This review originally appeared in the Korean Quarterly.
Have you been looking for that perfect mix of action, romance, a dash of melodrama, even a spot of “bromance?” Your search is over!
The popular Japanese manga by Hojo Tsukasa, published under the same name, “City Hunter,” serves as source material for this drama. Whereas the manga is episodic in format and the hero solves different crimes in every issue, the drama follows a complete story arc. It can more closely be compared in that sense to the first issues of the Batman or Superman stories in which they recount, “how the hero became the hero.” And, as with Batman, you have an ordinary man with some extraordinary toys and skill sets fighting crimes and injustices under the cloak of anonymity.
The Hero Mythology
The drama’s production team does a bang-up job of creating the City Hunter mythology within the first couple of episodes. The tale begins by introducing the genesis for the revenge plot that drives this story. A team of twenty men is sent on a covert operation across the border into North Korea. The mission goes wrong and they beat a hasty retreat. A horrible decision is made by five key figures to bury this mission: it is safer to make sure that no one remains to tell of the mission and the order is given to terminate the twenty.
What they did not count on was the tenacity of one man, Lee Jin-pyo, played by Sang-joong Kim. He is unable, however, to save his dearest friend, Park Moo-yul (a cameo role by Sang-min Park). He is devastated, thinking of Moo-yul’s pregnant wife, Lee Kyung-hee (played by Mi-sook Kim). He swears vengeance on the lifeless body of his friend and flees to safety. Acting immediately upon his promise, he kidnaps the Kyung-hee’s newborn son and flees to Thailand, leaving behind a devastated mother. There he makes a name for himself as a drug warlord in the Golden Triangle.
He raises the baby, a boy he names Lee Yoon-sung (played as an adult by Min-ho Lee), and spares no effort in creating in this child the perfect soldier-scholar, skilled in martial arts. What he did not count on was pull of nature versus “nurture” in this boy: Yoon-sung has a loving heart and forms close relationships with people in camp. This is unacceptable to Jin-pyo. He takes steps to remove any one who may lay claim to the boy’s affections with swift and permanent steps. He uses guilt as well as duty to control Yoon-sung.
Over the course of time, Lee Jin-pyo reinvents himself as wealthy Korean-American businessman Steve Lee and sends Yoon-sung to the finest universities. He graduates with honors from MIT under the name of John Lee and the two men return to South Korea. It is time to put Lee Jin-pyo’s meticulously planned vengeance plot in motion.
The Perfect Weapon
The new persona of John Lee, with excellent credentials and glowing references is a perfect fit for a position in the Blue House. Although assigned to an area that is vaguely cyber security, he must undergo the mandatory self-defense training. Hiding his true abilities, he is assigned to work with the adorable Kim Na-na, played by Min-young Park. Allowing her to tumble him over and over in tae-kwon-do and other training drills, he falls for her in other ways, captivated by her kind heart and cheery smile.
Kim Na-na is perky, optimistic, and hard working in a way that is natural and normal. She’s strong; she wants to be seen as competent and able to handle any job. An orphan, Kim Na-na dreams of becoming part of the presidential security team and has realized her goal. Her duties bring her into contact with Yoon-sung on a regular basis, and not just in training classes. She crosses paths with the vigilante who signs himself as the ‘City Hunter’ during his first strike. This collision course puts her life in jeopardy and brings her closer to Yoon-sung. Unfortunately, one of Jin-pyo’s mantras is, “There’s no time for love when you’re after vengeance,” and he has a nasty way of removing obstacles from his path. His actions have an unexpected opposite result: Yoon-sung feels increasingly responsible for Na-na’s safety and her happiness.
