Fists of Justice – The Fiery Priest (2019)

Last week’s review was inspired by disappointment; this time it’s pure unalloyed joy. The Fiery Priest [Yeolhyeolsaje] (2019) hits a lot of my K-drama sweet spots – writing and performances with a healthy mixture of comic exaggeration and real human emotion; situations which range from farcical to deadly serious; cleverly interwoven plot elements which come together in unexpected ways; regular doses of kickass fight scenes; an occasional fantasy sequence; and a range of positive personal transformations. The only element missing from the regular mix is an overt romance, although the creative personnel do flirt with its potential and toss in enough tropes for fanfic writers to go to town.

Father Michael Kim (Kim Nam-gil) is not so much about turning the other cheek – he’s more of the proactive “kicking the moneylenders out of the temple with extreme prejudice” school of applied theology. A solemn opening shot of Father Michael packing a case in the stained glass environs of a Catholic church is quickly contrasted with a spaghetti western musical sting as he appears on the scene of a pseudo-shaman conning the elderly out of their pension cheques with a fake exorcism. Our man in black opens his case to display the conventional exorcism paraphernalia… before revealing the secret compartment underneath from which he removes a roll of duct tape, a taser and a collapsible police baton. One short catechism and some painfully extracted shin hair later, Father Michael chases the fake shaman to the far end of a dwindling sand bank being swallowed by the incoming tide, extracts the location of the local petty crime lord to whom he’s beholden, fights his way through a succession of henchmen and delivers the divine fist of justice to the crime lord’s face.

It should come as no surprise to learn that our hero did not pick up these skills from the seminary. Prior to becoming Father Michael, Kim Hae-il was an elite counter-terrorism operative for the NIS. He resigned from the service after an incident in which his amoral superior officer Lee Jung-gwon (Kim Min-jae) lied about having cleared their target area of civilians, ordering him to take actions which led directly to the deaths of multiple children (deemed by Jung-gwon as acceptable losses because they weren’t Korean). Hae-il was rescued from his slide into self-destructive behaviour by the compassionate Father Lee Young-joon (Jung Dong-hwan), ultimately joining the priesthood under his guidance. However, as is clear from the opening scene, Father Michael still has some significant anger management issues and finds himself in hot water with the local police after his latest incident, leading him to be quietly sent away to Gudam (a fictional district adjacent to Seoul’s “Little Russia”) until things die down – where he will be under the supervision of his old friend and mentor Father Lee.

After alarming both his new colleagues – young Father Han Sung-kyu (Jeon Sung-woo) and high-strung Sister Kim In-kyung (Baek Ji-won) – and their congregation in various entertaining ways, things take a sharp turn for the serious when Father Lee’s body is discovered at the bottom of a gorge. Father Michael’s initial attempts to overturn the suspiciously hasty labelling of the death as suicide prompt the release of information that his mentor was being investigated for sexual misconduct and embezzlement of church funds – enraging him further and making him more determined than ever to clear Father Lee’s name and punish those responsible.

The officer in charge of the case is Detective Goo Dae-young (Kim Sung-kyun) – a one-time high flyer who gave up on even attempting to do his job properly after being forced to watch as his partner was beaten to death by the local crime gang. Since then he’s been little more than a loud-mouthed clown, although he’s retained enough personal integrity to exclude himself from the bribes routinely accepted by the rest of his team. After Father Michael manages to get himself assigned to the case as an official observer, Detective Goo’s job is to sabotage the investigation – which is made more difficult by his newly assigned rookie partner Detective Seo Seung-ah (Keum Sae-rok), an idealistic young officer with talents in kickboxing and rapping who is determined to take her job seriously (and, incidentally, forms quite the crush on Father Michael). The most visible face of their opposition is Prosecutor Park Kyung-sun (Lee Hanee), a sly and unscrupulous woman skilled at manipulating the truth, but who also finds herself increasingly uncomfortable with the way events progress – not least because she was a member of Father Lee’s congregation and never entirely bought into the accusations laid against him. You can tell she’s an important character because she gets her own “sassy girl” theme tune – a sung refrain of “honey honey” punctuating many of her scenes – and because the creators behind the show are determined to take every opportunity to encourage their audience to ship her with the handsome Father Michael. Rounding out the central cast of potential allies are two of Father Michael’s congregation: Oh Yo-han (Go Kyu-pi), a seeming simpleton who works multiple menial part-time jobs but has a degree in astrophysics and believes he gains the power of super-hearing while he’s eating; and Thai immigrant Ssongsak Tekaratanapeuraseoteu (Ahn Chang-hwan), a mild-mannered fast-food delivery driver picked on for his language skills by local low-level thug Jang-ryong (Eum Moon-suk).

Affiliated against this ragtag band (some of whom have similarly surprising backgrounds to Father Michael) is the core cartel in charge of Gudam’s crime and corruption: Head of Borough Jung Dong-ja (Jeong Young-ju), aided by her crime boss step-brother Hwang Cheol-bum (Go Jun); Superintendent Nam Suk-goo (Jung In-gi), who assigned Detective Goo to the case and has a potentially scandalous affection for all things Japanese; Senator Park Won-moo (Han Gi-jung), who routinely fakes hunger strike protests to stoke his political reputation as a man of the people; and Chief Prosecutor Kang Seok-tae (Kim Hyung-mook), who views himself as the mastermind. Roped in for occasional assistance, but working very much to their own agenda, are the local Korean-Russian crime lord Vladimir Gojayev (Kim Won-hae) and conman-turned-cult leader Reverend Ki Yong-moon (Lee Moon-sik). And it wouldn’t be wrong of you to assume that Father Michael’s original nemesis might turn up again somewhere down the track.

