Directed By: Lee Chang-min
Written By: Kim Won-suk
Park Hae-jin– Kim Seol-woo
Park Sung-woong – Yeo Woon-gwang
Kim Min-jung – Cha Do-ha
Yeon Jung-hoon – Mo Seung-jae
Chae Jung-an – Song Mi-eun
Jeong Man-sik – Lee Dong-hyun
Jang Hyun-sung – Jang Tae-ho
Cheon Ho-jin – Lawmaker Baek
Tae In-ho – Seo Ki-chul
Oh Na-ra – Sharon Kim
Genre: Spy; Action-thriller; Melodrama
Number of Episodes: 16
Run Time: 60 – 70 minutes
Man to Man is a South-Korean series that has been recently released on Netflix. It is a Spy action-thriller with elements of romance and comedy.
The series is about ghost agent K (Park Hae-jin) who uses all skills at his disposal to get the mission done. Be it getting romantically involved with a woman who might be integral to finding information/ providing a cover or directly contravening an order as seen in the pilot episode where as a sniper, he ignores the officer-in charge’s order to stand down and takes out a criminal who had hijacked a school bus and was threatening a young girl.
His satisfaction lies in the look of relief on the girl’s face or in the case of other missions, knowing he has done something to right a situation. So while cold-blooded about his work and detached from human concerns he has a larger concern of social-wellbeing. Which is why he frequently voices out that his role is to be faceless while upholding peace in society by undertaking missions of national importance.
In the beginning, K seems to be taking each case mechanically and hence his personality seems at odds with that of his handler Lee Dong-hyun (Jeong Man-sik), a jovial prosecutor who was a former NIS agent but continues to assist them (without letting his wife know). Dong-hyun and his friend Jang Tae-ho (Jang Hyun-sung) an NIS officer want K to take over a new mission. It would require tracing three wooden carvings which hide the key to the slush fund stashed away by the previous chairman of the large conglomerate Songsan. There are many players interested in the whereabouts of the carvings and as a result the slush fund. Some of these players are revealed only towards the last few episodes and the violence and thrill factor ups when these revelations are close on hand.
What is interesting is the cover story K has to adopt to achieve his mission. The first wooden carving is at the private collection of a Russian mafia lord Victor who is hyper-vigilant about his security and hence they have no access. Their only option is by making K a bodyguard to the Korean action star Yeo Woon-gwang (Park Sung-woong) who is now an upcoming Hollywood star. Victor is a huge fan of his film Dark Death and hence issued a private invite to him.
This mission has all the potential to try K’s patience because Woon-gwang is temperamental and has starry tantrums designed to get rid of K, a deal he made with his manager Cha Do-ah (Kim Min-jung) who dislikes K. If K needs Do-ah to fall in love with him so as to ease his operations, it goes exactly against his wishes. She not only dislikes him but also spies on him. For someone who has been a member of Woon-gwang’s Fan club and has eyes only for him and calls him ‘oppa’, she thwarts K’s plans.
Since she tries his patience as well, he is more revealing of his emotions and begins to notice chinks in his armour that worries him and he can’t wait for his mission to be over, but the story throws up twists that embroil him further and further into her life.
There are multiple sub-plots and they slowly start merging together, for instance, the current head of Songsan, Mo Seung-jae (Yeon Jung-hoon) is not only trying to find the carvings, but he has a corrupt politician Lawmaker Baek (Cheon Ho-jin) use his sources and people in the intelligence service to acquire it for him. He is married to a former actress Song Mi-eun (Chae Jung-an) who is incidentally Woon-gwang’s ex-girlfriend. He is jealous of her past especially since she is funding Woon-gwang’s film. He in fact tries to sabotage him and his career. He also tries to manipulate Mi-eun by using their son as leverage.
The interesting thing however, is that she has a double life of sorts in that she is friends with Sharon (Oh Na-ra), a designer who is seeing Mr Jang and hence she does him the favour of hiring K as Woon-gwang’s bodyguard.
It is when K’s two worlds start to collide that the plots start to merge and there is a scene, which is very imitative of Taken that reveals his Achilles heel as an agent to rogue ghost agent Seo Ki-chul (Tae In-ho) who works with Lawmaker Baek.
The series is realistic in how it tries to portray the lives of secret agents – fraught with danger, they live with betrayal, possibility of being discarded and double-crossed by their handlers and how romance is not really an option.
The romantic plotlines of K and Do-ha, and Woon-gwang -Mi-eun-Seung-jae, lend poignancy to the story because of the vulnerabilities it reveals and the improbability of fairy-tale resolutions.
All the characters are well-constructed. They start of as being two-dimensional but as the narrative progresses there are other sides that are revealed. Thanks to the layering of the narrative and the characters’ personalities and backgrounds, Woon-gwang being an action star becomes significant later on.
The actors are also spot-on with their performances. Park Hae-jin’s subtle changes in expression go well with his role as a poker-faced bodyguard. Especially, since most comic moments involve him being thwarted by the other characters. The fact that he shouldn’t reveal any emotions but feel deeply about certain things add to the amusement of the viewer. K’s bromance with Woon-gwang and Dong-hyun becomes one of the highlights of the series.
With Hungary as a location for the foreign sequences and an international feel to the series, it can become very popular. It after all manages to fuse romance and comedy into a spy action thriller that by no means tones down on its thrill moments or violence that would necessarily be part of such a package. It also has instances of psychological abuse.
The series however, does leave things a little ambiguous which is probably realistic given that the protagonist is a black ops agent. Finally, the soundtrack for the series is upbeat, fun and the lyrics for the songs go well with the emotions of the characters and the plot changes. It features popular K-artists including Far-East Movement.