English Title: The Uncanny Counter
Korean Title: 경이로운 소문
Director(s): Yu Seon-dong
Screenwriter(s): Yeo Ji-na, Kim Sae-bom & Yu Seon-dong
Studio: Studio Dragon, CJ ENM Released: 2020, 2023
Season 1 Runtime: 16 episodes, 57m – 1h 10m
Season 2 Runtime: 12 episodes, 1h 1m – 1h 14m
Starring: Cho Byeong-kyu, Yu Jun-sang, Kim Se-jeong, Yeom Hye-ran, Ahn Suk-hwan
My Verdict: Nothing brilliant, nor does it need to be. Tries to be cool. Season 1 is not bad. Season 2’s plotting and pacing issues are more apparent.
● Based on the webtoon of the same name by Jang Yi, the story follows a small group of “counters”. A counter is a version of the reaper, a human gifted with supernatural powers to hunt evil spirits who possess those who have committed murder (or have a particularly strong intent to) and continue to wreak havoc. These evil spirits can consume the souls of their victims and become stronger.
● Please note that I have not read the webtoon so the review is purely of the series.
● A counter’s power comes from a good soul that partners with their chosen human. The initial connection is formed when the human is in a coma except for the main viewpoint character So Mun (Cho Byeong-kyu). He was possessed soon after the death of a counter. So Mun is the unwilling hero dragged into his new role.
● There are, of course, other “rules” as to how this fictional universe works and, like many comics, are a bit cheesy. For example, “territories” pop up in which the counters’ powers are augmented. This adds a tactical element but there’s no real reason behind it so the dramatic tension doesn’t really work, not even when it can benefit the evil spirits in season 2.
● The counters hide in plain sight by running a noodle shop which presumably helps with their income. But financial support primarily comes from Choi Jang-mul (Ahn Suk-hwan), a retired counter who happens to be the wealthy owner of Jangmul Retail. This seems convenient but there is no way the counters can do their job and materially support themselves without help, so one of them being “Bruce Wayne” makes sense. It’s good the story does not abuse Jang-mul’s ability to supply anything money can buy. If anything, it would be more realistic for the counters to get more equipment.
● Although an evil spirit gaining strength is understandable, an evil spirit that can drag all its victims’ souls to hell (regardless of their personal guilt) is intellectually difficult to accept. If there is an afterlife, if higher powers are involved in this life and the next, then it makes sense that such injustices cannot be permanent. Yes, there is evil and even good people make mistakes, and the consequences can cost dearly to fix but that kind of premise is a convenient way to increase the risk of loss for the main characters. As usual, one either accepts the premise or not.
● Season 1 follows So Mun as he learns the job and the world he has been dragged into with all its associated struggles. There are the typical problems like school bullies, adjusting to the rules, corrupt cops and politicians, powerful evil spirits and the “big bad” evil spirit of the series, Ji Chung-shin (Lee Hong-nae).
● There is also the issue of his past: So Mun lost both his parents years ago and their deaths are somehow tied to the people he has to deal with at present.
● The other counters are not neglected. They are not merely more-experienced counters who train and look after So Mun. They all had been in a coma at some stage so they all have some sort of trauma, a forgotten past they need to deal with.
● Past issues are tricky. They are needed to make fuller characters but past issues that are strongly tied to the present can just come across as tacky (“Oh, they’ve met before and this happened!”). There is that problem but it’s handled well enough.
● The action is somewhat stylized and, although mostly done well technically, is a little cheesy. It simply tries to little too hard to look cool.
● In any case, credit has to be given to the overall tone: on the one hand, it is supposed to be cool action and, like So Mun, somewhat bright and positive, and yet, on the other hand, it has to be dark enough given the evil the heroes have to deal with.
● Despite their superpowers, the counters are ordinary and therefore relatable people. The performances of the entire cast are convincing enough which helps ground and sell the story. Lee Hong Nae as Ji Chung-shin gives a memorable performance. His character is written simply but he does it well and he has screen presence.
● Although straightforward and shallow, the themes of family, friendship and duty are apparent. This is not to imply that it is done poorly.
● The pacing across the season is not bad, it can be tightened a bit as it gets to the point when there is no reason for the counters to not confront Ji Chung-shin other than that he is powerful. But still, there are enough parties involved and enough going on across the 16 episodes to mostly keep it interesting.
● Despite whatever weaknesses in the premise and plot, season 1 is a decent story with an ending that is sufficiently satisfying. It has a beginning, middle and end with a little quirkiness that is common in comics and K-dramas. There is nothing brilliant, nor does it need to be.
● Season 2 tries to up the threat level for the counters by having three powerful evil spirits: Hwang Pil-gwang (Kang Ki-young), Gelly (Kim Hi-eo-ra) and Wong Yeok (Kim Hyun-wuk). In addition, through tragedy, the counters’ friend Ma Ju-seok (Jin Seon-kyu) turns to the dark side.
● The premise tries to avoid repeating season 1, which is appreciated. So Mun, after all, is now a veteran and has to be treated as such. Not that season 1 is unfocused, but the focus for season 2 is narrower. The main antagonist is Hwang Pil-gwang, he clearly drives the plot right from the start.
● The problem with such an approach, however, is that there is simply less going on. This is fine if the plotting is correspondingly tight, but it’s not. There are other minor issues here and there but they are simply tacked on as token B-stories. This is partially mitigated by the season having 12 episodes (and not 16) but every episode needs to be tightened.
● The writers try to inject some intrigue and complexity by giving the three evil spirits advanced powers from killing and then acquiring powers from counters. Also, Ma Ju-seok’s turn to the dark side has certain anomalies attached. That is all fine as So Mun himself is an anomaly but as the series progresses, it’s as if the rules of how things work are just made up on the fly.
● The counters do recruit someone new. Na Jeok-bong (Yu In-su) is supposed to be the overtly quirky character who, as a newbie, often panics. If the character is meant to be some sort of comic relief, then it fails because he is just annoying. Although it is good that not much of his training is shown in order to avoid repetition—season 1 shows enough of So Mun’s training—he doesn’t develop much as a character. The actor does fine, but the writing is lacking.
● The other problem is that all the counters seem to have advanced telekinesis powers. Granted, abilities can improve but it’s just too convenient. Also, since their abilities have improved significantly, there are a few shots where the visual effects look awkward.
● The score by Kim Wu-geun for both seasons is typical for the action genre: sometimes suspenseful, sometimes outright dramatic. Season 2 in particular uses more blaring themes similar to those composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard for The Dark Knight trilogy. That’s not a bad thing but the similarity is obvious.
● On balance, season 1 is not bad if one likes the genre and doesn’t mind the usual cheesiness that comes with it. Season 2 is not horrible but it tries too hard to be cool. And given its narrower focus, the plotting and pacing issues are more apparent.
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