You know how they say fine wine takes time?
Well, it actually took me a pretty long time to appreciate Heartless City. Truth be told, I was slow on the uptake with this one. While many of my dramaland friends fell in instant love with this show (and others felt an instant disconnect), I fell somewhere in that vague no man’s land of not hating it, but not quite loving it either.
Show later fixed that by creeping up on me and laying firm hold on my heart in the later episodes, so much so that the moment I reached the end, I actually went right back to the beginning for a partial re-watch. Kinda crazy, but completely true.
So maybe my appreciation is sorta like fine wine? 😛
THE GOOD STUFF – MY TOP 3 PICKS
1. Show’s general handling
Cinematography, music, tone, vibe
Dark and beautiful are two words that keep coming to mind, when I think about this show’s tone and presentation. The crisp, polished cinematography is dark and beautiful; the music is dark and beautiful; the general tone and vibe of any given scene is also dark and beautiful.
What I find dissonant and very intriguing, is how, even though things can and often do move fast within this world, there is a distinct air of languidness that pervades it. That sensuous and sardonic flavor is an attitude that transcends the pace at which this world spins, and that incongruity, of the languorous overlaying the fast-paced, is, I think, one of the big things contributing to Show’s coolness factor.
Likewise, the OST has the same languid mood to it. The tracks often have a touch of mournful to them, and yet, always possess a bit of edge. Mostly, the rhythm is measured, yet unrelentingly driving, washed over with a trance-like flavor. It’s atmospheric and quite hypnotic, and is a perfect fit for this drama’s cryptic world.
The storytelling in this show is assured, yet completely unreliable, in a manner of speaking.
Watching this show feels like trying to piece together a rotating puzzle that’s made up of constantly shifting pieces. You constantly feel like you’re trying to maintain a sense of balance, while standing on quickly shifting sand. It’s fascinating and challenging, and also, really tiring. 😛
The narrative point-of-view shifts a lot, from the point-of-view of the cops, to the point-of-view of the members of the shadowy and secretive drug organization the cops are trying to crack, and then back again. Which consistently messes with us as an audience, since it affects who we feel we want to root for.
The world that writer-nim paints, is one in which there is no black or white. Everything is a mass of varying shades of gray, in a drama world that seems to just keep unfurling, to reveal hidden recesses and a magnitude that we never expected it to have.
Messing with our heads seems to be one of writer-nim’s main aims, and I must say that Show succeeds at it, and very well too.
Turning stuff on its head
One of the things that Show does well, is turning stuff on its head. Essentially, as key information is revealed to us, everything in its new context looks entirely different, like it does when a kaleidoscope turns. It makes the mind spin, as our brains furiously work with each new piece of information, to dismiss old connections that are no longer valid, and make new ones.
Like in episode 4, when it’s revealed that Baksa (Jung Kyung Ho) is actually an undercover agent, everything about our story as I understood it, changed: Why Baksa wants to overthrow the drug lord at the top: it’s not for personal power, but to fulfill his mission. Why he’d thrown away the phone so that Kyung Mi (Go Na Eun) wouldn’t be able to contact him: it wasn’t because he was on the wrong side of the law, but it was to give way to Hyung Min (Lee Jae Yoon).
Show does this twisty thing a fair bit, what with Safari (Choi Moo Sung) turning out to be an undercover cop as well, in episode 10.
While this twistiness is generally a good thing, I definitely feel that Show went overboard with this, so much so that the shock factor completely wore out by the later stretch. That late in the game, with Show continuously pulling reveals like this out of its sleeves, it no longer surprised me when someone was revealed to be a dirty cop or an undercover agent. I mean, seriously, it got rather ridiculous by the end; it felt like the entire drug underworld was made up of undercover police, which, ha.
Note to writer-nim: there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, after all.
