Exactly like the name suggests, “Narco-Saints” is about a saintly and pious man who turns out to actually be a notorious drug lord. Although the misdoings of supposed godmen are not something entirely new or unique to our world, such a premise would have made for a very interesting watch had Netflix actually been able to deliver on it. Instead, the usage of the word “saint” remains restricted to the literal, and the series does not seem interested in establishing Jeon Yo-Hwan in any such measure. Along with the plot and the storytelling, the character shades in “Narco-Saints” also make one wish for something more, as there is not much development on that front either.
Kang In-Gu: The Accidental Narco
Without any doubt, the character of protagonist Kang In-Gu is the one with the most depth and, clearly, the one written with the most effort. Kang’s character is given a life-arc that has forever forced him to learn things on his own and to fight life’s struggles all by himself. With the loss of his parents and the responsibility of younger siblings at a young age, Kang had quickly learned why his father could not spare a tear after his mother’s death, for the heavy burden of responsibilities quickly over-trumps sorrow and grief. His decision to get married and also the way he did so establishes Kang’s character early on, as he called up all the women who liked him in school or in his neighborhood and blatantly asked them to marry him. While most obviously denied such a weird request, one agreed to, and she remained Kang’s wife for the rest of the time. After starting his own family now, the man was pushed deeper into the difficult circle of life, having to work extremely hard throughout the day in order to earn money for his family, and yet not being able to make any time to spend with them. Kang can be seen as one with ambitions for himself, for without a certain degree of ambition, he perhaps would not have accepted to go over to Suriname. However, also with ambition, there was the fact that Kang was never one to get pushed over by others. There had been times when he yielded to others for the sake of himself, but he was also one to fight back, as he did against the two corrupt policemen who tried to misuse their power at his bar.
After going to Suriname and during the first phase of his stay, up till his arrest, Kang did seem to hold on to the simplicity that his character had till now, but after his release from prison, he was almost a different man. Kang had never really been much away from street-smartness or quick sharp negotiations, as he admits first learning these skills at his bar frequented by Americans. He is also one to prioritize his safety and his benefit in difficult situations, as he is seen making quick negotiations a number of times. It is not like he puts his principles ahead of his self-worth all the time; instead, he does not mind making negotiations with the military leader in Suriname or the prison guard or Chen Zhen, both of whom wanted to harm him. However, it is also not like Kang never reacts to disrespect, and it is in these moments, like when he attacks Jeon for abusing him, that Kang becomes the most convincing and real character in “Narco-Saints.”
Kang is also not someone totally gullible to blindly trust everything that the NIS asks him to do or wants him to believe. It is through his own doubt and looking into the matter that Kang learns that it was indeed the NIS who had intentionally stopped his fish supply on that day because they had learned of Kang and wanted to make use of him to get to Jeon. Later on, when he and Choi have a fallout of sorts, as the NIS operative does not agree with Kang’s decisions or his questioning of the agency’s decisions, Kang takes up his fate in his own hands. Although it does not really work out the way he wanted, Kang does manage to create a space for himself by making a deal with Chen to kill Jeon. After all, the smart and witty businessman is intelligent enough to understand that he would become useless and expendable to Jeon if the drug lord made a deal with Chen to sell his drugs. He also knows that in such a case, the NIS or Choi would not possibly step in to rescue him. After Jeon escapes Chen’s attack, Kang initially thinks of running away to the American embassy, fearing that Jeon would have understood his betrayal. But the thought of actually using the situation to his benefit comes to him very quickly, and Kang instead returns to Jeon and manages to bring him back the ton of cocaine that Chen had stolen. Despite his swaying from the NIS plan a couple of times, Kang ultimately paves the way for the DEA and NIS to take on their roles and finally arrest Jeon.
The last few minutes of the series, with scenes of Kang back in his South Korean home, put a lot of emphasis on the man’s character and how he has turned out to be after the incidents in Suriname. It does seem a bit unusual at first to see Kang back in normal clothes working at his garage and not driving around in rich cars in fancy clothes. The difference between the two countries is evident here, and Kang’s dream of returning with riches from Suriname has ultimately failed. Throughout his time in Latin America, Kang had not forgotten about his family or his deceased friend Eungsoo, and most of his motivations seemed to have been driven by them. There are some parts of “Narco-Saints” that do feel a bit odd; for example, why would Kang risk his own life at the very end and chase Jeon into the forests all by himself? The motivation of earning money for his family and maybe trying to avenge his friend’s death might be the only answers here. In the end, Kang turns down the offer to run successful karaoke bars in order to spend more time with his family, and this is not shown in any glorified sense either, which is commendable. The whole scene does suggest that Kang still struggles to earn enough money for the family, and yet it is a difficult choice that he makes to turn down the money-making opportunity for the sake of his children.
