HomeKorean AmericanNarco-Saints sparks controversy with casting choices & labels

Narco-Saints sparks controversy with casting choices & labels

By Erin Chew, AsAmNews Staff Writer

Like many Korean dramas and Netflix limited series, Narco-Saints (Korean name “수리남/Surinam”) has been ranked in the top five on the streaming platform – at its peak it was ranked third. It is currently still a trending series on Netflix.

Despite the show proving to be a hit since it launched this month, it has also been at the center of a diplomatic controversy for casting a Taiwanese actor- veteran actor Chang Chen (Dune, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) as gang leader “Chen Zhen” and for portraying the South American country Suriname as a drug-ridden state.

Narco-Saints tells the story of the life-threatening journey of Kang In-gu (Ha Jung-woo), a civilian businessman who has no choice but to cooperate with the secret operation of the National Intelligence Service to catch Jeon Yo-hwan (Hwang Jung-min), the Korean drug lord who has taken control of Suriname.

According to Hong Kong news portal HK01, Chinese netizens have complained that it is insulting to cast Chang in the role of a gang leader who is not averse to butchering his enemies. This complaint stems from the current geo-political situation between China and Taiwan. S Korean netizens have defended the casting choices and accused Chinese netizens of pirating the show as Netflix is not available to stream in China. The other controversy is that the South American country of Suriname is looking to take legal action against the producers of Narco-Saints for labeling the country as a drug-ridden state ( as the series takes place in the country).

With all this happening in the background, the limited series is still streaming and has become a hit with global audiences who use Netflix. In addition, to celebrate the release of Narco-Saints, a Netflix press conference was recently held in S Korea and streamed over YouTube. It was a grand event, with South Korean press and important film dignitaries present in the audience. In attendance were the primary protagonists in the series Ha, Hwang, Park Hae-soo (Choi Changho), Jo Woo-jin (Byun Kitae), Yoo Yeon-seok (David Park) and director for the series Yoon Jong-bin.

Originally, the script presented to director Yoon was meant for a feature film, but as Yoon discusses, he was intrigued by the storyline as it was loosely inspired by true events and felt that a two-hour or so film wasn’t enough time to cover all the elements and do a deep dive into the narco world.

“When I first heard about the subject matter for this series, I was intrigued. And when I first saw the script for the feature film, it was for about two hours, I felt like a lot was missing”, said director Yoon.

“And a lot of the elements that I was first intrigued by, seemed to be omitted in that feature film script. So I felt like two hours was not enough to contain all of the elements of the story, so I thought that a series would be a better format. And right at that time, I was able to work with Netflix, which was a great coincidence”.

Yoon also mentioned that it took seven to eight years before Netflix agreed to produce it into a limited series and it is his first working on directing a series for Netflix. The casting choices are interesting. Those familiar with South Korean film and television know that the actors who make up the main cast are all veterans and big-time names in the industry.

There were more questions put to the cast members and director for the series talking about individual characters, storyline, filming on location etc. However, circling back to the controversy over the casting of Taiwanese actor Chang as a ruthless and villainous gang leader for the series, director Yoon actually approached him personally for the role and flew over to Taiwan to meet and convince him to take it on. Yoon chose Chang as he is a fan of his work and has admired his career for a long time.

“Well, I have long been a fan. He is truly one of my favorite Taiwanese actors and when I thought of this role of Chen Zhen, he was the very first person I thought of and I really wanted to cast him. And there’s the language barrier and of course the geographical barrier, and I don’t know his number, right? So there’s that difficulty of getting to him and communicating with him”.

“So I thought that it would be better to meet him in person to truly convey my message and my vision. So I flew out to see him and we met and I shared my vision with him. And he was, thankfully, very happy to join”. 

Narco-Saints is now available to be streamed on Netflix.

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