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The Weekend Binge: "Narco-Saints"

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

Narco-Saints is the six-part thriller that cost Netflix nearly $5 million per episode, making it the most expensive k-drama series produced thus far. Based on the true events that led up to the capture of a Korean drug lord in Suriname, the show boasts an impressive ensemble cast led by Ha Jung-woo (Along With the Gods), Hwang Jung-min (The Spy Gone North), Jo Woo-jin (Happiness), and Yoo Yeon-seok (Hospital Playlist).

A GwenchaNoona Review | The Weekend Binge: "Narco-Saints" (The Netflix k-drama series stars Park Hae-soo, Ha Jung-woo, Hwang Jung-min, Jo Woo-jin, and Yoo Yeon-seok.)

The Plot (with mild spoilers)

Kang In-gu (Ha Jung-woo) is an ordinary Korean who’s lived a rather Dickensian life thus far. Orphaned and left to fend for himself and his siblings, he’s had to learn the ropes of several small businesses in order to survive. One day, a friend tells him he can get rich quickly by importing skate, a stingray-looking fish served as a delicacy in Korea. There’s only one problem: they have to harvest them in Suriname, a small South American country.

Filled with hope, the two friends soon begin exporting boxes of skate from Suriname to South Korea until Kang is arrested. The crime? Unbeknownst to him, his skate has been used to smuggle cocaine. The culprit? His new friend Pastor Jeon (Hwang Jung-min), who turns out to be a con artist posing as a pastor in Suriname, but is in fact one of its biggest drug lords.

While in prison, Kang is contacted by the Korean secret service (the NIS). It turns out that the NIS has long had its eye on the pastor, but since Korea has no extraditing powers in Suriname, they must find a way to get America involved instead. So the NIS cuts a deal with Kang: If he can get Pastor Jeon to export cocaine into a US territory where the NIS and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) can arrest him, Kang will be paid for all the business he’s lost, and eventually, go home to Korea.

Kang agrees, and as soon as he’s released, he finds his way back to Pastor Jeon and poses as a cocaine buyer looking to flood the Asian market. It would have been a sweet and easy deal if not for the presence of the other powerful drug lord in town: the Chinese businessman Chen Zhen (Chang Chen) whose turf has been disturbed by the new alliance. Eventually, their first cocaine smuggling route is discovered and their original plan is bungled. Kang now has to work doubly hard to convince Pastor Jeon to smuggle cocaine through Puerto Rico (a US territory).

But the best-laid plans always go awry, and soon enough, Kang becomes Pastor Jeon’s right-hand man. Since the prime currency of any illicit business is trust, Kang now holds a very strong card in the midst of an interesting crossfire: He could be loyal to the NIS and be paid in peanuts, or he could sell Pastor Jeon out to the Chinese gangs and make money with Chen Zhen. Or even better: Kang could leave everything behind, get with the Pastor to export drugs for real, and earn a billion won each month easily.

Desperate and tired from all the bloodiness of the cartel business, Kang must make his choice soon. Whether it be with the NIS, the Chinese, or with Pastor Jeon, the once-struggling businessman from Korea is bound to make more money than he can ever spend in his lifetime. The only problem is, will he live to tell the tale?

The Review

Netflix has taken laudable (and expensive) risks for Korean productions that cater to more standard genres. Late last year, it released the first big-budget hard sci-fi series The Silent Sea with Gong Yoo in the lead. They also released the Korean remake of the Spanish hit Money Heist. Both shows, however, have not duplicated the audience highs or the cultural impact that Squid Game, or even the domestic rom-com Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha has reached for Netflix despite boasting more powerhouse casts and higher production costs.

For all the hype of the heavyweight cast and the exotic appeal of its premise (a Korean in Suriname making it in the drug world!), Narco-Saints seems to be bound for the same lackluster path. The show is terribly short on the action and thrills, with pacing that’s just too molasses-esque and too dependent on a ton of exposition. The show sags almost immediately by the end of the first episode and doesn’t really pick up until the tail-end of the fifth for a standard finale. It makes one feel that while Narco-Saints is shorter than the usual 16-episode length, it feels like it was meant to be a 2-hour film that’s been stretched out unnecessarily. It is the kind of series you watch while shopping online or playing a video game, and you only look up when the cartels start shooting people (which is once every other episode).

Despite decent performances from its cast, a few cool gunfights, and a third act that (FINALLY!) delivers on some narco-thrill promises, Narco-Saints is sadly filled with airy chit-chat, maudlin business deals, and predictable twists that repeat themselves — a far cry from the excellent gun operas and gangster films Korea has long been making. But on the other hand, one could also argue that all of the chit-chat contributes to the absurd and relaxed stance Narco-Saints takes on the subject of drugs and may even be a welcome relief from all the dark and gruesome cartel shows we’ve all been fed since Netflix' excellent Narcos.

So for longtime k-drama fans raised on a diet of rom-coms and legal thrillers, the presence of a cartel drama may be a refreshing addition to the usual fare. To its credit, Narco-Saints also isn’t as violent or as stressful as its western counterparts, and it is quite well-made. But whether that’s a plus because it’s a gentle introduction to the genre, or a huge minus because it treads on the well-worn path carved out by Narcos and falls short — is up to you.

