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"Vagabond" is not a Heavyweight Spy Story But It Pushes All the Right Buttons
I'm late in the Korean film and TV series game. They had been mainstays in local networks (dubbed, mostly) for at least a decade and a half but I stayed away far away from them. First, because I hate anything that's been dubbed (dialogues always sound emotionless). Second, because what we got mostly were romantic comedies targeted at a younger audience.
Then, I watched Train to Busan. I was impressed — terribly impressed, in fact — but not yet enough to turn me into a true blue Korean film fan. My daughter, Sam, recommended the TV series Kingdom, I got as far as the second episode then stopped.
Then I saw Parasite months before it won the Oscar. That was the turning point — the moment that I became a real fan of Korean films. I was so dazzled that I was willing to give Kingdom another shot. But Vagabond came along and Kingdom would have to wait.
Vagabond is a 16-episode TV series that aired on Netflix while my younger daughter, Alex, and I were in Chiang Mai. Between the food tour, cooking class, night markets and cafe hopping, we enjoyed Vagabond, one to two episode on most nights, although we wouldn't finish all 16 episodes until we got back home to the Philippines.
The story revolves around a plane crash that killed 211 civilians including members of a taekwondo team scheduled to make an exhibition in Morocco. One of the team members was Hoon, the nephew of Cha Dal-geon (Lee Seung-gi), a stunt man turned taxi driver.
Cha travels to Morocco and encounters a man on the street that looked like one of the plane passengers as shown on a video sent by Hoon just before the plane crashed. Determined to find out who the mysterious survivor is, he finds himself collaborating with Go Hae-ri (Bae Suzy), a National Intelligence Service (NIS) agent working undercover in Morocco.
Labeled "spy", "thriller", "action" and "romance", viewers who prefer a single genre might find Vagabond a bit confusing. But it doesn't have to be. It isn't a heavyweight spy story like adaptations Le Carre's novels. But it touches on controversial subjects without being preachy. There is just the right amount of activism without the sloganeering.
As the story unfolds, we learn that the plane crash was orchestrated. Two military contractors, Dynamic Systems and John & Mark, both American companies, are competing for a contract to supply the South Korean government with fighter jets, and which company got blamed for the plane crash would lose in the bidding.
In a world of corrupt politicians and greedy business people, we find women who are trying to break through stereotypes to make it in a world that had been dominated by men.
There's NIS agent Go Hae-ri who has been treated as mostly incompetent and given assignments that were, at best, decorative.
There's Jessica Lee (Moon Jeong-hee), John & Mark's Director for Asia, who was out to prove that she was as good a CEO as any man, if not better.
Even the female characters in the supporting cast — Lily (Park Ah-in), the assassin, Oh Sang-mi (Kang Kyung-hun), the pilot's wife, the owner of Bullet Chicken (you have to watch Vagabond to understand this character) — had this go-getter-modern-woman attitude.
Vagabond is suspenseful, yes, but it rarely gets overwhelming. There is no shortage on action scenes and they are all so well choreographed. Most were shot to make the most of exotic locations that include Portugal and Morocco.
Not that the action scenes are all that original. The rooftop and street chases in Tangier were reminiscent of scenes in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). The ambush of the convoy that carried the pilot Kim Woo-gi in Episode 8 was straight out of Clear and Present Danger (1994). But, no matter, on a grander scheme of things, they all worked.
There is enough drama and humor between the action scenes to give your pounding heart a break. Oh, I especially love the humor. Wait 'till you get to the part where you learn what "vagabond" means in the context of the story.
And, yes, there are hints of romance here and there — not too much to divert from the main story but just enough to warm your heart and make you wear a foolish smile on your face.