Ki Joon (Lee Kwang Soo) and Shin Eun Ah (Yang Jin Sung). Linked to these great characters and the actors’ portrayal of them, is the amount of raw emotion expressed in this series. Ranging from humour, frustration, anger, and anguish, the emotion is always intense, but never feels over the top. It serves to drive the plot forward and keep the viewer addicted to what’s happening, and it does this very well.

Yoong Joo (L) and Yoon Sung (R)

Young Joo (L) and Yoon Sung (R) were my two favourite characters of this series.

Thanks to the combination of interesting characters, good acting, and raw emotion, this drama keeps you hooked from the very start. I found myself quickly connecting emotionally with the characters, especially Yoon Sung, from the very first episode. This kind of emotional connection keeps you invested in the series. To add to all of that, the plot of the story is interesting, the series has a very dark atmosphere, and there are some very interesting themes explored. Again and again, you have father and son pitted against each other (and not just involving the Yoon Sung/Jin Pyo relationship), exploring just what qualifies as a son’s duty and what doesn’t. I loved that City Hunter was not afraid to go to dark places with the plot; even the deaths of minor characters left me feeling miserable afterwards. Everything was very well done.

Speaking about feeling miserable, that ending and climax of the story… sad, but so perfect. I liked that the ending was left open; after the intensity and trauma of the last two episodes, I don’t think there would have been a plausible way to tie up everything into the typical happy ending you often see in dramas. I also liked how the ending really emphasised that the drama is ultimately about Yoon Sung and Jin Pyo, and their journey as father and son. However, the final scenes were too hastily put together to have a big impact on the audience; I found myself re-writing it in my head as I watched it.

The Negatives

Perhaps the biggest issue I had with this drama is the weird, (un)balance of Yoon Sung and Jin Pyo’s gritty revenge story with the up-beat and sweet Yoon Sung and Na Na love story. This noticeable right from the start; the first episode is extremely emotional and traumatic, and then the second episode just feels like a completely different drama. I don’t know whether the love-story is too “light” compared to the revenge story, but this weird balance doesn’t work well; at times the juxtaposition of scenes feels very awkward and jarring. At the same time, however, I don’t know how they could have fixed this without obliterating the love story altogether… making it less sweet? focusing more on Yoon Sung during the romance by showing less of Na Na? I don’t really know. The drama does seem to work itself out a little bit more in the latter half of the series, whether this is because the angst is upped in all aspects of the story, or you just get used to it as a viewer, I’m not too sure.

Although Yoon Sung and Na Na

Although Yoon Sung and Na Na made a cute couple, part of me wishes there was less of them in the series…

Another issue I had with this drama was some of the ridiculous logic of some of the characters. I get the whole “noble sacrifice” crap is a staple of Korean dramas (hell, I managed to sit through Maru constantly doing it in Innocent Man), and I did come into City Hunter expecting it to happen, given the action/danger aspect of the series, but it pissed me off so much in this series. There comes a point in this series where it makes sense, thematically, plot-wise, and consistent with character, for Na Na to work alongside Yoon Sung. Do we get this? No, we get the whole “but if you stay with me, I’ll hurt you blah” crap that is frustrating and pushes Na Na back into an almost damsel-in-distress role. I know that once you boil the series down, it is essentially about Yoon Sung, but at this point of the drama, the focus had been on the love story for so long, it feels like Na Na needed to become a permanent part of Yoon Sung’s life in terms of the revenge plot line. The way they stop that happening just doesn’t fit right.

The final thing that irritated me about this series was the small details. Now, this doesn’t usually bother me too much. For example, if we see an actor taking something out of the oven without using a tea-towel or oven-mitts, it doesn’t annoy me; it’s just a small detail. Of course the oven isn’t on, what’s being removed from the oven isn’t hot, and there’s no need for oven-mitts, because they are acting. For me, City Hunter made this a big deal; the small details were so often forgotten that I started to notice it, and once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop paying attention to it.

Conclusion

Story: 8/10: The plot of this drama becomes very addicting very quickly. Driven essentially by emotion, it’s thrilling, action-packed, and gripping. It does suffer, however, from an unbalanced mix of romantic and action elements and a few poor plot decisions.

Characters: 9/10: The characters really make this series. Yoon Sung’s and Jin Pyo’s struggle is the pinnacle of City Hunter.

This drama is far from perfect. It has a lot of flaws, some of which I really had a problem with. However, the raw emotion expressed by interesting characters and portrayed by a brilliant cast is more than enough to carry you over. This series is gripping and will stay fresh in your mind long after you finish it. Overall, I give it an 8.5/10.

-S

Jin Pyo, the master of randomly appearing in scenes to give meaningful stares, before disappearing again.

Jin Pyo, the master of randomly appearing in scenes to give meaningful stares, before disappearing again.

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