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Seo In-guk (centre) in a still from Cafe Minamdang. Netflix’s fake-shaman-themed crime comedy, starring Seo In-guk and Oh Yeon-seo, sidelines its best characters. Photo: Cafe Minamdang

K-drama midseason recap: Cafe Minamdang – Netflix’s dodgy shaman-themed crime comedy, starring Seo In-guk and Oh Yeon-seo, sidelines its best characters

  • The Korean series revolves around a coffee shop owner and fake fortune-teller who scams clients but gets romantically involved with a young detective
  • After a strong start the series flops – neglecting its best characters in favour of bizarre attempts at comedy centred around Seo In-guk’s frustrating character

This article contains minor spoilers.

This summer is the season of the themed cafe on Korean TV.

Americano with a side of legal consultation? The Law Cafe will have you covered next month. Hoping to find your future in the dregs of your latte? Drop into Cafe Minamdang and drop to your knees before the all-powerful shaman Nam Han-jun.

Ubiquitous throughout South Korea, cafes come in all shapes and sizes. Now they also cater to all your needs and hobbies, with everything from study, game or bike cafes to puppy and even raccoon cafes, readily found in major towns.

But sometimes you just want a cup of coffee, and novelty cafes may be a fun outing for the afternoon, but they’re not known for their strong brewing techniques. They seldom inspire repeat visits.

Much like a novelty cafe, Cafe Minamdang dazzled us with its vibrant colours and cheeky concept when we first walked through its doors, but after a fun opening week of episodes, its effusive energy grew tiresome as the show revealed itself to be unfocused.

Cafe Minamdang: lively shaman-themed K-drama on Netflix

The show steadily loses its grip on our attention, which soon turns to the other elements on offer, and its shaky foundations steadily come to the fore.

Putting the sham in shaman, Han-jun ( Seo In-guk) actually possesses no special gifts. Instead, he is a brilliant former investigator blessed with Sherlock Holmes-level powers of deduction, which help him size up people and situations within seconds of encountering them.

He gets a little help from his co-conspirators at Cafe Minamdang – the titular cafe that he runs – including hacker Nam Hye-jun (Kang Mi-na) and Kong Su-chol (Kwak Si-yang), but he does the heavy mental lifting himself.

Oh Yeon-seo as Han Jae-hui in a still from Cafe Minamdang. Photo: Cafe Minamdang

He’s sharp and very cocky – just like Sherlock Holmes – but any pleasure that might be derived from his sleuthing is overwhelmed by his aggressive mannerisms and the speed at which his “evidence” tends to be revealed.

Before we can piece things together in our minds – though the investigations tend to be neither clever nor particularly logical – we’re already onto the next scene.

These in-between scenes often feature Han-jun and his Minamdang crew messing around. Hye-jun’s smelly feet are the subject of many a gag. While the gang frequently guffaw when in each others’ company, we’re left scratching our heads at home as we bear witness to these puzzling and ultimately tiresome attempts at comedy.

Seo In-guk as Han-jun in a still from Cafe Minamdang. Photo: Cafe Minamdang

But of course Cafe Minamdang is a Korean prime time drama, which means that in addition to the comedy and crime, we should expect a little romance.

In aid of this we have co-star Oh Yeon-seo’s gutsy detective Han Jae-hui, who initially loathes the cocksure Han-jun – which is understandable – but then steadily experiences a change of heart, which is less convincing.

There’s also the fastidious prosecutor Cha Do-won (Kwon Soo-hyun), who is presented as the potential third corner of a love triangle, but despite him being by far the most attractive of Jae-hui’s potential suitors, the show doesn’t seem to care about him very much.

In fact, it also gives surprisingly short shrift to Oh, its female lead. While not a particularly original creation, Jae-hui is a very watchable character, which is in no small part because of Oh’s performance.

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While the focus should really be on her and Han-jun, as the male co-lead, many of the show’s best moments take place between her and her colleagues in the office, particularly detective Jang Du-jin, played by the affable and stolid character actor Jung Man-sik.

Oh’s character, who isn’t a million miles from the enjoyable lead she played in last year’s Mad for Each Other, gets a strong start on the show. It’s a pity that she has so quickly been sidelined to give more room for Seo’s wacky shenanigans as the preening and grimacing Han-jun.

We’re just over the halfway mark in the show and Jae-hui has revealed herself to Han-jun, confessing that she is the sister of his deceased prosecutor friend, who they are both trying to avenge.

Oh Yeon-seo gives a convincing performance in this otherwise mediocre crime comedy. Photo: Cafe Minamdang

To that end, the show is dragging us down its investigative rabbit hole, as it attempts to surprise us with revelations about who was really responsible for his death.

The first person presented to us as a potential culprit is quickly revealed to be a patsy. Then we move on to a vicious and remorseless killer, but he too is only a pawn being employed by bigger players, including a shaman (a real one this time) and – you guessed it – a powerful and shady corporation run by odious middle-aged men.

The story cycles quickly through these villains; none of them stick around long enough to leave much of an impression, which makes it hard to care about any of them getting their comeuppance.

Seo In-guk is frustrating in his portrayal of the cocky Han-jun, and this sets the tone for the series. Photo: Cafe Minamdang

If Han-jun were a less frustrating screen presence, if the investigative aspects were more cleverly deployed and if the romance was built on something we cared about, these weak villains might not be a death knell for the show.

But that’s a lot of ifs, and the only one that should really concern us at this point is if we should carry on riding this rickety train.

Cafe Minamdang is streaming on Netflix.