Anna: For our first Bringing the Drama feature we picked the romantic comedy You’re Beautiful, so for our next column we decided to vary genres a bit and discuss a more action-oriented series very loosely based on a manga, City Hunter. City Hunter is the story of a boy named Lee Yoon Sung who is taken from his mother as an infant and then raised in Thailand by an ex-spy turned Drug Triad Boss as an instrument of revenge against the Korean government. Returning to Korea with a doctorate from MIT, our hero promptly gets a job working in computer security for the government and encounters a feisty female bodyguard named Kim Na Na. Together, they expose corruption and struggle with their mutual attraction! City Hunter is available for streaming online on Dramafever, and Netflix.
Anna: Have you read the City Hunter manga at all? I have the first volume and I’ve paged through a couple chapters, and I have to say that there’s not much resemblance between the manga and the drama, other than the fact that both versions of City Hunter wear sharp looking blazers and have womanizing tendencies.
Emily: It took me a while to decide to watch the City Hunter drama (and I still haven’t finished it, though I plan to). I am a huge fan of the manga, and it’s blatantly obvious that the only thing this drama has in common with the source material is the title. I was only really able to enjoy this by telling myself that it isn’t REALLY City Hunter, it’s a completely different franchise, and the name is just a coincidence :) There is no way Lee Min-Ho’s character resembles my beloved pervert Ryo Saeba, that’s for sure.
Nancy: I haven’t read the City Hunter manga, so I didn’t have to battle the same expectations as Emily did. I really enjoyed watching this drama. I usually choose romantic dramas, so the action in this was refreshing. And it stars Lee Min Ho.
Eva: I haven’t read any of the manga either, and now that I’ve heard from Emily, I’m kind of glad I haven’t. While I understand that a book is a book and a television show is a television show and one is never going to be just like the other, if your show is going to be nothing like the book, why bother licensing it?
Anna: I thought that this was one of those series where you really have to watch at least 2 episodes in order to get into it. Not that the first episode was bad, but there’s so much tragic back story in the show to start out with, Lee Min Ho doesn’t show up until over a half hour into the starting episode. What did you think about the shift in tone between the first and second episodes?
Emily: I was also worried, after watching episode 1, that this series would take itself too seriously, and be all dramatic action and depressing stuff. That first episode is all back story, and while I suppose it’s useful, I sort of think that it might have also been interesting to open the series with Lee Min Ho’s character just arriving in Seoul for his job at the Blue House, and for them to let us in on his back story bit by bit as we watch him work his revenge. I was happy to see the dreary tone lighten up a little once Na Na arrived on the scene.
Nancy: I think the first episode needed the gritty beginning to prepare you for the political intrigue and brutality ahead. If you can’t sit through the beginning, you may not be able to take the rest of the drama. There will be blood and violence. There will be mean, dastardly men in power. There will be sweet romance too, but this is a bitter, fatalistic drama. That’s part of the beauty of it. You’re not sure how it can end in any other way than tragedy, so you keep watching.
Eva: I was hooked from the first episode, and that’s rare for me. As I said in our discussion of You’re Beautiful, it usually takes me three to four episodes to really get into a kdrama, which is about how long it takes for the writing team to figure out which direction they’re going to take the show. But City Hunter started off with a bang: tragedy! deception! crime! gunfire! more tragedy! It was fantastic! And then, once Lee Min Ho’s character was introduced, we got a much needed humor break and it was fantastic, too! The second episode gave me even more action hero action and I couldn’t have been happier. I mean, I like me some romantic comedy, don’t get me wrong, but there’s nothing like violence and vigilante-ism to get my heart pumping.
The sad thing about episode two is that Kim Na Na’s back story is so much less interesting than Lee Yoon Sung’s. And the whole Blue House cadre — especially the stupid, stupid, stupid president’s daughter — well, you have to take the bad to get the good, right?
Anna: I feel that any discussion of City Hunter would be incomplete without an examination of how cute Lee Min Ho is. What are your thoughts on this matter?
Emily: Lee Min Ho is very cute, but I admit that I think I liked him best with his ridiculous haircut from Boys Over Flowers. Or maybe I just like him more with his hair off his forehead. I was also happy to see him wearing pants that reach past his ankles. In Personal Taste, his character always wore these floods/highwater type pants that annoyed me so much :) I think he has great chemistry with all of his leading ladies.
Anna: He is my absolute favorite live-action Tsukasa! I agree that he is the type of actor who can manufacture chemistry with anyone. While he wasn’t wearing floods in City Hunter, I found myself sometimes perplexed by his pink pants. They don’t seem like the type of thing anybody would wear if they were engaged in covert action in a city.
Nancy: I really liked Min Ho in this. I think he’s a great action star as well as a romantic lead. At some point you wonder why Lee Yoon doesn’t just run the hell away or off his bastard father altogether, but somehow Min Ho is able to keep you believing in the choices his character makes despite all the craziness happening around him. I prefer him in this to Boys Over Flowers.
Eva: Lee Min Ho is adorable. It’s funny that Emily should mention his hair from Boys Over Flowers, because I was mesmerized by his hair in that series. Lee Min Ho’s hair is about as convincingly curly as mine is (which is to say, not at all), and I loved watching the curls slip slowly down his head whenever the weather was even remotely humid. And that chapter when they were in Thailand? At the hotel right on the water? Hahahahahaha! I think his stylist just gave up at that point and walked away. Hee! It still makes me laugh just thinking about it.
