Korean TV shows tend to lean hard on the melodrama and become lumbering unwieldy beasts when that level of emotional intensity can’t be maintained, or isn’t believable with the characters depicted. Yet The Uncanny Counter over the course of 16 hour-long episodes manages the impossible by keeping you hooked throughout, thanks in no small part to young lead Jo Byeong-kyu.
So Mun (Byeong-Kyu) is a high schooler whose life gets turned around when he becomes accidentally possessed by a spirit of Yung: the place between the afterlife and the land of the living. Bullied and suffering a limp since the car accident that killed his parents seven years ago, Mun becomes not only healed but imbued with superhuman strength and speed. He is not alone though, a local noodles shop is secretly run by others who explain that they are bound by Yung with the task of finding and defeating the evil spirits who possess humans in search of immortality.
The noodle shop workers who are his fellow demon fighters (known as ‘Counters’) were all previously in comas before representatives of Yung visited to promise them revived life, but only if they take on the task and only use their abilities in performance of it. Counters must expel the evil spirit from their host and send them to Yung for judgement. If they don’t, or if they break the rules, then they will be returned to a comatose state.
The core cast is an utter delight. Brash and strong with a shock of unkempt hair, amnesiac Ga Mo-Tak is on a mission to recapture his lost past. Do Ha-Na is a skilled fighter but emotionally reclusive, utilising her ability to sense the presence of evil spirits. Healer and mother figure Choo Mae-ok struggles to decide on the right thing to do, especially when the lives of her cohorts often rely on her healing powers. Mo-Tak in particular is superb with actor Yoo Jun-sang equally adept at comic relief moments or devastating drama.
Mun, despite his traumatic past, is an affable and warm-hearted lead that ties together all the other elements. To start with he has bullies to deal with in a series of escalating throwdowns, although thankfully this is pushed into the background before it becomes tiresome. Through his eyes we spend the first clutch of episodes learning the various rules (random appearances of Yung ‘territory’ amplify the Counter’s abilities; evil spirits only possess those who are disposed to violence; the spirits get stronger with each soul they consume, etc) before the wider plot elements are woven in expertly. There are few extraneous sub-plots here. Everything is tied to everything else in a way that lets the long run time never feel like it’s spinning wheels to fill the space.
Another big plus of The Uncanny Counter is that it – thankfully – picks a tone and sticks with it. Korean shows tend to wander through genres that don’t always mesh (I’m looking at you Strong Girl Bong-Soon) but The Uncanny Counter is comparable to a Buffy The Vampire Slayer angle: it’s predominantly an action-horror but with dramatic and comedic nuggets stirred in at just the right proportions. There’s martial arts punch ups a plenty, but our core gang share an infectious connection that quickly gets you hooked on cheering them on.
The horror is very effectively done. Our ‘get out’ clause of evil spirits only possessing those who have either performed evil acts or harbour violent desires means that even though there is a distinction between the spirit and the person, we don’t need to feel sympathy for the latter. Antagonist Ji Chung-sin is a shudder worthy presence who is rounded out with enough backstory to not be cartoonish. Indeed, his slow turn during a heightened moment to fully recognise Mun for the first time is as disconcerting as any mainstream horror movie. I felt literal goosebumps at that moment, and several others later.
As I previously said, The Uncanny Counter is a masterclass of keeping the balance right. When the high school stuff gets too much, it pivots away from that thread. When Mun’s personal history becomes entwined with current events, it slowly reveals its hand but ensures that Mun goes through all the stages of grief in a paced way. If things get too fantasy heavy there is a corruption plotline with the Mayor and those who attach themselves to his power, yet this is also significant to the main narrative so it doesn’t feel like a waste of time. By making this all seem so effortless, Uncanny Counter shows up other shows who just don’t hack it.
I can’t emphasise enough how the 16 episodes flew past and yet still left me wanting more. The Uncanny Counter is scary, funny, emotional, action packed, and frequently just damn cool. And I also commend the show for adding just a tiny dash of romantic tension without it ever threatening to splurge into an obnoxiously melodramatic centre. Dive in, write off your week, and as a second season has been confirmed, come join me in counting down the days.
Words by Mike Record