Netflix has jumped head-first into the world of Korean dramas in the last few years. Not just in globally distributing local network dramas, but actually producing their own original series as well. Sometimes, however, those Netflix originals try too hard to cater to that international audience that they either lose that K-drama charm that has enamored audiences around the world or fashion stories that fit the Western-style, multi-season format contrary to the usually closed-ended Korean execution.
Netflix manages to balance and temper those worries in their latest Korean original Narco-Saints (수리남/Suriname). The six-episode series plays more like a six-hour film. And because of that, unlike many of Netflix’s originals, it ends up being a wholly satisfying experience. Powered by a stellar, big-name cast and its lush location, Narco-Saints is a well-paced thriller that effectively builds up to a truly exhilarating climax.
Narco-Saints follows Kang In Gu (Ha Jung Woo), a scrappy businessman who just wants his family to live a better, more comfortable life than he did growing up. His friend Eung Soo (Hyun Bong Sik) approaches him with an opportunity to import skate from Suriname (where they can’t stand the fish) to Korea with a high profit margin. In Gu decides to take the leap and he flies to Suriname to oversee the initially successful business with Eung Soo.
Unfortunately, they end up getting entangled with Jeon Yo Hwan (Hwang Jung Min), a charismatic Korean pastor who leverages his cultish following as a front for his drug empire based in Surname. After unwittingly taking the fall for a botched drug shipment, In Gu is thrown in jail. But he is soon approached by National Intelligence Service agent Choi Chang Ho (Park Hae Soo) who recruits him to join an operation to finally bring Jeon Yo Hwan to justice.
Narco-Saints effectively lays all the pieces on the table before carefully putting them together. The series’ steady pace works in its favor as the thoughtful set-up of the overall plot works hand-in-hand with well-positioned character development. It has a perfect balance between character-driven and plot-driven twists and turns.
Though much of the story can feel familiar, especially for anyone who has watched any of Netflix’s other drug-infused crime thrillers, Narco-Saints is able to include just enough of a Korean drama touch to what is very much a Western-style blockbuster-type story. That helps support the series’ cinematic vibe. Slick production and stunning cinematography compliment bloody action scenes and lush landscapes. And the steady build-up to the exciting climax and eventual satisfying ending solidifies the series’ total package.
But what is perhaps Narco-Saints‘ strongest aspect is its cast. The combination of Ha Jung Woo, Hwang Jung Min and Park Hae Soo is an absolute winner. Three big names who never fail to deliver, especially when it comes to big, cinematic performances.
Ha Jung Woo is perfectly cast as Kang In Gu. He effortlessly encapsulates the journey of an everyman that gets thrust into an almost impossible situation. But as much as In Gu is a fish out of water, he isn’t a helpless klutz. And Ha Jung Woo’s performance makes that a believable and engaging reality.
Hwang Jun Min, meanwhile, is magnetic as the sly, meticulous pastor/kingpin. He delivers a performance that helps make Jeon Yo Hwan a larger-than-life personality worthy of an international operation to catch him.
As NIS agent Choi Chang Ho, Park Hae Soo takes over the series’ business-like corner and gives the story its needed crime-fighting heft to make the mission one that is worth having as well.
Yoo Yeon Seok and Kim Min Gwi do great as two of Pastor Jeon’s top-ranking lackeys. But Jo Woo Jin as Jeon’s right-hand man Byun Ki Tae and Chang Chen as rival Chinese gangster Chen Jin are absolute scene-stealers. And all of them are integral to the well laid-out story.
Narco-Saints won’t be the most groundbreaking story. And it misses a few opportunities, perhaps even justifying another episode or two to flesh some potential plot threads out a bit more. But with its perfectly steady pace leading up to a climactic finale, the series ultimately succeeds in what it sets out to do. And that is to be a thrilling and satisfying ride.