Neighborhood Hero: Episode 1
There was a burst of new content on cable this weekend, and Neighborhood Hero (also called Local Hero) was OCN’s offering, marking the channel’s shift to the twice-a-week format. They’ve had a number of successes in the once-a-week action thriller format—that’s been their bread and butter—but are trying something new with this Saturday-Sunday scheduling.
Off the bat, I’d say Neighborhood Hero is a promising show. The drama is fast-paced, gorgeously shot, and has a wry sense of humor that really speaks to me; it has the elements of a jolly fun ride, so I’ll be hoping it can keep it up.
Note: This is only a first episode recap.
SONG OF THE DAY
Kim Sarang – “너란 놈” (Guy like you) [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We jump into a mission in the works by Korea’s central intelligence agency, CIO, in Macau. The agency’s attentions are focused on an American businessman named Curtis Brimmer, and a team is on the case, led by BAEK SHI-YOON (Park Shi-hoo).
Shi-yoon’s team has tracked Brimmer’s activities to a Hong Kong paper company, Bay Star Hong Kong. He’s trying to take over a major Korean bank with ill-gotten funds, and they’re determined to prevent it from happening. Shi-yoon and his two subordinates get busy gathering data on Brimmer and following his movements.
While Shi-yoon is on surveillance watch, one of Brimmer’s bodyguard/gangsters, a tattooed man wearing cornrows, notices that they’re being watched. Cornrows sends thugs after Shi-yoon, and they corner him in a narrow alley.
But he plays it cool, drawing them nearer by pretending to tie his shoe. At the last moment, he yanks out the lace and whips it around his attacker’s neck, tosses him aside, then catches Thug No. 2’s wrist with the string and flings him around. It’s both cool and comical how he throws around that shoelace like a deadly weapon, but it’s effective—he neutralizes all three thugs in no time and walks away calmly.
Shi-yoon’s teammate KIM SEO-AHN (Choi Yoon-so) initiates contact with Brimmer, acting the part of a university student who attended one of his lectures. Plying him with flirtatious admiration gets Brimmer to take the bait, and a short time later Seo-ahn is dolled up for a date with the target.
Keeping close watch are her teammates, Shi-yoon and JIN-WOO (Ji Il-joo). Ah, Shi-yoon and Seo-ahn are dating, and he intends to propose after the mission is over.
All is proceeding according to plan until Shi-yoon gets a call from his superior, Team Leader Jang (Jung Man-shik), who’s in charge of CIO’s Macau operation. He orders an immediate stop to the mission without a clear explanation, and Shi-yoon argues, especially since they’re so close to getting inside Brimmer’s organization. His boss barks that no explanation is needed; the agency gave the order, and they have to obey.
But Shi-yoon can’t leave things here and declares that they’ll push ahead—just as the conversation in Brimmer’s car takes a turn. What started out as romantic wooing about love and fate turns ominous when Brimmer insinuates that Seo-ahn approached him on false pretenses. Crap, he even knows her real name—and that she’s an intelligence agent.
Realizing they’ve been found out, the guys speed on in their car to continue following Brimmer. But as they enter an intersection, BAM! A big-rig truck slams into them, crushing their car and sending it toppling. The guys get jolted around and black out.
When they come to, all three teammates are in the clutches of Brimmer’s thugs. Cornrows is their leader, and he lays out their impending fates: One of them will die, and the survivor’s job is to deliver the message back to their agency to stop investigating. He gives them the choice of who will die and orders them to pick.
Shi-yoon orders his subordinates to keep silent and demands to know how they found out about the operation. Was there an informant?
Cornrows ignores him and just counts down, stopping in front of Seo-ahn menacingly as she cries in fear.
Suddenly, sidekick Jin-woo starts screaming at the gangsters that they’ve made the right choice to kill her and keep him alive, because he knows lots of secrets. He’ll deal in those secrets—and then make sure to cause trouble for them.
It’s a confusing outburst, but intentionally so: In Korean, Jin-woo tells Shi-yoon that he means to provoke and confuse them. Then he charges, never mind that his hands are tied and he’s unarmed. It’s a suicidal sacrifice, and Cornrows strangles the life out of Jin-woo while his teammates watch helplessly.
Three years later.
Shi-yoon is now… in prison? He and a fellow prisonmate are about to be released, and the buddy urges Shi-yoon to avoid seeking revenge when he’s out. Shi-yoon assures him he’s got not time for that: He’s got three years to make up for, and he’s most interested in women, liquor, and money. He’s curiously glib and flippant, nothing like the serious team leader he used to be. What have you got going on in your head, Shi-yoon?