In amongst the comedy capers and darker turns (which include some brutal beatings on both sides), the overriding theme of the show is redemption – which, in the case of several characters, also involves finding a healthy channel for anger by using to fuel the fight for positive social change. Father Michael fights for the downtrodden from the very beginning, but while his violent tendencies against both people and property are often played for comedy, part of his personal journey involves the ability to reign in those urges and direct them more appropriately. Detective Goo and Prosecutor Park have each surrendered to what they consider to be insurmountable institutional obstacles when we first meet them, but their enforced association with Father Michael eventually drags them around – however reluctantly – to take up the good fight. Yo-han and Ssongsak, although seemingly hapless and having little to offer, influence the other characters in small but unexpected ways and draw strength from their unlikely friendship to become an integral part of their little team (dubbed Team Tsunami by Prosecutor Park). Both Father Lee and Sister Kim have hidden aspects of their past which turn out to be relevant to the show’s themes, and there is even believable evidence for the potential redemption of at least one of the people working for the cartel. Viewers with a grudge against the Catholic Church may take issue with its generally positive portrayal, but I’d argue that this is missing the point of the show somewhat – it’s very much an aspirational exercise about looking for the best in yourself and in others, and never giving up on trying to make life better.

The Fiery Priest was a massive hit in Korea, the highest rated miniseries drama that aired in 2019 on public broadcast television. You have no idea how ecstatic I was to get to the end of the final episode and be teased with the potential of a sequel – a sequel which, I am delighted to say, is expected to air in early 2022. It picked up awards for Excellent Korean Drama (Seoul International Drama Awards), Best Picture – Drama (Grimae Awards) and the internet broadcasting Wayve Award (SBS Drama Awards). Writer Park Jae-bum was nominated for Best Screenplay (Korea Drama Awards) – among his writing credits are four other shows currently available on Netflix Australia: medical romantic comedy Good Doctor [Gut Dakteo] (2013); vampire medical drama Blood [Beulleodeu] (2015); embezzler-turned-employee-rights-advocate comedy Good Manager [Kimgwajang] (2017); and mafia crime-comedy Vincenzo [Binsenjo] (2021). Director Lee Myung-woo’s feel for comedy and strong visual sense are equally important aspects of the show’s success – his work on police drama series You’re All Surrounded [Neohuideureun Powidwaetda] (2014) can also be seen on Netflix.

Kim Nam-gil is excellent in the title role, keeping the central core of his character consistent through a range of tonal shifts. His performance not only won him Best Actor at the Busan International Film Festival, the Korean Broadcasters Association Awards, the Seoul International Drama Awards and the Grimae Awards; he also netted the Grand Prize at the SBS Drama Awards and the Prime Minister’s Commendation at the Korean Popular Culture & Arts Awards. At one point the series makes a joking reference to his investigative talents as the lead policeman in Memoir of a Murderer [Salinjaui gieokbeob] (2017), a more serious role than his appearance that same year in the time travel medical romantic comedy series Live Up to Your Name [Myeongbulheojeon] (2017), in which he plays a Joseon Dynasty medical scientist who falls in a river and wakes up 400 years later in modern Seoul. He also has a central role in zombie comedy The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale [Gimyohan gajok] (2019).

Receiving Excellence Awards (Mid-length Drama) were his two co-stars. Kim Sung-hyun provides a broader comic performance as the braggart cop – fans of his performance here should probably seek out Phantom Detective [Tamjeong Honggildong: Sarajin Maeul] (2016), a film which keeps coming across my radar and which I really should track down. Lee Hanee (aka Honey Lee) is a former Miss Korea and professional gayageum player who took home the Top Excellence Award in her category. She plays a celebrity chef in romantic comedy series Pasta [Paseuta] (2010) and has since gone on to play the lead in amnesia/mistaken identity romantic comedy One the Woman [Won Deo Umeon] (2021), which includes a cameo appearance from Kim Nam-gil.

While the supporting cast as a whole deservedly received an award for Best Supporting Team, there are a few who received additional recognition. Among the bad guys, Go Jun’s MMA boxer-turned-crime boss is given the most to do and is a good physical match for Kim Nam-gil, although he has less opportunity for humour. His role earned him the Star of the Year Award and Best Supporting Actor. Eum Moon-suk (who won Best New Actor) gets to have a bit more fun as Go Jun’s henchman, initially a threatening character who becomes more and more a figure of fun as the story progresses – and who has perhaps the most interesting character arc among the baddies. Winning Best New Actress was Keum Sae-rok, who’s delightful as the rookie police officer – given her character’s penchant for breaking out in rap, I was surprised to discover that her musical career is non-existent. She made a strong impression in a small role at the beginning of Believer [Dokjeon] (2018), playing a cynical police informant who fails to convince her contact that her cover is about to be blown. Ahn Chang-hwan made a strong enough impression on the audience to win the Popular Character Award (Male) for his role as Ssongsak – I have no memory of seeing him in Strong Girl Bong-soon [Himssenyeoja Dobongsun] (2017), in which he apparently had a minor role, but I’ll keep an eye out for him in writer Park Jae-bum’s follow-up series Vincenzo. And on a personal note, I can’t end without giving a shout-out to Kim Won-hae for his colourful performance in a minor (but important) role as Russian gangster Vladimir Gojayev – he always brings a smile to my face.

At this point I really should wind things up with a brief summation of the series. Maybe my critical faculties have deserted me, maybe I’m just tired, but after churning through various ways of saying the same thing I’ll keep it short and sweet – I loved it. I hope you will too. I’ll leave you with an excerpt from episode 1 and a trailer.

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