Two of the Korean entertainment industry’s biggest names—Bae Suzy (of girl group Miss A, better known mononymously as “Suzy”) and Lee Seung-gi (of Brilliant Legacy, The King 2 Hearts, and more)—are back in the spotlight with a new conspiracy drama. With episodes hitting Netflix worldwide every Friday and Saturday for eight weeks starting Sep 20, 2019, Vagabond is the latest big budget K-drama with international ambitions. The series certainly feels like a blockbuster, in ways both positive and negative. Vagabond offers good entertainment value while showcasing South Korea’s status as a middle power, but doesn’t necessarily push the envelope beyond standard K-drama tropes.
Korean Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams?
In its first episode, Vagabond spins the web of an elaborate, global conspiracy that ensnares its two leads and beyond. Lee Seung-gi plays Cha Dal-gun, a down-on-his-luck stuntman who single-handedly raises his nephew Cha Hoon. Dal-gun’s world turns upside down when Hoon dies in a plane crash on the way to a taekwondo demonstration sponsored by South Korea’s embassy in Morocco. Devastated, Cha Dal-gun travels to Morocco along with other bereaved families, and inadvertently discovers evidence that the crash may not have been an accident.
Meanwhile, Suzy plays Go Hae-ri. On the surface, Go is a ditzy intern at the embassy, assigned to shepherd Cha and other relatives of the plane crash victims. However, we—and Cha—quickly learn that Go is actually a covert operative for South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. Cha enlists Go to help uncover the truth behind the plane crash, and we start seeing hints that Go has even more secrets beneath the surface.
Big Budget for a Big Conspiracy
While we haven’t seen a K-drama that opens with a massive plane crash before, conspiracy K-dramas are a tried and true sub-genre, with past hits like City Hunter as examples. Vagabond offers a solidly entertaining take on the sub-genre. At least judging from the first two episodes, it has an intricately crafted plot and decent production quality.
The show cultivates multiple subplots in a manner that doesn’t feel overwhelming, and leaves audiences hungering for answers to a bevy of intriguing questions. Fair warning for viewers who want more suspense though: Vagabond reveals the conspiracy’s broad outlines and rationales pretty early on, making the show more focused on discovering how deep that conspiracy really goes. The show still has plenty of mystery—just of a different kind.
Vagabond also initially spends significant effort on Cha Dal-gun’s character development. Cha gets the most screen time in the first two episodes; this lends itself to a lot of great action scenes given his stuntman skills. Regrettably, this also means Go Hae-ri has slightly less screen time than we’d expect—though presumably we’ll see a lot more of her in later episodes.
Much like other recent big-budget, internationally-minded K-dramas (ex. Memories of the Alhambra or Descendants of the Sun), Vagabond also takes many opportunities to film in beautiful Mediterranean locations (i.e. Portugal and Morocco). This results in some amusingly similar aesthetics with different K-dramas—apparently K-drama characters really love driving jeeps (especially red ones) alongside sunny coastlines regardless of whether they’re in Descendants of the Sun or Vagabond.
This isn’t the only place where Vagabond draws from existing precedent. While fortunately its first two episodes don’t show much flirtation, Vagabond already forms the outlines of a classic love triangle between its two leads and another male character. After all, this is still a drama that needs to attract viewers, and the producers are probably keen on not letting the Suzy and Lee Seung-gi pairing go to waste.
Middle Power Drama
Beyond romance and star power, Vagabond’s premise also reinforces South Korea’s ascendant geopolitical clout. Along with other recent K-dramas like Designated Survivor: 60 Days, Vagabond hints at Korea’s own version of the military-industrial complex.
Early on in the show, we learn that a shadowy defense contractor called John and Mark (perhaps inspired by Lockheed Martin with its compound name) likely caused the plane crash, in an effort to discredit top rival Dynamic Systems (seemingly an amalgam of General Dynamics and Boeing) in a competition to provide South Korea’s next generation fighter jet. Vagabond also contains various scenes set in the Blue House (Korea’s presidential office), hinting at how high the conspiracy might reach.
Conspiracies of such juicy nature—involving global defense contractors—only happen when countries with enough geopolitical and economic clout come into play. The fact that South Korean TV writers can naturally craft these conspiracies perhaps reflects the country’s middle power status in the real world. In fact, allegations of influence peddling clouded South Korea’s decision to select the F-35 as its next generation fighter, and top aerospace contractor Korea Aerospace Industries made headlines in 2017 and 2018 over corruption charges.
With Suzy and Lee Seung-gi headlining, a decently constructed plot, and gripping action scenes, Vagabond offers a reliably entertaining experience that’ll please K-drama fans. Even those who enjoy political science lectures more than K-drama tropes might derive pleasure from the geopolitical undertones, not to mention the amusing (if not entirely accurate) portrayal of South Korean diplomatic proceedings. While the show may not be a classic that pushes genre boundaries, it probably never intended to be.
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Vagabond is currently airing on SBS in South Korea and streaming worldwide as a Netflix original.