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-[Television Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema, Korean Cinema

‘My Name’ (2021): Cops & Robbers, Intertwined

Created by: Kim Ba-da, Kim Jin-min || Written by: Kim Ba-da

Directed by: Kim Jin-min || Starring: Han So-hee, Ahn Bo-hyun, Park Hee-soon, Kim Sang-ho, Lee Hak-joo, Chang Ryul, Yoon Kyung-ho

No. of Episodes: 8 (~400 minutes total)

Beyond the likes of Infernal Affairs (2002) and its Hollywood remake, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), I’m surprised how more crime dramas and police procedurals don’t involve undercover moles inside either criminal organizations or police departments themselves. Off the top of my head. I can recall Matthew McConaughey’s backstory in the first season of the HBO anthology crime series, True Detective (2014), wherein McConaughey infiltrated various drug cartels and white supremacist organizations in Texas; there’s also a minor yet critical subplot of The Wire‘s (2002-2008) second season in which a misguided — OK, crooked — FBI agent (Tom Mardirosian) leaks information to a valuable agency asset, a Mediterranean flesh trader (Bill Raymond) who serves as one of the series’ primary antagonists. Those examples are exceptions to the crime drama storytelling rules on film, however, despite the plethora of instant drama and creative plot-devices they can provide to an already suspenseful cinematic genre.

That dearth of quality undercover agent stories on film is what stood out to me about Kim Ba-da and Kim Jim-min’s Netflix limited series, My Name (also known as Undercover Nemesis), a sort of Korean action take on the “rat vs rat” premise of The Departed. My Name concerns the troubled coming-of-age story of sorts of Han So-hee, an angry, depressed, disaffected daughter of a notorious gangster — or so we’re lead to believe — who is murdered by a corrupt police officer for reasons unknown at the start of the series. Following this brutal inciting incident, Han embarks on a desperate quest to investigate and avenge her father’s murder by joining forces with her dad’s former employer, Park Hee-soon, a local Seoul drug kingpin. The rest of the series revolves around Han’s initiation into and training within Park’s seedy, brooding criminal empire, which transitions to an undercover infiltration of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s Narcotics unit by the end of the second episode.

Left: Chang Ryul (center) stares down Lee Hak-joo (center right) as the former turns on his gangster brethren. Right: Han So-hee trains for combat in the series premiere.

This hard-boiled noir setting provides ripe, entertaining drama throughout every 45-60 minute installment, as well as a few plot twists along the way, some of which are more unpredictable than others. The cast’s performances power that drama as much as the tight, effective teleplays, and are strong all around, Han in particular; I appreciate how Han is written like a woman and not your stereotypical “strong female character” a la most Hollywood tentpole blockbusters, who act more like fratboys than anything else. Han’s damaged, downtrodden lead is a classic noir archetype with a realistic gender flip, whereby she has to fight tooth and nail to survive the male-dominated worlds of both the criminal underground and the police force. These career tensions coalesce with her personal vendetta to create almost constant spitfire chemistry with costars Park, Ahn Bo-hyun (Han’s narcotics partner), and Chang Ryul (a rival gangster colleague and later series wild card).

With all that said, My Name wouldn’t be much without its teleplays’ visceral execution from director Kim Jin-min, a prolific filmmaker who’s worked his entire career within Korean television (My Name is the 16th series he’s worked under, by my count). The series’ neo-noir aesthetic extends to its direction, where most every sequence feels dour and foreboding, even when shot in the daytime. The pilot episode in particular takes advantage of harsh shadows and mysterious, hooded figures who are often blocked just out of view or kept in near total darkness to obscure their true identities. Seoul feels as decrepit as the working-class neighborhoods portrayed in The Chaser (2008) or Parasite (2019), where the glamour of its downtown areas is subdued throughout the show. In contrast to My Name’s classical revenge saga and archetypal crime drama diegesis, its action sequences feel dynamic, violent, and decidedly modern, with enough variety to keep the pace of each episode snappy.

The faults of My Name are few and far between, but worth mentioning are the believability of Han’s combat prowess and the transition from Han’s introduction into her drug gang to her admission into the local police force as a double agent. Though the show wisely previews Han’s physical tenacity and heart in both a high-school classroom brawl and alley scrap in the first episode prior to her tutelage under Park, I never accepted her combat expertise in full despite the series’ creative choreography.  Han stands 5′ 5″ (~165 cm) and doesn’t appear to have bulked up for the role at all, yet she regularly dispatches muscular, well trained opponents much larger than her without firearms. Also somewhat distracting is the rapid shift in her arc from upstart gangster to police mole, which is glossed over in a seconds-long montage sequence. While I appreciate the disciplined length of the series (8 episodes), I would’ve preferred they condensed a couple of the later episodes in favor of an entire chapter devoted to her matriculation into the other side of the law.

Han joins the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency at the end of the second episode in a brief montage.

Despite those weaknesses, My Name is one of the latest Netflix projects to showcase the combination of storytelling detail plus creative freedom the miniseries format allows filmmakers. How it explores an underutilized plot-device in crime dramas the world over, the undercover police mole, is the melodramatic springboard from which it executes visceral, athletic action sequences, a wonderful throwback noir plot and character archetypes, and a dour, dingy, morbid color palette combined with stylized cinematographic composition. If you ever pined for the likes of a super-sized, 8-hour version of I Saw the Devil or The Man from Nowhere (both 2010) that somehow doesn’t overstay its welcome, this is the show for you.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Fast-paced yet patient, violent yet emotional, My Name is at its heart a story about identity and personal vendettas structured around a delicious undercover plot and embellished with charismatic, diverse action set-pieces. If you’re a fan of Korean dramas, mob movies, or hardcore action filmmaking in general, I have a hard time believing you won’t be entertained by this limited series from start to finish.

However… the muscular 5′ 9″ Lashana Lynch, 5′ 10″ Charlize Theron, and 6′ 3″ Gwendoline Christie don’t test my suspension of disbelief for female martial artists, but the 5′ 5″ average build of Han So-hee had me questioning whether her character wouldn’t have had her ass beat more often than not given this show’s antagonists. My Name rushes Han’s infiltration of a major police department.

—> RECOMMENDED

? Why doesn’t someone give Kim Jin-min an action-crime drama feature to direct?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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