As part of Jin-pyo’s plot, Yoon-sung takes action and brings down the first of the “Gang of Five” responsible for the death of Jin-pyo’s team. However, rather than play judge, jury, and executioner in accordance with his surrogate father’s wishes, Yoon-sung reveals that the first target has not lived a clean and admirable life since that death order was given. He “outs” him and his crimes and delivers him in a suitably public and humiliating fashion to the prosecutor’s office. His actions capture the imagination of the public and ignite furious speculation as to his identity. The most curious of those looking to identify this new vigilante is the rising young prosecutor, Kim Young-joo, played by Joon-hyuk Lee.
As each of the five guilty men is revealed, Young-joo pursues the City Hunter with increasing fervor. He cannot allow the end to justify the means: City Hunter breaks laws as he brings the guilty to justice. He must be prosecuted and Young-joo takes it as his personal mission to identify and stop the City Hunter. The righteous young man becomes both a challenge to Yoon-sung personally as well as professionally; Yoon-sung has long taken an interest in Na-na’s wellbeing and this triggers jealousy in Yoon-sung. Equally, the dogged pursuit of this young prosecutor adds excitement to the work Yoon-sung is doing, so he regards him as a “friendly adversary,” one he admires and respects. Young-joo still maintains a cordial relationship with his ex-wife, Jin Sae-hee (Sun-hee Hwang), who becomes an unexpected ally of the City Hunter.
High Stakes Missions
With each mission to reveal and bring the wrongdoers to justice, the drama offers the viewers exciting fight sequences and dramatic cliffhangers to end most episodes. The stakes are raised with each pursuit and Yoon-sung and Na-na face greater risks as Lee Jin-pyo becomes more irate with his foster son’s individual approach to the missions. Jin-pyo increasingly spirals out of control as his will is thwarted, all because he could not train compassion out of Yoon-sung’s heart. Sang-joong Kim appears to have ice water flowing through his veins as Lee Jin-pyo!
Viewers may take issue with “City Hunter” for smaller details, such as his “disguise” — Min-ho Lee has remarkably long legs, not to mention distinctive facial features! But it’s just like Clark Kent wearing glasses to “hide” the fact that he’s Superman — it’s not really material to the action.
One might also begin to think about Yoon-sung’s bachelor pad and lifestyle; all those new cars, gadgets, the wardrobe, and so on — the money for those all had to have come from Lee Jin-pyo’s drug trafficking efforts. The drama never really addresses that aspect of how the City Hunter manages to live his life as a crime fighter/righter of injustices. But in all honesty, does it affect the plot? Not one bit! They’ve made the emotional connections so strong in this one that it’s hard to remember at times that it’s from a comic book.
There are many such ambiguities in “City Hunter” but they allow one to speculate about what might have been, could be, and will be in the future. Sometimes leaving things up to our imaginations is one of the very best things a drama can do (if they’ve seeded the ground with sufficient tantalizing hints).
The success of this drama rests fully on Min-ho Lee’s young but capable shoulders. Lee has one of those faces that, when relatively static, doesn’t fully come to life and reveal its strong beauty, but he is blessed with luminous eyes and an “old soul.” When he is conveying deeper emotions they just glow. He’s charismatic though not yet 25; Lee has the ability to convincingly play several years older.
His costar, Min-young Park is capable and a pleasant foil to the intensity Lee brings to his role. She appears youthful and unaffected and does not result to aegyo to charm the audience. Joon-hyuk Lee brings a soulful earnestness to his role as the determined and ethical prosecutor and the grudging respect (a budding “bromance”) for Lee’s Yoon-sung and the chemistry they bring to their adversarial relationship is fun to watch.
Kudos is also due to the production team for the “high gloss” look and feel they brought to the production. The sequences in Thailand, for all the deadly seriousness of some scenes, were filmed with the attention to detail and atmosphere of a big budget film. Fight sequences are crisp and fast-paced. They keep the plotting and twisting going right up until the very end in a most satisfying fashion.
There is one final City Hunter mission and this one is for you. Find a copy of this drama. Prepare an ample supply of snacks and beverages and settle into your most comfy chair. Turn off the phone and eliminate all other distractions. Finally, prepare to be held captive by the adventures of the City Hunter!