‘Vincenzo’ Review: Villains Tantalize Villains in This Cathartic, Striking South Korean Series

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Graphic by Laura Renfroe

Director Kim Hee-won explores chilling corporate zealotry and exploitation of innocence in cutthroat lawsuits where war against manic chairmans and covetous prosecutors rages.

The opening to Netflix’s 4th most-viewed Korean drama is as explosive and epic as its fan ratings. An uptight man on his pristine mansion’s balcony freezes mid-bite, abandoning his pasta as a cryptic plane flies over and rains fuel over his estate. 

One unconcerned figure walks away in smooth gait, the show’s audio filled with the steady rhythm of his shoes and the resounding clicks of his gold-plated lighter. Coat billowing, the consigliere nonchalantly tosses his lighter over his shoulder and drives away as flames lap up the fuel and incinerate the house and acres upon acres of grape vineyards.

The scene is assuredly a fitting introduction to the bigger-than-life crime show phenomenon Vincenzo, a South Korean Netflix series nearing its first release date anniversary. Although it premiered on February 20, 2021, Vincenzo refuses to fade into obscurity with the rise and fall of new trendy shows, and rightfully so.

Vincenzo raises the standard for Korean dramas as part crime epic and part testament to the ease and frequency of manipulation in business settings and the corruption within conglomerates. The show is a refreshing fusion of corporate parable and cinematic grandeur, overflowing with shots of Renaissance Italian architecture and glittering Seoul skylines. 

The series chronicles seasoned Korean-Italian mafia lawyer Vincenzo Cassano on his plot to bring down the corrupt Babel company and its cronies. Cassano, having fled the wrath of his brother Paolo, the newly appointed mafia boss heir, returns to his motherland to retrieve the mounds of illegal gold bars stashed beneath Seoul’s colorful Geumga Plaza with the help of confidant Mr. Cho. 

Vincenzo must momentarily shun his secretive, corpse-littered past as he strikes up acquaintances with the over-enthusiastic tenants of the plaza, including the hotshot corporate lawyer Hong Cha-young and her father Hong Yu-chan, who runs the building’s Jipuragi Law Firm. Vincenzo tentatively schemes with Yu-chan to prevent the demolition of the commercial building. 

The ugliness of all-controlling conjunction comprising Babel Group and Wusang Law Firm is penned through haunting images revealing missing quarantine researchers and test patients bleeding from the mouth from intentional narcotic overdose by Babel Pharmaceuticals.

Vincenzo concludes that Babel and Wusang operate like a yakuza, infested with organized crime and moral decay. The heinous conglomerate–headed by a chairman twisted with mania; the murderous, Zumba-loving attorney Choi Myung-hee; and the stammering, subservient Han Seung-hyuk–will stop at nothing to retain utter dominance over its employees and competitors.

Complex moral quandaries on evil fighting evil and the prevailing of justice cement Vincenzo as one of the best shows of recent memory. The series does a commendable job of allegorizing contemporary corporate fraudulence through its showy action sequences coupled with carefully structured plotlines.

The main character Vincenzo Cassano’s natural coolness contradicted with his sadistic revenge tactics mold him into an incredibly complex anti-hero. Viewers see spurts of barbarous violence from the mafioso that affirm him as a multilayered avenger who gives his adversaries a taste of their own medicine.

Actor Song Joong-ki embodies Vincenzo’s intrinsic flair with an awe-inspiring performance in scenes that will both make viewers’ stomachs churn and leave them creepily fascinated.

Flickering derangement can be discerned in Cassano’s eyes on numerous occasions in his stratagem against Babel–for example, as he cocks a gun loaded with a single bullet against his own temple in a nerve-wracking game of Russian Roulette—making the unpredictable characterization of our protagonist perhaps one of the most stunning assets to this South Korean show.

“There [are] always evil people everywhere, unfortunately. In Korea recently, when I watch the news, some news makes me so angry that it almost brings me to tears and I thought that the way that evil is punished in the drama, it’s very refreshing,” Song Joong-ki told K-popped

“There are a lot of villains in our story and in fact, unfortunately there are a lot of these villains in our lives as well. And I think the way that the characters approached and the method of punishing the villains was very satisfying for me,” the actor concluded.

Vincenzo has all the tension and action viewers crave in a crime drama, topped off with glamorous locales, slick suits, and a spellbinding soundtrack. The unparalleled production value of each installment makes for an addictive screen experience that will leave hearts racing.

The visual production of the show is fleshed out with metaphorical imagery littered throughout, such as the creative usage of flipped camera angles and warped mirror reflections to present a character’s unhinging. 

Despite the richly dark cinematography and juiced-up fight sequences of the 20-episode series, the comedic relief tucked in as ridiculously hilarious one-liners makes the show even more memorable. Namely, Vincenzo tries Geumga Plaza’s Italian restaurant on multiple occasions, only to leave the chef wholly offended each time. (“I guess the basil and cheese are practicing social distancing. They don’t mix at all.”)

The heart-warming dynamics of a found family within Geumga Plaza showcases much-needed vulnerability and emotional openness within Vincenzo’s characters. The authentic relationships seem substantially more genuine thanks to the sublime chemistry between actors and actresses.

Ultimately, Vincenzo extends far beyond slapstick humor and wild fight scenes as a poignant David-versus-Goliath-esque commentary on underdog triumph despite unscrupulous surroundings and the righteous value of fighting for love and the innocent. 

Perhaps the most resounding moral of director Kim Hee-won’s Vincenzo is that although some people in power believe lack of morality can be excused because of position, deep-rooted deceit and avarice can never dodge the consequences.

Through Vincenzo Cassano’s satisfying brawls against slimy social ills, a thought-provoking question reverberates throughout the entirety of the show, one that will keep viewers up at night and completely warp the way they see “hero” characters in cinema.

As best articulated through Korean artist Stella Jang’s song “Villains,” though people feign to be the heroes on the good side, what if, in reality, they are the villains on the other?