I will say that over the years, Lee Min Ho’s acting keeps getting better and better. He’s earning some comedy chops and I was surprised at how well he has pulled off the action scenes. I still don’t find him terribly convincing during the sensitive, romantic scenes, but that may be due to the fact that he’s freakishly tall compared to his costar. There’s one scene where Lee Yoon Sung comes up behind Kim Na Na and embraces her, resting his head on her shoulder. And even though it can’t be seen onscreen, everyone knows that he’s had to bend so far over to get down that low that his butt must be sticking out into the room behind him. Which, for me as a viewer, kind of spoils the mood.
Anna: One of the things I found amusing in the staging of the action scenes in City Hunter is that it seemed like there were some Bourne movie influences in the way Lee Yoon Sung fought his enemies. There were several scenes where he relied on improvised weapons like a rolled up folder or a random spoon. This also underscored his reluctance to kill, because he wasn’t always reaching for a gun to shoot his way out of tough situations.
Anna: The main source of dramatic tension in this series was found in the different philosophies towards revenge that the father and son exhibit. Lee Jin Pyo is determined to carry out his revenge through straightforward assassination, but Lee Yoon Sung wants to expose his adopted father’s enemies to public censure instead. Did this conflict, combined with the detective work in hunting down Lee Jin Pyo’s betrayers maintain your interest throughout the series or however much of it you’ve watched?
Eva: I would have liked to have seen more of the father-son conflict in the series, but then again, it was the action/adventure side of City Hunter that drew me to the series in the first place. Lee Jin Pyo was awesome in his ruthless take-no-prisoners approach to revenge (his smug smile of satisfaction was something I found myself looking forward to towards the end of the series), and the conflicting revenge styles made for good drama. What I didn’t like was when the conflict between father and son became an afterthought. What I kept hoping for was what we had with the show IRIS, where it was the romance that was the afterthought and the intrigue that was, well, intriguing.
Anna: I thought that Lee Jin Pyo was also awesomely ruthless his approach to revenge and his wearing of cravats. I wish that there had been a tiny bit more nuance in his approach though, because it did make his behavior and reactions a little bit predictable.
Anna: Does anyone have any theories about the prevalence of “Daddy Long-Legs” type plots in dramas? Having the righteous young prosecutor sending Kim Na Na anonymous notes of encouragement and presents certainly helped cement the love quadrangle that provides a nice contrast to the father-son angst and action scenes.
Emily: Regarding the use of Daddy Longlegs themes in dramas, I know I have seen the trope before, though a specific instance is eluding me. My impression, though, is that it is usually part of what eventually turns into a romantic gesture (as opposed to a mentor/sponsor adult supporting a child in a paternal sort of way) and dramas usually end up making what could seem like a kind of creepy thing into something kind of sweet. I guess you could consider the super nice supportive second lead guys as Daddy Longlegs characters. Like Shinwoo in You’re Beautiful, when he would do nice things for Minam in secret (and losing the opportunity to reveal himself). The helping-the-girl-in-secret thing is, as I thought in You’re Beautiful, nice, but too passive. Given that kdrama heroines are often naive, the bold approach is better. I think the Daddy Longlegs approach would only work with a stronger, sharper, more assertive heroine, because she would figure out who her benefactor is, or at least would have a funny reaction to all the unwanted help.
Anna: I think there was a fair amount of Daddy Longlegs in the second lead’s approach to the heroine in Coffee Prince too, since he was generally in the quietly supportive mode, taking her out for a makeover and just generally being her cheerleader.
Anna: What did you think of Kim Na Na’s character arc? I confess that I was hoping that she’d be the focus of more heroic action towards the end of the series, just because so much was made of her abilities as a woman of action in the first few episodes. I was a little disappointed, but not surprised that she ended up in more of a girlfriend role at the end.
Eva: I still haven’t seen the last four episodes, so I don’t really know what happens with Kim Na Na at the end. I’m guessing (this is a Korean drama, after all) that her father wakes up from his coma, that Lee Yoon Sung’s mother goes into remission, and that all four live happily ever after eating food cooked by Bae Shik Joong. But I don’t actually know.
Emily: I have only seen half way through City Hunter, so I can’t comment on the end of Na Na’s storyline. But my impression of her from the beginning is that she is a reasonably strong character (working hard to earn her position, skilled at martial arts, etc) even though she still has a bit of that kdrama-heroine-naivety . She doesn’t seem like the weak type that needs rescuing all the time.
Nancy: I think Kim Na Na’s story arc ended before the series did. She was just hanging around, waiting for the ending, and perhaps that could have been structured better, but I feel her character was consistent throughout and she overcame her own set of obstacles. I was not displeased.
Anna: My hopes were probably raised too high after seeing Kim Na Na throw Lee Yoon Sung around so much at the beginning of the series. Still, I think it is notable that Na Na is able to be as much of an action heroine as she is.
So overall, City Hunter is a show with great production values, a good mix of tragedy, comedy, and action, and it features an engaging cast of characters anchored by the always handsome Lee Min Ho. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out! If watching City Hunter prompts you to seek out other action-oriented series, a good one to try next is the spy saga IRIS.