The two guys walk out of prison together and promise to be in touch. Shi-yoon finds his sunbae, Team Leader Jang, waiting for him outside, and doesn’t seem exactly thrilled about it. His sunbae tells him that the agency knows he served an unfairly harsh punishment for disregarding orders, but being on foreign soil tied their hands; they had no choice but to sentence him because of diplomatic concerns.
Team Leader Jang also took a career hit, since he was in charge when the Macau fiasco went down. He no longer works in the field, instead managing boring administrative affairs for the agency. He asks what Shi-yoon intends to do with his life now, and Shi-yoon figures he’ll start by spending the money he’d earned over the years but never got to use because he was working. Maybe open a martial arts studio.
Team Leader Jang suggests carefully that maybe Shi-yoon ought to stay away from martial arts, since it’s dangerous for him. Or rather, he’s dangerous with it.
Moving on, we meet Detective IM TAE-HO (Jo Sung-ha) at home as his family readies for their busy day. He has a relatively ordinary home life, with a competent wife and three kids—and all the attendant schooling fees and bills that squeeze his salary dry.
Tae-ho’s wife reminds him that apartment loan payments are kicking in, and says in a half-sweet, half-warning voice that she trusts her husband will figure out how to pay them, because he’s responsible and trustworthy and will see to his family’s needs, right?
So Tae-ho heads to the bank, only to be denied deferment of payments. Embarrassed, he complains about waiting an excessively long time with so few clerks on duty. To which the employee points out a sign posted by the bank’s union that argues that it’s one of Bay Star Hong Kong’s tactics to cut costs and sell high. Ah, so Brimmer’s deal must have gone through when Shi-yoon’s mission failed.
Tae-ho worries about where he’ll come up with all this extra money every month, and rubbing salt in the wound is the discovery of a receipt from last night’s work party where he apparently paid the tab. He doesn’t remember doing it, and heads over to Neighborhood Bar to contest it.
At Neighborhood Bar, the elderly owner apologizes to his young employee because he’s putting the place up for sale. The young woman, aspiring writer BAE JUNG-YEON (Kwon Yuri), decorates the sign indicating that the bar is for sale while assuring her boss that she’s grateful to him—he paid her well and let her work on her writing here.
Tae-ho bursts into the bar, and launches into an elaborate appeal to the owner about his bill. He explains that the owner reminds him of his father and makes him lower his guard so that he gets drunk and orders more than his civil servant salary can afford. Jung-yeon wryly reminds him that they’d warned him five times last night, but he insisted on running up his tab anyway.
But the kindly owner offers to refund the charge, shocking the other two. He says it’s because Tae-ho works hard protecting the neighborhood, and I can see how his bar might be in trouble if he’s always so easy on his clientele.
Shi-yoon drops by to see his mother, and retrieves a black bag he’d stowed in a closet. Everybody must be afraid Shi-yoon is set on revenge because Mom makes sure to tell him that forgiving is winning. Even though his company is full of rotten jerks who treated him poorly, she forgave them for her own benefit. Shi-yoon doesn’t seem convinced, and asks if she’d understand him no matter what he did, because she’s his mother.
Tae-ho and his partner drive past a police scene, and after checking that their department’s crackdown period begins next week, he decides to step in. He offers to take the young robber off the local police’s hands and escorts him away.
But rather than going to the station, Tae-ho takes the robber kid home, where he sees that he’s poor and struggling. He explains that he’s going to let the kid off the hook this time, with the caveat that he’ll drop by unannounced multiple times in the next week. If the kid doesn’t stay out of trouble for the week, or if he tries to run, Tae-ho will have him booked right away.
His partner doesn’t understand why he’d let the criminal go, and Tae-ho retorts that he fully intends to take him in… next week once the crackdown period begins. Ha, so he can bolster his record? The partner shakes his head, but Tae-ho retorts that he’s just trying to make a living.
Shi-yoon walks into Neighborhood Bar and takes a seat, looking particularly interested in the meeting between the bar owner and prospective buyers. Listening in, he notes how the owner doesn’t like hearing that the buyers intend to change the business; the owner asks for time to think, reluctant to sell.
Shi-yoon approaches the owner and asks why he’s selling the place, complimenting its ambiance. The old man explains that he has to retire, and wonders at Shi-yoon’s interest. Shi-yoon replies that he just doesn’t like things changing; he prefers when something stays put in its place.
Tae-ho is called in for a meeting with his sunbae, a former intelligence agent and current businessman who is sympathetic to his financial concerns and makes a business proposal. Sunbae subcontracts for the CIO—ah, his business is a front for this work—and suggests that Tae-ho join him in tracking former operatives after retirement to ensure they don’t violate confidentiality rules. The payday makes Tae-ho sit up and take notice: one year of surveillance for 150 million won.
