‘Café Minamdang’ review: a witty blend of mystery and slapstick humour

Seo In-guk flourishes in his role as a charismatic faux shaman, leading what is shaping up to be one of the best K-drama offerings this year

An enigmatic shaman who guarantees 100 per cent accuracy and actually delivers. If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is on Café Minamdang, the new KBS drama based on the web comic Minamdang: Case Note. Enter Nam Han-jun (Seo In-guk), said shaman whose base of operations lies underneath the front that is the titular café, which sits in the heart of the city. There is a method to his madness: he is immensely well-loved by his clientele for his charismatic way of speech, and his attractive physical appearance helps too.

Still, no fraudster – no matter how bewitching – would be able to pull off multiple successful scams all on his own. Han-jun is accompanied by an expert team of three other individuals, all of whom act as the limbs of his duplicitous, ludicrous schemes. There’s Nam Hye-jun (former gugudan member Kang Mi-na), an hacker who sets up shop in the café’s living quarters and is characterised by her unhygienic demeanour.

Not only was she formerly part of the National Intelligence Service, she is also Han-jun’s younger sister; she hard-carries much of the detective work that allows his “predictions” to turn out as precise as they always do. Rounding out the Minamdang crew are Gong Su-cheol (Kwak Si-yang) and Jo Na-dan (Baek Seo-hoo), the former of whom was once part of the police force and is in charge of the brutish aspects to the job, while the latter fills in the remaining gaps, including actual café operations and miscellaneous logistics.

Café Minamdang’s pool of clientele are filled to the brim with dubious characters, but they’re mainly filthy rich chaebols looking to cover their tracks, ranging from adultery to attempted murder. Han-jun’s constant involvement in these criminal cases as a witness elicits suspicion among the detectives at the local police station, and understandably so. How is this same guy always at the scene of the crime? Thus begins the classic cat-and-mouse chase – the team from the Daeun Police Station headed by Han Jae-hui (Oh Yeon-seo) are only one step behind the Minamdang crew at all times.

This isn’t to say Jae-hui isn’t a brilliant detective. Her reputation within the Seoul police force precedes her – on her first day as the team’s lieutenant, her subordinates immediately recognised her as “The Ghost Of Yongjin Police Station”, where she was previously situated. Wild stories about the reason behind her nickname are exchanged; she has either single handedly taken down a Southeast Asian drug cartel unarmed or she latches onto a case (like a ghost) and sees it till the end. Either way, they deduce that Jae-hui is not a force to be reckoned with.

But Jae-hui has a personal agenda to her pursuit of Han-jun, which at this stage of the K-drama remains largely unseen. Though her disdain for the faux shaman is made crystal clear, the same simply cannot be said about Han-jun. He actually fell in love at first sight, opening up even more avenues for comedic, thrilling, maybe even romantic shenanigans to ensue in future episodes.

Crime mystery K-dramsa in recent memory have largely been austere and tenacious, choosing to forgo lightheartedness for some nail-biting thrill. This, perhaps ingenious pairing, is why Café Minamdang has already managed to outclass many similar shows. You could argue that its lightheartedness might only do so much to cover its pacing issues – from overload of exposition in the first episode to stretching out side stories in others – and you would be right, but the spirited slapstick humour does make Café Minamdang’s extensive lore much easier to digest.

The series owes much of its wit to the performances of its main cast, but more specifically the chemistry among the Minamdang crew, each of whom bring their own distinct quirks to the table. Kang Mi-na flourishes in her role as the nonchalant genius Hye-jun, her on-screen banter with Seo In-guk coming off as squabbly yet simultaneously comfortable as that of real siblings. Even Kwak Si-yang and Baek Seo-hoo fill in the shoes of their roles with ease; the conversations and antics between all four characters are enough to keep you tuned in for the next episode, if not for anything else.

However, Seo remains the true, uncontested star of Café Minamdang – long gone is the stoic, intense Myul-mang of Doom At Your Service, Han-jun is here to serve up some impeccable comedic timing and an unmistakable, outward happy-go-lucky attitude that just makes him so easy to love and root for. Even so, Seo smooths out the exuberant sides to Han-jun, packing in traces of angst in those crucial blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moments to add substance to his character beyond his role as comic relief.

This doesn’t exempt his character from lacking chemistry with others, namely Oh Yeon-soo’s Han Jae-hui. In spite of the pair’s conspicuous set-up as eventual lovers, their goals, values and personalities are so wildly disparate at this stage of the series that it’s becoming a greater challenge to visualise a romantic relationship blossoming between them with each passing episode.

After four episodes in, Café Minamdang seems to be shaping up as one of the best K-drama offerings this year, what with its sharp-witted approach to a feel-good crime mystery and a cast committed to crafting characters you can’t help but come to care for. The potential this series has is salient, but with 14 episodes left, our fingers are crossed hoping it doesn’t get squandered.

New episodes of Café Minamdang air every Monday and Tuesday on South Korean TV network KBS2, and are also available to stream on Netflix in select regions.

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