Still, that large-scale twistiness is one of the big reasons I went back to the beginning again after reaching the end, so there’s that. I just had to see how everything looked once I knew who all the dirty cops and undercover agents were (it felt like I was watching a very different show indeed).
2. Jung Kyung Ho as Shi Hyun/Baksa
Jung Kyung Ho is, in a word, perfection, in this show.
I don’t know what magic happened during his MS stint, but Jung Kyung Ho came back from MS with a brand new onscreen magnetism and charisma that I find completely and utterly mesmerizing.
As Baksa, Jung Kyung Ho comes across as flawlessly multi-layered, enigmatic and intense. He doesn’t look like a gangster, what with his sharp suits and impeccably coiffed hair, but he’s got a quietly dangerous air about him that’s unmistakeable and quite chilling.
From channeling a cold-as-ice crime lord, to unleashing his quick-as-the-wind ass-kicking badassery, to revealing Baksa’s inner vulnerabilities, Jung Kyung Ho nails it all.
Perfection, I say.
Plus, shout-out to how lithe, lean and mean Jung Kyung Ho looks with that full-back tattoo, which was unfortunately blurred out for broadcast.
Wowza. Dangerously beautiful, right?
I love that Baksa is cool and unruffled most of the time, except for sudden bursts of necessary violence. It just makes him feel all the more dangerous, coz you just never know when he’ll unleash his latent inner ninja. Yet, that hawk-eyed inner ninja is always there beneath the surface; watching, processing, and sharply judging whether his intervention is necessary. It’s so freaking scary-cool.
I also love the fact that Baksa is a hands-on yet mysterious sort of crime lord, a combination that I find intriguing and very compelling. I mean, you’d expect someone as sharply suited and as perfectly coiffed as he, to give all the orders and let his minion do all the dirty work. Not so Baksa.
It gives me a bit of a thrill, that Baksa’s name is so revered by many, but his face is known to so few. Which makes it possible for him to walk among people to do his own investigations (like he does in episode 6), without anyone suspecting that he is Baksa. He interacts with Attorney Ahn (Kim Jung Hak) multiple times as “President Jung,” and I found it ironic and rather amusing that Attorney Ahn has absolutely no idea who he’s really dealing with.
The scary badassery
When Baksa’s all suited up, he looks so refined that he comes across as almost scholarly. But when the badass fight moves come out, he’s swift and lethal, and incredibly efficient at taking down his opponents. I love that unexpected quality to his badassery; the dissonance between his outer scholar and inner ninja is one of my favorite things. It’s all the more unexpected since Jung Kyung Ho’s build is more wiry than brawny, and it’s endlessly satisfying to see Baksa effortlessly leave scores of bigger, buffer men felled in his wake.
Like this scene above, in episode 7, where Baksa, refreshingly not in a suit, but in a sleeveless tee, all sinewy and glistening, takes down drug dealer guys something like 10 to 1. Very naise indeed.
Still, there’s nothing quite like seeing Baksa in laser-sharp, cold, efficient action, which is why I’m including this quick clip from episode 1. How breathtaking is he, as he takes down multiple armed men, all by himself, and so quickly too?
Now that’s what I call a full-on scary cool badass.
In short, Baksa is mesmerizing. He’s quiet & calm, but also precise & quick – & ruthless. Talk about taking bad boy up several notches.
The hidden tenderheart
Despite Baksa’s ruthless streak, he does have strong and very real feelings of affection and loyalty towards those closest to him. The way he consistently encourages Soo (Yoon Hyun Min) and Jin Sook (Kim Yoo Mi) to leave the business, shows how he really does care about them, not as business connections, but as people, and as family.
Plus, how about that time he gives Director Min a new briefcase coz he’d shot the old one? I thought that was really sweet of him. (The giving of the new briefcase thing, not the shooting thing, just so we’re clear, heh.)
Sometimes Baksa’s tenderheart tendencies go as deeply undercover as he does, but that doesn’t stop his true affection from showing through. I love how much this humanizes him, especially when contrasted to how cold and calculated he needs to be the rest of the time.