That requires setting up a false company of his own, and Sunbae assures him he doesn’t have to even have to clear it with police job—he can do it quietly as a side gig. Tae-ho is overcome with relief and gratitude, and Sunbae seals the deal with his first payment. Okay, there’s definitely something odd about Sunbae, right? I’m relieved for Tae-ho’s immediate concerns but worried about his future…
Shi-yoon quietly follows bar employee Jung-yeon as she visits her friend who runs a small cafe. He listens from just outside as she hears out her friend’s business woes: A big shopping center is being planned here, and the investors are forcing shopowners out with tiny compensation payments. If she takes the offer, she’d walk away with less than she put into her cafe.
Jung-yeon consoles her friend, and Shi-yoon takes notes. Hm, his list is titled “Neighborhood Bar Former Agents,” and he lists various people and marks them with either an O (yes) or X (no). The owner gets an O and Jung-yeon an X—wait, the old man was a spy?
Over the following days, Shi-yoon frequents to the bar to observe its various patrons, marking them as either O or X. Curiously, far more people in this bar are designated with an O than not, from the the guy wearing an earpiece to the woman flexing her grip to the guy who slides his glass down the bar sharply. Is this some spy hangout or are you just paranoid?
Shi-yoon entreats the bar owner again not to sell his bar, and if he must, then to be sure to sell it to someone who will keep it exactly as it is: a comfortable place for people to rest when they’re lonely. The old man doesn’t know why Shi-yoon loves his bar so much all of a sudden, and suggests, “Then you buy it.” Shi-yoon uneasily laughs that he’s not in a position to buy.
A dapper young man in full police uniform sips coffee in a park, and is accosted by a host of pretty girls fawning over him. They ask why he wanted to become a police officer, and he answers that he wants to uphold righteousness and justice, and also it gets a lot of attention from the ladies.
One woman says, “Then you’d better get up now. You’ve passed the testing location.”
Poof. The ladies vanish, and the young man—CHOI CHAN-GYU (Lee Soo-hyuk)—wakes up drooling on his bus seat. He gets off and sprints down the street, pausing briefly to protect a little boy who darts into the street into oncoming traffic, then continues to his destination.
Chan-gyu races up to the testing building just as police officers are drawing the gates shut. Detective Tae-ho is one of them, and he watches in amusement as Chan-gyu runs to a different point and hops the fence, leading the cops in a merry chase across the yard as he bolts for the entrance. He calls his officers off, allowing for Chan-gyu to take the police exam.
Sadly for Chan-gyu, the exam doesn’t seem to go very well, and he’s in a bad mood when Tae-ho approaches him in the convenience store. Tae-ho praises Chan-gyu’s impressive athleticism and explains that he’s hiring, offering him a job. Seeing that Chan-gyu is intent on becoming a cop, he says it can just be temporary until the exam results are in. He sweetens the deal with a hefty pay rate and the promise of a pretty co-worker.
So, Tae-ho kicks off his new company with three employees: Chan-gyu, his pretty niece, and a nerdy guy recruited by Sunbae. He outlines the job simply: Follow your assigned person, observe them all day, and report back on their doings. Tae-ho doesn’t give much guidance other than “Don’t get caught.”
Chan-gyu begins his surveillance on his middle-aged target, putting his athleticism to good use when he misses getting on the bus and has to follow it through the city on foot. He makes it on the bus at the next stop, and of course the only seat open is the one next to Ex-Agent Ajusshi, so he sits next to him awkwardly and tries not to be conspicuous. And then falls asleep on his shoulder. HA.
The bar owner meets with the prospective buyers again, heavy-hearted but finally ready to sell the bar. Just as he’s about to stamp the papers, Shi-yoon bursts in and stays his hand, announcing, “I will take the bar over. On two conditions: I will run the bar exactly as it is run now, and I will set aside a place for you in it. Please come every day and see if I’m doing a good job.”
The owner has conditions of his own: His coffee and beer are free, and Shi-yoon keeps Jung-yeon on as employee. He says, “Without the sound of her keyboard, this place is just a bar. Do you know what it becomes with the sound of her keyboard? A place where dreams grow.” Aw, he’s such a sweetie.
Shi-yoon has just enough funds to make the purchase, but admits he had to give up his plan to rent his own apartment. Ha, are you just going to live at your bar?
Chan-gyu keeps following Ex-Agent Ajusshi, ducking around corners to remain unseen, though it seems the ajusshi has clocked his presence. Ajusshi walks into Neighborhood Bar—and immediately triggers recognition in Shi-yoon.
