Review of ‘Narco-Saints’: a Supercharged Bizarre True Story of a Korean Pastor / Drug Lord

An ordinary man named Kang In-gu has clawed his way out of poverty and wants more than anything to live a normal middle-class family life. But alas it is not meant to be and a series of unfortunate events leads Kang instead into the deadly world of international narcotics. One lesson he takes from this unwelcome new reality is this: “If you can deceive, you live, and if you are deceived, you die (속이면 살고, 속으면 죽는다).” 

Narco-Saints suriname
Ha Jung-woo as Kang In-gu, a diligent businessman who gets trapped in the international cocaine trade.

The six-part Netflix series called “Narco-Saints” cost $5 million per episode and it shows. Impressively well-balanced, it is reminiscent of many of the best drug lord movies, yet remains true to its unique Korean style. Many top stars shine but the excellent directing by Yoon Jong-bin results in some excellent chemistry among the cast. Much of the series takes place in a small South American country called Suriname and this incredible drama is actually adapted from real events.

“Narco-Saints” starts with an abrupt question. “Do you know a country called Suriname?” As the storyline proceeds, the many answers to this question unfold as we are introduced to the little-known country which includes a Chinatown. Still, one question lingers: why do so many Chinese people live in this faraway tiny country? Suriname seems a world away from China but the answer is surprisingly simple. 

narco-saints suriname review
Right: Hwang Jung-min as Pastor Jeon Yo-hwan in the Chinatown section of Suriname.

From the 16th to 19th centuries, during the heyday of European imperialism, the Dutch conquered Suriname and brought slaves from Africa in order to extract the country’s abundant natural resources. When imperialism faded away, the Dutch freed the Black slaves. To make up for the labor vacancy, they went to China to recruit workers. There, poor Chinese people signed labor contracts and crossed the great oceans in search of a better life.  After the end of World War II, the Chinese workers were released from the contracts and they collectively moved to the capital city, Paramaribo, forming ‘Chinatown’.

Throughout the series we hear a famous Korean song;  ‘The Dream’, which was composed and sung by Cho Yong-Pil, one of the biggest Korean pop stars of the 80s,

… I came a long way here in search of a dream/ I walked on this painful and rough road/ I don’t know where the forest is nor the swamp is/ No one tells me … -Cho Yong-Pil

Forest seemed a place to hide and survive while a swamp meant sinking to death. Pastor Jeon Yo-hwan, the Narco Saint, loves this song. He even sings along loudly,  turning the CD volume up while driving through his cocaine field. 

Interestingly, the “Narco-Saints” saga starts with a fish called skate and ends with drugs. Skate is not popular in the West because of its strong odor and it’s hard to find people other than Koreans who eat this fish. Koreans, who invented kimchi, have learned the technique of fermenting skate in a special way and it is a delicacy that’s much loved in Korea. Kang In-gu reveals that his father ate fermented skate whenever he drank soju, and some might say that an acquired taste of skate is not unlike an addiction of sorts.

Just like the hook of skate, this limited series reaches in and doesn’t let go. Jampacked with twists and turns, this drama keeps viewers guessing and wanting more. The dialogue is charmingly peppered with folksy Korean phrases. Choi Chang-ho, a National Intelligence Service Agent, repeatedly asks Kang In-Gu, “Did you eat well? (식사는 잘 잡쉈어?)” with a mysterious smile. But every time he asks, Kang is in a perilous situation. This phrase is a common morning greeting in Korea, and the irony of asking this mundane greeting at the most inappropriate times is classic dry Korean comedy.

Contrary to the tiny country of Suriname, this film sprawls in scale. But despite the enormity in scope, this movie also features many small details and nuances that truly make the plot and characters come to life. You will be enthralled by the white-knuckled suspense, the dialogue, and the dazzling action. To fully appreciate all these elements, you may need to re-watch the whole thing with different characters’ points of view in mind.

While this drama entertains and introduces many viewers to a new corner of the world, one country is not happy at all. For a long time the Suriname government has been trying to change its national image for the better. Suddenly this show struck like a bolt of lightning undermining all their efforts. The Minister of Foreign Affairs officially protested to the Korean Government and even threatened a lawsuit. Time will tell if all the hoopla turns out to be a blessing in disguise as millions of people discover Suriname for the first time. 


Narco-Saints” (Korean title “Suriname”) is available to stream on Netflix
Director and Writer:

Yoon Jong-bin

Cast:

Ha Jung-woo as Kang In-gu

Hwang Jung-min as Jeon Yo-hwan

Park Hae-soo as Choi Chang-ho

Jo Woo-jin as Byeon Ki-tae

Yoo Yeon-seok as David Julio Park

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