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Ha Jung-woo (centre) as Kang Ingu in a still from Netflix series Narco-Saints. Photo: Cho Wonjin/Netflix

Review | Netflix K-drama review: Narco-Saints – Ha Jung-woo, Hwang Jung-min in epic drug saga by The Spy Gone North director that takes an explosive journey down a familiar path

  • Big-budget Netflix series is set in Suriname, South America, and follows a Korean man who is helped out by a priest and gets caught up in the drug trade
  • He meets a Korean intelligence officer who gets him to go undercover against the priest, who is the head of a drug cartel

3/5 stars

Korean men seek to make their fortunes in South America in director Yoon Jong-bin’s epic and explosive Netflix crime saga Narco-Saints.

Ha Jung-woo ( Along with the Gods) and Hwang Jung-min ( Veteran), two of South Korea’s biggest box office stars, lead a predominantly male cast in this richly realised romp through the streets and jungles of Suriname (the Korean title of the series).

Like many of director Yoon’s previous films (this is his first TV drama), the story follows the tense relationship between two ambitious men who cautiously come to respect each other.

Netflix has afforded Yoon his biggest canvas yet, with a show that was shot on location in the Dominican Republic and is said to have by far the highest per episode budget of any Korean drama.

Echoing grand drug lord sagas like Narcos and Scarface, Narco-Saints is a suitably bloody and operatic affair, but beneath its filmmaking chutzpah is a story that doesn’t add anything new to the mix, beyond a novel location and an intriguing fake religion backdrop – a storyline that is quickly abandoned in favour of classic crime elements.

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Loosely based on real events, the six-episode series follows Kang Ingu (Ha), a man who worked his way up from poverty to provide for his family. He still can’t keep the wolves from the door, so when a friend approaches him with a business proposal in a faraway land, it proves impossible to resist.

Leaving his family behind, he relocates to Suriname, an impoverished former Dutch colony. He proceeds to buy up skate from local fishermen on the cheap and exports it back to Korea, where it is a delicacy.

The wily Ingu knows when to grease the pipes, but when the local Chinese gang comes a-knocking, led by the gruff and hirsute Chen Jin (Chang Chen), the kickbacks are beyond what he can pay.

Hwang Jung-min as Jeon Yohan in a still from Narco-Saints. Photo: Cho Wonjin/Netflix

On orders from his Christian wife, Ingu visits a local Korean church, run by the charismatic Pastor Jeon Yohwan (Hwang). Pastor Jeon offers a helping hand and to Ingu’s surprise, his troubles are soon over, though in reality they’ve only just begun.

Ingu soon becomes an unwitting pawn in the international drug trade, and the next person who bails him out is the strait-laced Korean National Intelligence Service agent Choi Changho ( Squid Game’s Park Hae-soo).

Changho lays a bombshell on Ingu: Pastor Jeon is actually the cocaine king of Suriname and if Ingu wants Changho’s help, he’s going to need to go undercover and gain the pastor’s trust.

Narco-Saints kicks off with an extended montage of Ingu’s backstory, but it’s only after he arrives in Suriname that it comes to life. Hwang Jung-min’s electric entrance as Pastor Jeon, the vivid location photography and evocative costume and production design are a big part of this, but it’s also because this is the story of Korean men on the road.

Ha Jung-woo (left) as Kang Ingu and Park Hae-soo as Choi Changho in a still from Narco-Saints. Photo: Cho Wonjin/Netflix

Appropriately the first scene, which is a moment we catch up with later in the series, introduces us to Ingu on the road. He’s riding in the back of a truck driving through a Surinamese jungle and intently staring at a baseball signed by pitcher Chan Ho Park, the first Korean-born player in the MLB.

The baseball was given to Ingu by Pastor Jeon, who lionises the achievements of fellow countrymen in Western sports, but is it real? At a different point, the pastor offers a similar gift to a non-Korean, but we know this one is a fake.

Yoon’s films are strongly rooted in male camaraderie, from his edgy indie debut film about military service, The Unforgiven, to his superlative North Korean espionage drama The Spy Gone North; both films screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
Yoo Yeon-seok as David Julio Park in a still from Narco-Saints. Photo: Cho Wonjin/Netflix

Much like in The Spy Gone North, which chronicled the tense and surprising friendship between a North Korean diplomat and a South Korean spy posing as a businessman, the unusual bond between Ingu and Pastor Jeon is at the heart of Narco-Saints.

The relationship gets off on the wrong foot, to put it mildly, but ultimately they are both Korean men away from home, trying to make their fortunes. Pastor Jeon has other people around him, like the Chinese-Korean gangster Byeon Kitae (Jo Woo-jin) and the American-raised lawyer David Park (Yoo Yeon-seok), but Ingu is closest to a home that he can’t go back to.

Given its macho focus, it’s perhaps unsurprising that women are given short shrift in the story. Ingu’s wife, Hyejin (Choo Ja-hyun), who barely features after the opening episode, is painted as a nag, and there are only a handful of lines spoken by other women in the story.

Hwang Jung-min as Jeon Yohan in a still from Narco-Saints. Photo: Cho Wonjin/Netflix

Also missing are local characters, save for a greedy president in Pastor Jeon’s pocket and local prostitutes who hang around but never utter a word.

Period blockbusters set in third world countries are currently a major trend in the Korean film industry (including Escape from Mogadishu and several upcoming films), but many of these stories, which are loosely based on actual events, fail to incorporate local protagonists.

With its charismatic drug lord, high production standards and catchy theme from composer Cho Young-wook, Narco-Saints is often a treat to watch. But it is sometimes let down by an overreliance on English scenes between non-native speakers and a story that lacks depth.

Narco-Saints will start streaming on Netflix on September 9.