Shi-yoon flashes back to that mission in Macau, when Ajusshi had warned his team not to act hastily. Shi-yoon adds “The sunbae I met in Macau” to his list and marks him with an O.
Chan-gyu enters next and sits, trying to act nonchalant as he continues to observe Ajusshi’s actions. He’s not particularly smooth about it; Shi-yoon notices and tests him out by motioning with a glass, like he’s going to slide it over. Chan-gyu just stares blankly—no automatic reflexes kicking in here—so Shi-yoon X’s out the “Nerdy young man” on his spy list.
Ajusshi and the owner seem like old friends, and Ajusshi explains that he’s been meeting with a human rights lawyer to address the issue of wrongful termination, though it’s not clear whose. He adds that he’s been followed around all day, wryly indicating Chan-gyu down the bar; he even volunteers to pay for Chan-gyu’s drink since he’ll be tired after following him all day.
The owner tells Ajusshi that the bar will get a new owner soon, and indicates Shi-yoon at the far end. Ajusshi calls it quite ironic, explaining that he knows Shi-yoon from his prior work, which had caused a problem and gotten him fired.
A disturbance breaks out when two rowdy patrons pick a fight with employee Jung-yeon and her friend, both of whom refuse to leave with them. The men get loud and huffy, and the situation looks like it may escalate with one wrong word.
Shi-yoon, Ajusshi, and Chan-gyu look over in concern, but it’s the elderly owner who steps in to send the men away, getting them to go quietly when he waives their bill. Crisis averted.
Chan-gyu stays late at the office typing up his report of Ex-Agent Ajusshi’s day, and realizes belatedly that he left his cap behind. It’s Shi-yoon who finds it the next day, when he finalizes paperwork with the owner.
The old man references yesterday’s unpleasant episode with the drunk men and points out that Shi-yoon should have stepped in, adding that he certainly has the ability to stop such situations. Shi-yoon wonders what he means by that, and the owner says simply, “Weren’t you our hoobae? If not, why would you have taken over this place?”
Shi-yoon explains his mother’s philosophy: When something concerns you, you should step in. When it doesn’t, be sure to stay out of it.
Jung-yeon gets a call from her friend at the cafe and goes running over to help her, because the two unruly hooligans from last night are back. They threaten to stick around as “customers,” effectively keeping everyone else away.
That’s their real purpose here, having been sent by the company trying to drive out the local shopkeepers to build that new shopping center. The girls are equal parts furious and fearful, since there’s little they can do.
Shi-yoon walks by and notes the scene inside, just as a sharp-looking businessman pulls up in a fancy car, CEO (of an investment company) YOON SANG-MIN (Yoon Tae-young). He’s attended to by a middle manager who informs him that he’s got this situation well in hand—he’s the one who deployed Dumb and Dumber to drive the cafe owner out.
The two gangsters take one look at Sang-min’s fancy appearance and mock him behind his back for not being a tough guy. Mistake! Sang-min turns to the middle manager with a pleasant smile, then yanks his tie, kicks him violently, and warns him to teach his employees some manners. All the while, Shi-yoon watches quietly.
Later that night, the ladies lock up the shop and head out, tensing fearfully when they think someone’s following them down the street. To their relief, that guy turns in the other direction—but then Dumb and Dumber jump in their path, ready to harass some more.
Jung-yeon threatens to call the police, but they say they’re not doing anything particularly wrong and snatch her phone away.
Then voice calls out from the dark alleyway—aha! It’s Shi-yoon, wearing Chan-gyu’s cap (the lettering is also this drama’s logo) and a mask. He returns the phone to Jung-yeon and does his best not to engage when Dumb (or is it Dumber?) starts slapping his head and swearing at him.
But when they kick him over and grab him violently, he sighs, “I really wasn’t going to—but I guess this does concern me.”
Shi-yoon lets loose, fighting them with ease and knocking them to the ground in no time. The girls hurry away, though Jung-yeon keeps stopping to look back, smiling at their savior.
Detective Tae-ho and his partner return to the home of the young robber to bring him in, but they find the kid helping his grandmother peel garlic to earn money, after spending all night working at a restaurant. This time Tae-ho really does feel moved by the kid’s sad situation, and he leaves empty-handed again, telling his protesting partner that they’re all just trying to earn a living.
Shi-yoon visits the grave of his old teammate Jin-woo, reliving those last moments of their failed mission.