Jung Kyung Ho’s amazing delivery
Jung Kyung Ho delivers an amazing, engaging, thoroughly mesmerizing performance as Baksa, through every milestone and every facet of his journey. Whether we’re seeing Innocent Shi Hyun or Jaded Baksa, he is completely convincing in the moment, so much so that I can actually believe that Baksa is a real, living, breathing person.
There are so many instances of amazing that I could potentially talk about, when it comes to Jung Kyung Ho’s performance as Baska, but I’m picking this scene from episode 8, when Safari intervenes in the many-to-one fight, and hits Baksa on the back of his neck with a metal rod.
The crippling pain brings Baksa crumpling to the ground, and Jung Kyung Ho kills it, in a way that I didn’t even think was possible. It’s obvious that he really went all in for the scene, and it almost hurts to watch his face contort from the pain.
In the moment, Baksa’s physical pain and despair are palpable, and as his thoughts go back to happier times with Safari, the sense of betrayal and sadness, that it had to come to this, is crystal clear.
Augh. Such a great scene, even though it was really hard to watch.
3. The bromance
The bromance between Baksa and Soo is the stuff of sageuks; the two men are so devoted to each other, that they literally – and regularly – lay their lives down for each other. Nothing screams bromance quite like being willing to die for each other, right?
[SPOILER] At the end of episode 8, when faced with death’s door and no apparent way out, Baksa makes his final request to Safari all about saving Soo. He’s literally asking for Soo’s life in exchange for his own, and that’s love on the most epic scale possible, really. And when the police arrive, truncating Safari’s plan to kill him, the first thing Baksa does, is to save Soo, even though he’s weakened and injured himself. It’s loyalty and love in spades, and I can’t help but be moved by it. [END SPOILER]
STUFF I STRUGGLED WITH – AGAIN, THE TOP 3
1. This drama world is really dark
Those of you who’ve known me for a while would probably know that I don’t generally like dark things. I enjoy a well-told story almost regardless of context, but, when faced with a choice between light & happy, and dark & disturbing, I would choose the light & happy, no contest. I mean, that’s the whole reason I came to dramaland to begin with, y’know, for the light & happy, so that I would be able to escape from the downers of Real Life for a bit.
Which means to say, I could appreciate the dark beauty of Heartless City, but deep down, there was always a disconnect at a heart-level, for me. My heart consistently felt disturbed by just how messed up this drama world is, even as I grew to care for the characters in it.
In this world, nobody’s clear-cut good or bad. Everybody’s a shade of gray. And everybody is messed up. And their relationships are messed up too. Hardly anyone trusts anyone, and hardly anyone actually means what they say. And, on top of all that, everything is a commodity in this world. Position. Power. Drugs. Money. Sex. Life. Everything is murky, and at least a little bit sick &/or twisted.
Show’s murky and intoxicating nature tilts you around, and after a while, you get confused about which way is up. Lots of viewers loved that quality in this show, and I.. didn’t. I found it uncomfortable at a very fundamental level, and throughout my watch, it was a struggle to reconcile this dark drama world with my very uncomfortable heart.
Here’s just one example of a messed-up character being too disturbing for my liking.
In episode 4, Hyung Min forces Soo Min to become an undercover agent, without a lick of training. I found this disturbing on multiple levels:
1, She’s going to be put in a very dangerous situation, and she has no training whatsoever, to help her defend herself;
2, This is a situation where Soo Min will be required to prostitute herself as part of her cover. Kyung Mi would have never allowed it;
3, Hyung Min basically doesn’t give her a choice in the matter;
4, He actually rationalizes that this is the only way he can help Soo Min. Which is so twisted I can’t even.
5, Hyung Min actually does have evidence to clear Soo Min of the charges. Which means he withheld evidence so that he could force her to go undercover.
