English Title: The Fiery Priest
Korean Title: 열혈사제 [lit. hot-blooded priest]
Director(s): Lee Myung-woo
Screenwriter(s): Park Jae-bum
Studio: Samhwa Networks Released: 2019
Runtime: 20 episodes, ~1h each.
Starring: Kim Nam-gil, Kim Sung-kyun, Lee Ha-nee, Go Jun, Geum Sae-rok, Jeon Sung-woo, Ahn Chang-hwan, Baek Ji-won, Jung Dong-hwan
My Verdict: An excellent crime comedy-action in which an intolerant priest investigates a murder and beats up criminals.
● Father Kim Hae-il (Kim Nam-gil) is so intolerant to injustice that he beats up perps and takes care of business himself. And as an ex-NIS field agent, he has the skills to do so without difficulty. His superiors are sick of it and transfer him to the church run by his mentor Father Lee Young-joon.
● There is a strong presence of organized crime and Father Lee is murdered. Ruled a “suicide”, Hae-il takes matters into his own hands to investigate and exact justice.
● Typical of an action-comedy plot progression, our heroes continuously encounter obstacles. Any stagnation in the pacing is masked by the fact that there are multiple parties that act as villains, including the corrupt police and prosecution. Despite being a comedy, the series does not hold back on making the point that the evil is pervasive and Hae-il has to deal with all of them.
● In terms of tone, the series never ceases to be comical, and a small group trying to dispatch all the local major criminals is hardly realistic, but it is just serious enough to convey the sense that there is a lot at stake. And there are a few darker moments too related to Hae-il’s past but these are effective without being pretentious due to their brevity and timing.
● Related to the above, there is a large number of characters that include the good, the bad and a few who are in between. Many, if not all, are tropes but they are well written and acted with just enough quirks to make them interesting. For example: Park Kyung-sun (Lee Ha-nee) is a corrupt prosecutor with attitude who works with organized crime and who has no qualms trying to justify her actions; Seo Seung-ah (Geum Sae-rok) is a rookie detective who is idealistic enough to kick heads in instead of falling in line with her corrupt colleagues; and Kim In-kyung (Baek Ji-won) is a nun who initially is shocked at Hae-il’s outbursts but then it rubs off on her. She and Hae-il are both “religious with a dark past”.
● Kim Nam-gil does a superb job as Hae-il. Despite his temper, he does come across as a priest. His anger is not random. Contrary to many clergymen, he does preach the importance of making amends and he does try to be considerate. Indeed, Goo Dae-young (Kim Sung-kyun) is the police officer assigned to keep an eye on Hae-il whilst he goes about his investigation and both men know it. But Hae-il also knows Dae-young does it out of cowardice rather than maliciousness because he is surrounded by corrupt cops with nowhere to go. Dae-young is even at times too invested to play along with the corruption instead of taking advantage of Hae-il’s abilities and any protection he can offer. But Hae-il is surprisingly patient (despite initially knocking him out), even gently warning Dae-young that he has to eventually decide who’s side he is on.
● Hae-il is not the only one who is patient. Ssongsak (Ahn Chang-hwan), from Thailand, works as a delivery man for a local Chinese restaurant and is often bullied by the gangsters, but he is very forgiving and continues to show kindness.
● It is also interesting that Ssongsak is good friends with Oh Yo-han (Go Gyu-pil) and often attends Mass with Yo-han even though Ssongsak is not a believer. It is tempting to think this is another case post-Vatican II humanism where “it doesn’t what you believe in as long as you mean well” but, thankfully, it does not push that angle. It seems to be genuinely making the point that one can choose how to act regardless of their circumstances, and that those who avail themselves of the opportunities will somehow benefit.
● One of the weaknesses of the series is that whilst the evil is pervasive, there is no significant corrupt element within the church. Fortunately, and without spoiling, it does not resort to Father Lee having done some evil secretly either. That would just be cheesy and cheapens the whole premise and in turn the story. Nonetheless, an initially hidden and corrupt element in the church would add another layer of complexity.
● One of the strengths is that despite Hae-il’s temper and the comedy, the show never demeans the priesthood. And whilst there are a few jokes about the religion, it never demeans Catholicism as a whole. It is a credit to the writer and director to get that balance. The weakness is that it does not push it further as there is room for more profound and biting humor about the religion and the church without demeaning it.
● Overall, the series is written well with good production and strong performances. It is entertaining with varying types of humor: sometimes it plays on irony, there is slapstick and there is parody. If anything, it could use more black humor.
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