The ultimate revenge drama, City Hunter (2011), starring the most popular Korean male actor in the world, Lee Min Ho, is a powerful 20 episode Korean melodrama which boasts the most dramatic beginning and ending K-drama scenes I've ever seen. The drama begins with a mass assassination scene, ends with the killing of one of the main characters, but also has some romance as well, showing the lead male character's (Lee Min Ho) attraction to a forbidden girl (Park Min Young) who is a bodyguard at the "Blue House" (the Korean equivalent of the U.S. White House). The only reason this popular drama was rated A by me instead of an A+ was that, while I think some romance is fine, it should have been woven into the story more lightly as a backdrop to what's really going on in this story: two men's thirst for revenge against the evil people in government who ordered the mass assassinations of their fellow citizens.
To be fair, after about the fifth episode, the drama gets back on track on the revenge theme, and by the end that theme delivers in spades. Any lag in the story at the beginning was the writers' fault, not the actors' fault - they all delivered fine, unforgettable performances, especially the actor who plays Lee Min Ho's adoptive "father" in the story, actor Kim Sang Joong. He blew me away with his intensity, perhaps because in real life he has been a Marine and a cop, as well as an actor. At least his character never loses focus on his ultimate goal of revenge, which is far more believable than Lee Min Ho's character's obsession with a girl.
The Story: We begin in 1983 with the birth of a baby and then a real-life historical event called the Rangoon Bombing. The South Korean president and his delegates were visiting Burma when a bomb exploded, killing government officials. It had been planted by North Korean agents. Then the fictional part of the story kicks in (which easily could have been a real response to the tragedy). To strike back at North Korea, 5 South Korean officials at the highest level of government (one who is later to become the Korean president) plan a secret operation called Operation Cleansweep - to clandestinely send soldiers and military operatives into North Korea to kill the top echelon members of North Korea's communist government who had ordered the bombing.
Actor Kim Sang Joong, as Lee Jin-pyo,
keeps the focus on his main goal of revenge
A twenty-one man team is assembled for the mission, superbly organized by the brilliant officer Lee Jin-pyo (Kim Sang Joong), who is also part of the revenge team. However, as the team flawlessly achieve success in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, taking out the men responsible for the bombing, the 5 South Korean government officials who had agreed on the plan suddenly get cold feet, worrying about America's response if the operation is revealed. They fear that the U.S. would withdraw nuclear protection for South Korea if the mission is made public. The official response had been that they would not retaliate for the Rangoon Bombing. I feel that all five men are traitors to their country and ultimately responsible for what happens next!
Their mission completed, the troops have to swim out in the ocean from Nampo to an ROK Navy submarine assigned for their extraction; however, South Korean snipers aboard the submarine open fire on their own countrymen! An already injured soldier, Park Moo-yul, best friend of leader Lee Jin-pyo, sacrifices his life to save Lee, putting his body in the way of the bullets which rain down into the ocean to kill all the men. As the sole survivor, Lee secretly swims back to shore and manages to get home to South Korea, where he eventually finds out to his horror that the assault team's service and personal records have been completely erased! Outraged at the betrayal of his brave officers, he promises to spend the rest of his life exacting revenge against the murderers of the brave team who had been under his command.
Jin-pyo ends up kidnapping whom he thinks is his dead best friend's infant son from his distraught mother, Lee Kyung-hee (Kim Mi Sook), and he names him Lee Yoon-sung. He plans to raise the boy to help him in his revenge plan against the 5 government officials who had ordered the despicable hit on the secret assault team. Although he raises the boy with a certain amount of freedom in the Golden Triangle, he also begins to train the boy physically in all methods of combat and self-defense.
Eventually, after an attack on their village, Jin-pyo confesses to the teenage boy Yoon-sung (Lee Min Ho) that he is adopted, but lies to him about his mother, saying she had abandoned him. He tells Yoon-sung of his ultimate goal of revenge: wiping out the 5 corrupt men who had killed his father. (At this point in the story neither man has a clue that Park Moo-yul was not the boy's biological father - the real biological father is someone at the top echelon of the South Korean government).