UGH. Combined, all of this made me so disgusted and angry with Hyung Min that I started to actively dislike him. Worse, afterwards, he treats Soo Min without a shred of empathy or sympathy, and regards her only as a source of information.
Some viewers might argue that Hyung Min’s bad behavior is because he’s struggling with rage, loss and grief, but seriously, it’s so telling what kind of person he really is, judging from his behavior. And his behavior in this situation tells me that he’s an ass. Instead of protecting Soo Min, as Kyung Mi would have wanted, he forces Soo Min into a degrading and dangerous situation, and then withdraws all emotional support from her. Blech.
2. The idea of power
Power and the struggle for it, is an on-going motif throughout the show. We see it all the time, in the kill-or-be-killed world that our characters live in, where it’s justifiable to kill a friend, if it will help you gain power.
The facet of the idea of power that I want to talk about here, though, is the perceived power held by the women in our drama world.
While watching the show, I’d come across effusive comments by other viewers, of how powerful they felt the women are, in this show; from the glamor, the makeup, the fashion and the high heels, to the way the women made a difference to the narrative.
The thing is, try as I might, I just couldn’t see the women as powerful. In fact, I couldn’t help but see them as sad. Coz even though they may think they have some kind of control & power, at the heart of it, they’re prostituting their bodies.
I feel that Jin Sook put it best, in her words to Soo Min in episode 7.
“You need to make money, but there isn’t anything you can do. There’s no place that’ll take you in. The only thing you’ve got is your body, so you’ve made your choice. But there is still some pride left in you. You don’t want to cry, but tears won’t stop coming. You want to curse and scream. But you can’t because others might think you’re crazy. All the bitches in this business are like that. No one does this because she likes it. If someone was doing this because she enjoys it… then that’s a real crazy bitch for sure. You may think, ‘It’s because it’s the first time.’ ‘I’ll get used to it after a while.’ That won’t happen. You’ll feel like that forever.”
There’s a clear sense of sadness and pathos that comes through Jin Sook’s words, and it’s clear that she still feels this way, after all this time in the business. Even though she may appear to have power, she is really a victim of a vicious system.
Which ties in to my first point, about my struggle with this show. Everybody’s twisted and sick, and everyone’s a victim of crime, greed and deceit, and nobody’s powerful.
3. It’s hard to keep everything straight in your head
The title of this section is self-explanatory, but let me just say, this show is no easy watch.
There are so many characters, many of whom are known by more than one name, that it’s hard to even remember who’s who, and how they are connected. Plus, Show’s got a way of dishing out game-changing information at regular intervals. I mentioned this earlier in the review, but you really need to work to figure out which parts of your understanding of the story and characters still stands, every time Show dishes out one of these nuggets of information. It’s an intricate and complex web that writer-nim weaves, and the sheer impossibility of keeping so many connecting dots and threads straight in your head makes confusion almost a given.
At least, that was true for me. I personally found it really hard to keep things straight in my head, at any given point in the show.
THE LESS GOOD STUFF
I feel like I’ve already alluded to Show’s tendency to feel somewhat repetitive in its later stretch, so I’ll just highlight the other thing that didn’t work so well for me, in this show.
The OTP connection
I might be going against the grain with this one, but I hafta say, I never quite bought into the OTP’s love. I found their interaction milestones abrupt and basically lacking in logic. From the repeated chance encounters to them eventually developing deeper feelings for each other, none of it actually felt natural nor organic to me.
I get that sometimes a romantic connection isn’t logical, and is driven purely by attraction and chemistry. But this is an instance where I wasn’t convinced by the OTP’s supposed attraction or chemistry.
I believe a lot of it has to do with Nam Gyu Ri’s delivery, which I found unconvincing and unnatural, even though I can tell that she’s trying hard. There are times when Jung Kyung Ho sells it enough for the both of them, but overall, this pairing just never worked for me.