Jeon Yo-Hwan: The Devil in Saintly clothes
Unlike Kang, though, Jeon’s character is far less complex and, in many senses, seems linear only as a symbol of pure evil. Jeon Yo-Hwan is given a nice and interesting backstory, but there are still no positive shades in his character from it. Eighteen years before the events in Suriname, the South Korean police had busted a meth-smuggling gang in Incheon, but the main distributor of this group had successfully made his escape. This distributor, Jeon Yo-Hwan, had fled with a large amount of meth and had then used this drug to make more illegal money. He had posed himself as a realtor looking for investment and had gathered a group of rich men and women to give him money for his project of building a beach. In order to convince the investors, he had lied to have been friends with the President and had then used drugs to take control of the men and women. While the investors kept giving him money and stayed on at his resort in exchange for drugs, Jeon had come under the NIS’ radar and was soon picked up by them. However, here he was only exploited, and the corrupt officer looking into his case made sure to let Jeon go but made him a cash cow for personal benefits. Realizing that he needed to quickly change his ways, Jeon had switched over to taking advantage of people’s religious beliefs and had become a pastor of a church. At this very time, he had started using meth and cocaine to keep his followers under his control and was making large amounts of money through donations in this business. But the corrupt NIS officer returned to take more money from him, and Jeon was immensely frustrated by now. He decided to kill the NIS officer and was then looking for a place to escape to when he first read of Suriname. The country’s attributes of being immensely small but with a lot of ongoing trouble and the fact that it had not signed an extradition treaty with South Korea made Suriname the ideal place for Jeon to settle in.
Moving over to Suriname, Jeon had then funded the erstwhile military leader’s coup and had essentially made the military leader the new President. In doing so, he had ensured that the highest figure of authority in the country was always in his favor and would always protect him from harm. Jeon then founded his Korean church and became a pastor of high regard, all while drugging his followers into donating money to his cause and creating a private militia out of the men and women. In fact, Jeon’s evil knows no bounds as he did not spare even children from his corrupt actions, drugging them and turning them into fighters for his cause. During his time inside Jeon’s sprawling compound, Kang had first seen a young girl, around the same age as his own daughter, being taken away by Jeon’s cult and then drugged. This same girl had later asked to be rescued by him and had then been reprimanded by the cult members for trying to leave. It was perhaps this too that had made Kang work against Jeon with such urgency, as the self-proclaimed godman was nothing short of the Devil incarnate.
Throughout the entire time that we see Jeon, he is always motivated by the need to create more wealth for himself and then to save himself from potential exposure and arrest, always making sure to use the name of God in the process. Like Kang, Jeon was resourceful enough to always find some solution to his problems, but in most cases, these solutions were forceful actions against others. In the end, Jeon was intelligent and shrewd enough to guess that Kang and his friend from Brazil, Sangman, might be up to some suspicious business, but the man’s greed seems to have become the reason for his downfall. He could have made a masterstroke by not sending the cocaine on the plane to Puerto Rico, but it seems that Jeon could not take that gamble with so many drugs in his hand, which potentially meant so much money he was losing with time. In his last scene in the series, too, Jeon tries to make a sly exit as he plays the victim and throws himself around in the water as an innocent pastor to the DEA, but ultimately gives up when he sees Choi and realizes he is with the NIS.
Like Jeon, the other characters like Choi and Eungsoo have also been left mostly linear. Eungsoo remained the friend who was resourceful enough to bring information but lacked the intelligence to successfully run a business. Choi, on the other hand, seems only a righteous NIS agent, with the only negative in his character being the fact that he knew the NIS was getting Kang involved in the dangerous plan of bringing Jeon down. Byeon Ki’s best moments remain the ones in which his real identity is not known, and when he is revealed to be an undercover NIS agent, this identity seems only informational, as he has been set in our minds as the tough and loyal henchman to the drug lord. Chen Zhen also acts out as a tough mob boss who is gullible enough to fall into similar problematic situations multiple times. Overall, “Narco-Saints” does have a fair range of characters, but it still lacks depth in these characters as it does in its story.