A solid ride built to a largely satisfying climax, buoyed by the acting performances on display.
This review of the Netflix K-Drama series Cafe Minamdang season 1 does not contain spoilers.
In the midst of a rather stacked lineup of airing K-Dramas, Cafe Minamdang stood out with its dedication to a unique spin on the whodunnit theme. Fixating on one mastermind, Gopuri, who teases a highly regarded detective and a former profiler posing as a shaman with murders that always seem somewhat untraceable, this crime-comedy-mystery series brought with it plenty of entertainment.
At its core, Cafe Minamdang was a show about closure, often told through the lens of revenge and/or grief. Han-joon, a man once wrongly imprisoned on the grounds of fabricating evidence, wished for closure regarding his best friend’s murder, dedicating his life to the fight for justice (which included becoming a shaman). Jae-hui, who lost her brother just because he was close to finding out the truth behind a string of murders, wanted to finish a chapter of her life rife with turmoil, hoping for revenge in the form of seeing the culprit locked away. And Do-won, the psychotic Gopuri, favoured a different type of closure, one which saw him with the self-appointed agency to end people’s lives based on his warped belief that it was necessary evil.
With this type of narrative, the hefty mileage afforded to the show was firmly utilised, meaning the entire 18 episode run maintained a resolute freshness, consistently keeping viewers on their toes with astute curveballs and well-timed moments of revelation. Rather than feel dragged out, as some longer offerings can, the constant lingering question over who Gopuri could be ensured engagement in whatever was happening on-screen, allowing for excitement to build. In an era that empowers, even encourages, people to binge content, a series like this that felt rewarding to follow week-by-week was a welcome change of pace.
In no small part, this was down to the commitment of the actors involved, particularly Seo In-guk. Performing his role as the charismatic, ethically somewhat murky Nam Han-joon with an enormously dedicated vigour, the experienced actor stood out whenever on screen. Whether it be in scenes of almost juvenile humour, or emotional resonance, Seo exercised the full range of his acting chops to deliver arguably one of the better character interpretations across this year’s stacked slate of K-Dramas. Also worth a mention here are two others in the Minamdang portion of the cast, as Kwak Si-yang (Su-cheol) and Kang Mi-na (Hye-jun) both proved seamless on-screen partners for both each other, and their boss.
Continuing, where Seo In-guk succeeded in cartoonish maximalism, his on-screen enemy, played by Kwon Soo-hyun, thrived in his subtleties. At first depicting a friendly-faced prosecutor who appears slightly naive, yet dedicated to his work, the evolution of Kwon into the unflinching villain Gopuri was chilling. A sadistic, smart foil to Han-joon and Jae-hui (played stylishly by Oh Yeon-seo), the character of Do-won was one layered in complexity, and undeniably performed adeptly.
Technically, director Ko Jae-hyun did a stellar job too. With a diverse colour palette that often drove home the colourful decor of Minamdang, and the clothes the people inhabiting it donned, in addition to the bleakness of the crime-filled underworld, there was an understandable story told with the cinematography alone, one that kept to a steady consistency.
So, while the overarching story of Cafe Minamdang methodically built to an intense, gripping climax that delivered exciting results, the consistencies in writing, overall direction and acting made certain that this was a worthwhile endeavour. Will it be everyone’s cup of tea? Possibly not, as it does land a little on the quirky side, but for a refreshing twist on some of the typical crime drama plot-points, this 18-episode release gave its willing audience plenty to remember.
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