An example of the lack of logic driving behavior, combining with awkward delivery to create an unnatural-feeling sort of effect, is every time Soo Min pushes her way into Shi Hyun’s space in the earlier-episode chance encounters.
Every time Soo Min spots Shi Hyun, she behaves in an unnaturally over-friendly manner, even though Shi Hyun’s dour expression and unwelcoming reaction give her no encouragement to do so. Even though she nearly gets stabbed after running after him and making the mistake of trying to touch him, she continues to push herself into his space in subsequent encounters. I mean, who does that? I know she’s supposed to be thoughtless, but it’s really hard to buy that someone would actually behave in this manner, especially since Nam Gyu Ri’s delivery of these moments is overly bright.
Additionally, the kiss and subsequent sex in episode 9 & 10 doesn’t feel natural nor organic to the story or the characters. I mean, I can rationalize that Shi Hyun feels lonely and lost on the inside, and that plausibly, Soo Min’s casual warmth draws him to her and makes him want to connect with her, hence the kiss and the sex. The point is, though, that it didn’t actually feel natural to me both times I watched the episodes, and I needed to rationalize it.
It’s just hard to imagine that Shi Hyun would be in the mood for kisses and sexy times, given the magnitude of the issues he’s up against, which is why I think the kiss and the bed scene were shoehorned in as fan-service, rather than something organic to the story that the writers set out to tell.
On the upside, Jung Kyung Ho is dead sexy in the bed scene and the kiss scene prior. Just, so sensuous and swoony. Puddle.
For the record, I appreciate the various efforts that writer-nim makes thereafter, to show us that Shi Hyun and Soo Min mean more to each other than just a casual one night stand. It’s just, it never felt like quite enough, for me.
I would’ve preferred if Show had chosen to go one way or the other; either deepen the loveline properly, or not have one at all. I think either way, that would’ve made this feel like a stronger drama.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
I didn’t love the ending, to be brutally honest.
By the time we hit the final stretch, the show is littered with undercover cops, all not knowing that everyone else is also an undercover cop, so much so that it’s laughable. Undercover cop has been Baksa’s right hand man all this time, not knowing that Baksa is also undercover; Baksa’s been after Safari all this time, also not knowing that Safari is undercover; Soo Min’s undercover, trying to get Baksa, not knowing that Baksa is undercover. Oh, what a tangled web of tag we weave, and it’s all between the undercover cops. It’s ridiculous, really.
And in the end, almost everyone dies. Which is tragic. Worse, Shi Hyun’s death feels sudden and almost random. The ones who don’t die, are left behind to live with tears in their eyes. Which is all just really sad.
I mean, yes, Show does offer a sliver of hope, with Shi Hyun’s voiceover at the end, and the shot of his back, now wearing a light-colored suit, which he never wore previously. But, it really does feel like one of those cold comfort things that dramas tend to pull out; the alternate fantasy world that makes no narrative sense whatsoever and has nothing to do with the drama’s story.
It’s hard to believe that Shi Hyun’s still out there somewhere, still being a badass, since we pretty much witness his death, but I suppose believing he’s alive is better than believing that he’s dead.
Even though it was only in the last few episodes that Show managed to lay hold of my heart, and even though I don’t love the ending, this turned out to be a truly unforgettable watch. Thanks to Baksa being such a tragically lonely, ultimately sympathetic badass protagonist, Show continued to linger with me, long after the final credits.
In spite of its flaws, Show’s got a special beauty that sets it apart, sort of like a meteorite that only comes along once in a while. And just like a meteorite shines bright by burning itself into nothingness as it journeys through the atmosphere, so it feels like Show did the same, burning its own characters ruthlessly into nothingness, while showcasing the beauty of the flame.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Darkly beautiful & cleverly twisty, but also somewhat confusing & decidedly disturbing. Importantly, Jung Kyung Ho is flat-out amazing in this, and makes it all worthwhile.
FINAL GRADE: B+