Korean Drama Review: Chief Kim (2017)

Saturday, January 13, 2018


Office dramas are a genre of dramas I don't usually find particularly engaging. In fact, corporate politics and workplace struggles can often make for a rather stressful viewing. That, however, is not the case with Chief Kim (2017), which approached the subject matter with the cheerful confidence of it's titular character and delivered a strangely addictive experience full of humor and warmth.

The main appeal of Chief Kim is without doubt Namgoong Min, who puts on one hell of a performance as the wacky Chief Kim, a small-time swindler who suddenly finds himself in the role of a righteous hero. The actor commands every scene he's in with seamless charisma and undeniable talent for physical comedy, ensuring that there's not a single boring moment with him in the scene. It's thanks to him I trudged through the drama's somewhat slow beginnings without much complaint, knowing it would pay off once the character would find his bearings.

And indeed, while Chief Kim's initial introduction shows him as an amusing character, it takes some time to get onboard with the character's motivations. When he's first presented with a chance to be noble, he stubbornly refuses do to so, claiming it's against his nature to live an honest life. But when our antihero can't help but do the right thing in spite of himself, the show quickly picks up the pace and becomes the crazy yet endearing blend of heart and humor that it's destined to be.

Although the drama seems to center around Chief Kim's personal growth from a careless crook to Mr. Righteous, it is perhaps even more about the relationships he forms along the way. In many ways, Kim acts like a positive father figure to his co-workers and friends as he goes around "adopting" all the lost children of TQ Group one by one, giving them a purpose and unknowingly teaching them to be the best version of themselves. It's especially evident with Myung Suk (Dong Ha), who reforms from a spoiled brat to a trustworthy team-player, but the rest of the Business Operations gang also goes through a similar process as they each find courage to fight for the right cause thanks to their new boss. 

In fact, there is such an abundance of memorable relationships in the show that it's hard to keep count of them, from Manager Cho's (Kim Won Hae) affectionate friendship with Chief Kim to Ha Kyung's adorable roommate situation with Kwang Sook (Im Hwa Young). These interactions are a large part of the show's appeal even when they're only random encounters between the main players and minor characters. Even these brief moments provide us with laughs or unexpected sweetness at any point in time.

Since Chief Kim is at the centre of everything it's also quite funny how his crazy energy and quirky mannerisms rub off on everyone after a while, which is a telling sign of how strong his influence really is. It was particularly welcome with Ha Kyung (Nam Sang Mi), who initially seemed like the most restrained character in the show, yet later on became very in tune with Chief Kim's wacky persona, willingly going along with his antics and enjoying herself while doing so. By the end of the drama, it seems like most of the characters similarly show hints of Kim's trademark quirks.

Of course, my favourite character transformation involves our main antagonist Yul (Lee Jun Ho), whose redemption arc is certainly one of the best I've seen. Although I was biased towards Yul from the very beginning, mostly owing to Jun Ho's surprisingly fascinating and nuanced portrayal, I was glad when the character was allowed to be more than just a bad guy. 

At first, Yul is the perfect opponent to Chief Kim—equally smart and cunning, but annoyingly always one step ahead. Yet once the two characters begin their full-on rivalry, Chief Kim becomes as much of a nuisance to Yul than he is to Chief Kim, getting a cackle out of me whenever our hero manages to outsmart Yul. Every lost battle, however, gives us a sad glimpse into Yul's burning desire to always have the upper hand and conquer his enemies. As malicious as he seems initially, it is clearly thoroughly exhausting and lonely to be in his shoes. He even admits as much in a conversation with Ha Kyung, bitterly noting that he wouldn't know how to stop even if he wanted to.

Thankfully, not all was lost for him as Yul always maintained one good quality that separated him from the rest of the baddies in the show—not wanting to resort to violence. While he smacks Chief Kim around for good measure whenever he can, it's never with the intention to truly inflict physical pain to another person. Thus, Yul's decision to save Kim from being killed in episode 15 marks a major turnpoint for the character. 

From that point on, the rivalry between him and Kim settles down a bit and by the time our hero has to return the favour, Yul has already come to respect Kim enough to trust him to save his ass. Ensuing teamwork and bromance is well worth the wait, but perhaps it's even more satisfying to see one reformed criminal encouraging another to start over. Although neither of them intended to become one of the good guys, that second chance at life was clearly what they needed.

Ultimately, the drama ends in a way that respects the characters' individual ambitions and yet stays faithful to its uplifting tone. Chief Kim leaves work to pursue another slightly illegal adventure, Yul quits TQ's exhausting politics to figure out his life, and the rest of the gang gets to work in a much less stressful environment. The baddies get their punishments and the corrupt chairman obviously still remains a nasty piece of work, but evil is defeated for the time being. It's a satisfying ending to a drama that never took itself too seriously, but still managed to be thoughtful and fulfilling. 

So while objectively speaking, Chief Kim might have not been a terribly clever show, it had a strong sense of self-awareness that made it endearing and fun all the way through. It embraced its silly identity and made every minute spent with it incredibly entertaining, thanks to delightful characters and even better performances. In a way, the drama is much like it's titular hero—takes some time to get used to, but when it wins you over, it wins you over for good.

Rating: A-

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