Yoon-sung (Lee Min Ho) in his earlier more carefree days,
and then his days as a trained killer
Seven years later, after successfully finishing all his education in the United States, Yoon-sung returns to South Korea to fulfill his adoptive father's plan for revenge. He enters the Blue House as an IT expert under the National Communication Network Team. He is warned by his adoptive father Jin-pyo not to trust anyone and to never fall in love, as doing so will put him and all the people around him in danger. Yoon-sung has had relationships with multiple women, but always purely sexual in nature, not serious; his heart was never involved. Then he meets a beautiful young girl named Nana Kim (Park Min Young) who has had her own sad family history, including a mother killed in a car crash and a father who is comatose due to the same crash. She has been hired as a bodyguard at the Blue House, in charge of protecting the current South Korean President Chun Ho-jin (Choi Eung Chan). Although at first Nana has a crush on an energetic, ambitious prosecutor Young-joo Kim (Joon Hyuk Lee), Yoon-sung's attraction to her distracts her more and more from her crush and toward a fascination with Yoon-sung.
Each political member of the original "Council of Five", who had ordered the hit on the assault team, have achieved significant wealth and political influence since 1983, and are engaged in various levels of corruption. One by one, as their identities are uncovered by Jin-pyo, they are each targeted to be murdered, but Yoon-sung decides within himself that if he surrenders to Jin-pyo's commands that he shoot each man with the intent to kill, that that would make him no better than those evil men.
As each target goes down, Yoon-sung instead gathers evidence regarding their other corruptions, for instance stealing from the treasury or covering up the fact that they've taken political bribes, and deposits the tied-up men in boxes near the ministry of justice where prosecutor Young-joo Kim works, together with covert video and audio evidence of the men implicating themselves in their own corrupt activities.
Coffee Break From Horror
In all this Yoon-sung is aided by his friend from childhood, whose life he had saved, the quirky and oddball Man-duk Bae (funny character actor Sang Ho Kim), and a wise woman he knows who understands the stresses he's under, the veterinarian Soo Hee Jin (Hee Hwang Sun, who played the evil twin in Master's Sun). When he is injured he goes undercover to her and she patches him up and gives him necessary meds like antibiotics. As the series progresses, even Yoon-sung's rival for Nana's affections, the prosecutor Young-joo, becomes more and more on his side!
Actors who add spice to City Hunter:
Hee Hwang Sun, Joon Hyuk Lee, Sang Ho Kim
When the political corruption of each of the Council of Five becomes public (this happens because Yoon-sung calls the press and tells them to arrive at locations where the boxes are deposited!) the populace become intrigued by the so-called "City Hunter". Which corrupt politician will be next on his target list, the people wonder?
Yoon-sung's alternate means of obtaining justice angers his adoptive father Jin-pyo so he tries to find his own secret methods to circumvent his son and murder each man instead. Nothing will deter him from what he considers the ultimate justice: execution. Meanwhile, Nana becomes more and more convinced that Yoon-sung might actually be the City Hunter, especially when she sees the eyes of the masked City Hunter as he tries to rescue her during the pursuit of one of the corrupt Council of Five members. She eventually confronts him and learns the truth but he warns her she must forget him or risk being killed in the process. "This is the real me", he tells her, meaning he is not focused on love, but revenge. However Nana is too far gone in love with Yoon-sung by this point to remove herself from the situation. They actually end up becoming a team in the revenge plot because in some ways they have the same goals: exposing corruption in the government.
While the revenge plans are ongoing Yoon-sung eventually discovers where his mother lives and finds her in a bad way; she is very ill and struggling to make a living working at an outdoor cafe she has set up near the Blue House. He does not reveal his true identity to her but ends up donating bone marrow to her when she is diagnosed with leukemia. His mother receives a sudden secretive meeting with the current President of South Korea, and can you guess the reason why?
There are additional characters and mini-sub-plots going on in City Hunter but I won't reveal them all: you simply have to watch this stunning show and feast your eyes on Lee Min Ho's powerful performance as Yoon-sung. What will happen when his adoptive father finally has had it with Yoon-sung's interference in his plans to execute the Council of Five? Can two men who, when all is said and done, continue to have a deep unspoken love for one another, possibly kill each other at the same time? I will reveal that it is not a pretty sight, in fact it's one of the most compelling and mesmerizing scenes in K-drama history.
I believe Yoon-sung went about seeking revenge in the right way, and Jin-pyo in the wrong way: if he had murdered someone else's husband and father, no matter how corrupt, would that make him superior to the Council of Five, who had ordered the executions of the husbands and fathers who were the soldiers dying in those cold ocean waters in 1983?
I liked the ending of City Hunter a lot, though I did feel frustrated that there was one member of the Council of Five who didn't quite get the comeuppance he deserved, but you will have to figure out what I mean by watching this superb Korean drama. You can buy the DVD box set off Amazon (the ideal way to see it, just make sure to get the YA Entertainment box set and not a bad bootleg rip off with poor visual, audio, subtitle quality). A show like this deserves the best presentation available. Enjoy!