To see more of Narco-Saint’s stars:

Ha Jung-woo

Only three Korean actors in history have made movies that sold over 100 million tickets, and Ha Jung-woo is the youngest of them.

Popularly known as the main Grim Reaper in the blockbuster hit Along with the Gods, Ha Jung-woo has long flexed his acting chops across the critical to the commercial. He rose to fame by starring in the now-classic thriller The Chaser (2008). His portrayal impressed Martin Scorsese so much that the director likened him to Leo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. Ha then went on to do a variety of roles such as a killer-for-hire (The Yellow Sea), a spy (The Berlin File), a threatened journalist (The Terror Live), and a conman (The Handmaiden).

Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds

One of the biggest blockbusters of 2017, Ha Jung-woo stars as Gang-rim, the lead grim reaper who must help a good-hearted fireman (Cha Tae-hyun) enter heaven. Together with two other reapers, they undergo seven trials through seven hells. But as the last trial draws near, the fireman’s secret sins slowly come to light. Will our fireman qualify for heaven, or will his sins endanger everyone’s chances at a peaceful afterlife?

Read our review here.

The Yellow Sea

Ha Jung-woo won Best Actor trophies from the Baeksang Arts Awards and the Korean Association of Film Critics for his role as an impoverished cab driver who turns into a fugitive after his planned murder goes wrong.

This film marks the reunion of the actor and Na Hong-jin, who directed him in the 2008 film The Chaser. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times wrote that it was “A rush of a movie from South Korea that slips and slides from horror to humor on rivers of blood and offers the haunting image of a man, primitive incarnate, beating other men with an enormous, gnawed-over meat bone.”

Hwang Jung-min

The second member of the elusive "100 Million Viewer Club" is this multi-talented and much-respected 50-year-old who was once told that he had "no face for film." Nevertheless, his stage experience and talent shone through and made their mark on audiences and critics alike. "I never swayed...that is one thing I can say with confidence," he once told 10Asia.

His big break came when he played a naïve farmer in the 2005 melodrama You Are My Sunshine with Jeon Do-yeon. In 2013, Hwang's performance in another film, the modern gangster classic The New World, was also so memorable that the New York Times wrote that it was easy for him to "grab center stage...oozing personality and thuggish panache, [Hwang] is the wild card that holds the game together." He went on to star in more critically and commercially successful films such as the Oscar entry The Wailing (2016), the blockbusters Battleship Island (2017), and The Spy Gone North (2018).

The Wailing

Acclaimed as one of the best Korean horror films of the past decade, Na Hong-jin’s first film in six years is a mix of buddy-cop comedy, visceral gore horror, and social commentary on racism, religion, and superstition. Here, Hwang plays Il-gwang, an intense Korean shaman who tries to drive away the great evil that has spread through a small provincial town.

A New World

A New World combined the best of Asian underworld tropes and turned it into a modern Korean gangster classic. It also didn't hurt to have three of Korea’s biggest Hallyu names leading it. Hwang Jung-min joins Choi Min-sik (Old Boy) and Lee Jung-jae (Squid Game) as an unpredictable mob wingman. Even if you’re not interested in gangster movies, do give the first five minutes a watch. You’re welcome.

Park Hae-soo

Park Hae-soo started in musical theater in 2007 with The Strongest Comedy Mr. Lobby. He has been on stage every year until 2015, appearing in A Streetcar Named Desire (2010) and Macbeth (2014). But it was his riveting turn as a Seoul National University alum ruined by capitalism in the battle-to-the-death series Squid Game (2021) that catapulted him to global fame.

Yaksha: Ruthless Operations

Park Hae-soo plays prosecutor Han Ji-hoon who has been "exiled" into China for being unable to win a rather important case. Han believes he is only on an internal auditing mission for the National Intelligence Service, but when he walks right into the bullet-happy operations of "branch manager" Ji Kang-in (Sol Kyung-gu) code-named "Yaksha," he realizes he's walked right into a tenuous web of East Asian espionage.

Read our review here.

Yoo Yeon-Seok

The six-and-some foot tall actor bagged his first role without needing to pass his resume around, largely due to debuting in the critically-lauded film Oldboy in 2003. After a five-year hiatus, he returned to the industry with a degree in Film.

While Yoo has starred in some movies, he is more known for his roles in k-drama. His breakout turn came when he starred as the charming second lead Chilbong in Reply 1994.

Old Boy

It’s been 20 years since violent neo-noir legend Old Boy was released, and no one who has seen the film has ever forgotten it. Yoo Yeon-seok made his debut in this film as the younger version of Yoo Ji-tae’s character who is guilty of…well, if you know, you know.

A perpetual mainstay in Korean “best-of” lists, Old Boy is an unforgettable tale of revenge and hatred and was described as “a breath of fresh air to anyone gasping on the fumes of too many traditional Hollywood thrillers” (ReelViews).

Mr. Sunshine

Yoo joins the epic historical k-drama, Mr. Sunshine, as Goo Dong-mae, a samurai-turned-mercenary who wants to help the Japanese army take over Korea. Fuelled by rage, Goo is an unstoppable vigilante—that is, until he meets a Joseon noblewoman (Kim Tae-ri) who may have the power to change his mind about everything.

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