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Kwon Soo-hyun (top) as prosecutor Cha Do-won and Seo In-guk as sham shaman Nam Han-jun in a still from Cafe Minamdang, a series that lacked any tension by its finale.

Review | Netflix K-drama review: Cafe Minamdang – shaman-procedural comedy makes jarring switch to psychological thriller

  • Seo In-guk’s cocky police officer turned sham shaman was always one step ahead of everyone else in this procedural comedy, and proved boring to watch
  • The show’s switch in narrative near the end was jarring, and romance in the show fell flat. Cafe Minamdang was ultimately undone by a predictable lack of stakes

This article contains spoilers.

2/5 stars

Although countless lives have been ruined by scams in South Korea in real life, con artists are often the heroes of K-dramas. In shows like Vincenzo and The Devil Judge, we delight in wily leads who use their smarts to trick and deceive those who abuse their positions of authority.
The hero of Cafe Minamdang is Nam Han-jun ( Seo In-guk), a man who used to be a police officer but is presented as being more trustworthy in his new profession.
These days, Han-jun is a fake shaman, who uses his investigative skills and the help of his aides at Cafe Minamdang to get to the bottom of his clients’ problems. What they see is a brilliant shaman who communes with the spirits.

Han-jun may be a charlatan, but he has a moral code of sorts, which is meant to wash away the bad taste of his criminal activity. He fools all the people who celebrate him as the self-styled “Wonder of Yonghae-dong”, and also hoodwinks the people who are in on his deception.

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Han-jun and his gang lie, cheat and hack their way through a series of cases, often deceiving the people they are supposed to be working with. Again, since this is generally in service of a greater good, he is presented in a favourable light.

Even when he collaborates with the police, he drags officers down to his level, forcing them to bend the laws they are supposed to uphold. In the show’s world, lawful behaviour cannot solve problems, only a con man with a cheeky grin can.

Little surprise, then, that the show’s secret villain turned out to be the one with the most institutional power, prosecutor Cha Do-won (Kwon Soo-hyun).

Kwon Soo-hyun as prosecutor Cha Do-won in a still from Cafe Minamdang.
The show had been leading us to believe that the big bad was Do-won’s oily-haired brother Cha Seung-won (Lee Jae-woon), the nefarious CEO of a construction corporation. In a twist straight out of the Mouse scriptwriting playbook, Do-won was actually born a bloodthirsty psychopath.

As a child, he was treated by a deranged psychiatrist who used hypnotic suggestion to manipulate his memories and suppress his evil desires.

Rather than the straight-shooting prosecutor he appears to be, Do-won is a twisted vigilante who sates his need to murder by killing criminals. When people get in his way, he has no qualms about dispatching them as well to protect his secret identity.

Among those people is fellow prosecutor Han Jae-jeong (Song Jae-rim), friend to Han-jun and brother to series co-lead Han Jae-hui (Oh Yeon-seo).

As a cold case and new cases coalesced over the weeks, Jae-jeong’s death appeared to be connected to the shady development deal being hatched by Seung-won and the menacing shaman Aunt Im (Jung Da-eun).

Soon after the revelation of Do-won’s murderous personality – of which the other characters remain unaware – the development deal falls apart and Aunt Im is summarily dispatched by Do-won, who tries to set up Han-jun for her murder.

Kang Mi-na (left) as hacker Nam Hye-jun and Oh Yeon-seo as co-lead Han Jae-hui in a still from Cafe Minamdang.

Shady development deals are a dime a dozen in Korean dramas and the one presented in Cafe Minamdang was hardly worth writing home about. Losing that narrative angle was no big loss – but the rapid switch to serial-killer psychological thriller was a touch jarring and, if you could be bothered to think about it, not especially logical.

Han-jun’s skills in investigation and subterfuge make him a victim of his own success. No matter the task at hand, he was always one step ahead of everyone else. The pattern became so repetitive, it was soon clear to us that no matter what situation he found himself in, he would either immediately find his way out, or we would find out that he had engineered it.

This is occasionally fun, but it also means that the whole show lacked tension. Cafe Minamdang may have been a comedy first and foremost, but it leaned very heavily into action, thriller and even horror tropes, all of which were undone by the show’s predictable lack of stakes.

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Another element that featured strongly but fell flat was romance. Han-jun’s hacker sister Nam Hye-jun (Kang Mi-na) and his friend Kong Su-cheol (Kwak Si-yang) engaged in a nauseatingly infantile relationship behind his back, but the real problem was between leads Han-jun and Jae-hui.

There may have been a hint of a spark between them early on, but since the show never took their relationship seriously, how could we be expected to? The story is so strongly centred on Han-jun, a self-important character, that it occasionally forgets it even has a female co-star.

Cafe Minamdang’s climactic showdown features Han-jun’s most elaborate put-on yet, as he assembles the whole gang to lure the now unmasked Do-won out into the open – and high jinks ensue.

Seo In-guk as Nam Han-jun in a still from Cafe Minamdang.
The scene takes place at Yongma Land, an abandoned amusement park that is quickly becoming one of the most overused locations on Korean television. It has featured prominently in half a dozen shows in the past two years, including The Sound of Magic and Sisyphus: The Myth. Like a lot of Cafe Minamdang, Yongma Land turned out to be a colourful but hollow backdrop.

Cafe Minamdang is streaming on Netflix.