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The Weekend Binge: "Tracer 1 and 2"

The 2022 MBC revenge thriller Tracer Seasons 1 and 2 follows Hwang Dong-joo (Im Si-wan) and In Tae-joon (Son Hyun-joo) as they fight for their conflicting ideologies and visions for the National Tax Service (NTS).

A GwenchaNoona Review | The Weekend Binge: "Tracer" Seasons 1 and 2 (left to right: photo of Park Yong-woo, Go Ah-sung, Im Si-wan and Son Hyun-joo)

The Plot

A corrupt but cunning accountant, Hwang Dong-joo (Im Si-wan, Run on), suddenly quits his high-paying job after his father Hwang Chul-min (Park Ho-san, The Penthouse 2 and 3) suspiciously dies in a car accident. His life turned upside down overnight, and now he is determined to avenge the death of his estranged father.

He eventually finds his way to the National Tax Service (NTS) Central Regional Tax Office as Division V investigation team lead, going after companies run by fraudulent professionals like he used to be. Will he gain helpful allies when the NTS has treated his demotivated team as trash? More importantly, can he take down the much more robust network of opponents led by the third most powerful man in the NTS, In Tae-joon (Son Hyun-joo, The Good Detective)?

The Review

Even two months after the last episode of Tracer aired in South Korea, English-streaming platforms have not taken up this k-drama, frustrating non-Korean-speaking fans. But with Amazon Prime Video and KOCOWA finally licensing the series last June 17 and July 1, respectively, I hope more people will enjoy this hopeful but realistic revenge story—one that is gripping despite being “gunless” and “goon-less.”

With that out of the way, let me share why I think this k-drama deserves the love, especially from those who endured the puzzling early English translations in “other” sites.

It wasn’t enough that the writers set up the conflicts in the story without the loud bangs of gunshots or the dazzling action of gang fights. They even dared to replace them with paper trails, some jargon-filled dialogues, and accounting schemes that only tax specialists may find exciting (my profound respect for tax professionals). And yet, they made the cases interesting, with each new problem related to and more intense than the previous. The resulting web of interconnected cases shows the effects of corruption and how tolerating it leads to bigger catastrophes and even banality. All this justifies Dong-joo's vision of a dramatic change in the NTS, starting from the top.

Dong-joo may appear preposterously reckless, but his actions are a product of his well-crafted plan. The way bad guys fall into his hands—and they fall hard—is as gratifying as seeing him use a sledgehammer at the end of episode 1. A former slippery fraudulent professional himself, the tax world's anti-hero Dong-joo can smell corruption oozing out of the armpits of a chaebol (conglomerate) owner from his NTS office. And with the help of his team collecting the damning evidence, he doesn't allow the errant to slip through his hands. He can predict his target's possible responses by combining his abilities to stoke people’s motivations and analyze incisively. At the same time, he can inspire his demoralized allies to believe in themselves and bring his plan closer to reality.

It’s no wonder Im Si-wan earned a Baeksang Best Actor nomination for this role. Beyond his flashy scenes and well-timed quips, he displayed a range of nuanced facial expressions, captured his character’s cockiness and earnestness, and matched the veteran actors' skills to execute delightful yet believable banter.

Dir. In Tae-joon (Son Hyun-joo) responds when confronted by Team Lead Hwang Dong-joo (Im Si-wan)
Tae-joon (Son Hyun-joo) responds to Dong-joo (Im Si-wan)

But too strong of a protagonist weakens the conflict, making it predictably dull. Fortunately, the villains are not pushovers: As Dong-joo gets closer to his goal, he finds it increasingly more difficult to win, and the potential losses can overturn his earlier gains. His rival—the fussy, calculative, and ruthless Tae-joon—is in it for the long haul. Only two steps away from the most powerful seat in the NTS, he cannot risk a single mistake from his underlings. Though he has more connections and resources than Dong-joo, he has much more in common with the Division V team lead than we are made to think.

There is no dull moment with the multiple layers of scheming and counter-scheming. The characters—so many that I need to refer to org charts—continually shift their alliances, one-upping one another through their witty banter and deceptive ploys. The story is so engaging, and the cases are so relatable that I wish for a Dong-joo clone in my own corruption-riddled corner of the world.

16 episodes (8 episodes per season), Available on Amazon Prime Video and KOCOWA

Stream If: You want a revenge story without guns or goons.

Skip If: You want a slow-paced k-drama, a linear story, or romance.

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