“Jin-woo-ya, this is the beginning,” he thinks. “I’ve finished making all the preparations. I’ll find out for sure who it was who interfered with us in Macau, why our mission was aborted, who it was who did that to you. I’ll find out everything. Trust me.”
Shi-yoon returns to the bar and takes out that black bag he retrieved from his mother’s home. He unpacks it as he takes a call from his prison buddy, assuring him again that he has no plans for revenge. Well, I’d say your bag would beg to differ: cash in multiple currencies, several passports, and a gun.
I think this is going to be a fun, entertaining, stylish show that takes what I enjoy about OCN dramas (slick directing, cool action), dials down some of the violence, and injects a nice dose of humor. I enjoy darker action too, but it can be quite tricky managing a more in-between tone, hitting both light and dark moments without getting too extreme on either end. And the director is good at this, which we could tell from watching a minute of this show or any of his previous ones (Chuno, Runaway Plan B, Conspiracy in the Court; let’s overlook Basketball since we all have our off years).
It’s not so light that it’s brainless popcorn entertainment (which have their place too), and we have hints of more serious undercurrents. Say, for instance, anything involving Shi-yoon’s true side—I wanted to know more about what is driving him, but the show handles his mysterious motives in a way that’s meant to keep us guessing. We know he has to be up to something, and that Neighborhood Bar means something specific—he certainly didn’t wander in by accident—and he’s too calculating and serious for us to believe for a second that his laughing, joking facade is real. It was effective in piquing my curiosity, since I fully expect him to have a multi-layered plan in the works, worthy of the complicated operations he used to enact as a spy leader.
Okay, I’ll admit that there are maybe some points that the show glossed over, like everything in Macau, but I was eager to get back to the neighborhood and its motley assortment of future crime-fighters. I didn’t need Macau to make brilliant sense, and was fine to get the shortcut version where it creates the mystery for Shi-yoon to solve, and sets up his personal vendetta that’ll fuel him in the present day.
The characters are an entertaining mix of offbeat personalities, and this is where the show gets me, because everyone’s quirky and interesting. Chan-gyu seems poised to be the breakout favorite, and Lee Soo-hyuk plays him with this adorable mix of traits—he’s competent in some respects and takes his job seriously, but has a bungling streak that he’s not even aware of, and it makes him super endearing.
Tae-ho’s good-natured in a compelling way, and I like that he’s a decent guy with a good heart, but he isn’t so principled that he isn’t above begging or bending rules. I worry that he’s getting him into trouble with this business front, though hey, maybe it’s exactly as his sunbae said and gives our characters a convenient reason to interact. But when something seems too good to be true, and an answer to all your problems, there’s gotta be a catch. Or some monster strings.
As a main character, Shi-yoon is the classic wounded hero, and while it’s a familiar type, I can’t lie that it’s effective. I just really love the setup of the reluctant hero, and he’s exactly that—he has all of the capability to step in and use his skills to help people, but he’s not the type to put himself out there for some general concept of the greater good. (…Yet?)
He’s our hero in the sense of being our lead character, but he’s not a hero in the sense of being a crusader for the people, and watching that shift will be a fun journey, I think. He’s the opposite of the elderly bar owner, and I hope they’ll strike an interesting odd couple dynamic, because there’s a lot Shi-yoon could learn from the guy.
And speaking of him, what is the deal with all these retired spies hanging around? Is this bar just a comfortable place for them to have a drink, where he can start pinpointing possible leads? Shi-yoon is determined to get to the bottom of the Macau fiasco, so I’m guessing he suspects an internal leak as a possibility, so maybe that’s why he’s here.
In any case, I was hoping Neighorhood Hero would be solid fun, and I’m pleased with its start. It’s the kind of entertaining where you can think about it a whole bunch if you want to, dissecting and speculating and predicting, but you don’t have to if you prefer to sit back and relax and just let things unfold.
As to the elephant in the room, I suppose I do have to mention Park Shi-hoo (do I, though?) making his drama comeback. The trickiness is, regardless of how you feel about his scandal, I’m not sure how possible it is for people to see him onscreen without associating him with it. Some viewers may have no trouble regarding him purely as an actor in a role, but I don’t think many/most can do that, and I wonder if it’s a little too soon for him to be back. It’s a shame since I think he’s perfectly cast from an acting standpoint, yet the show probably won’t be able to fully escape the shadow of his scandal.
Personally, I intend to watch the show, but we’re not going to recap the rest of it, and to be very honest it’s mostly because I don’t think much of the discussion about this drama will be about the drama itself. I don’t blame anyone for having feelings and wanting to express them, but if a drama’s discussion is constantly being derailed, that’s not really very productive either… So we’ll just skip this one and hope for better next time.
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