K-Drama Review: Heartless City

heartless-city-korean-dramaWhat happens when you’re too stressed because you have only one exam left to finish the semester and want to think about something else for a bit? Yeah, you watch something or either read something – at least that is my case. I decided I needed to finish some dramas on my currently watching list but that I haven’t watched since I started them last winter, and the choice fell on this one.
Cruel City or Heartless City is a drama that I have had for a long time in my K-Drama lists because of its intriguing plot. The reason I had cold feet every time I tried to look for something to watch was that I read some comments about how it was so dark – well, it’s a noir – and how it could turn out differently than how one initially would think it will develop. But then I gave in and watched from where I stopped the first time, and I think it was worth it despite some sloppy moments.


Heartless City, as the title may make you think, tries to analyze and give a portrait of the darkness of South Korea. That is, the world of drug lords, violence, criminals and so on. The main character, Jung Shi Hyun (Jung Kyung Ho), is a man in his thirties that wants to take revenge and find who killed his mother. He thinks it was someone in the world of dealers that made her die, since she was part of the system as well. This is why ever since he was left alone at the mercy of the corrupt and disloyal world of the night, he decided he would arrive to the top and find out who the killer was and was helped by his fame as Doctor’s Son, since he lived several years as an errand boy. He has got some people by his side that will either help him or turn their backs on him when the wind changes, while he tries to get Scale’s – the major drug dealer in town – spot. Kim Hyun Soo (Yoon Hyun Min), who is sort of a right-hand-man and best friend of Shi Hyun; Lee Jin Sook (Kim Yoo Mi), who owns several nightclubs and is sort of mother/big sister to him ever since his real mother passed away; “Safari” alias Moon Duk Bae (Choi Moo Sung), a sort of uncle for him and the one that used to use him as an errand guy in the past and that has probably the same plan to take over the drug distribution in the area of the town. While they linger in the dark alleys of the city, there is of course who tries to catch them when they least expect it. Detective Ji Hyung Min (Lee Jae Yoon) leads a special unit and wants to find out the leaders and the deals of the drug distribution to stop them and arrest them. His will is stronger after an operation goes wrong and his girlfriend, Lee Gyeong Mi (Go Na Eun) gets fatally shot and Yoon Soo Min (Nam Gyu Ri), her step-sister, wants to avenge her and because of this she enters the world of crime as well, and ends up falling in love with Doctor’s Son, who becomes the main target of both the police and the drug lords because of his presumption to gain power over the drug market of the city and the accusations that he killed the detective.

Woah, have I ever wrote a synopsis that is so long before? Nah, I don’t think so, but Heartless City deserves the long resume because there are so many characters and things are a tad complicated. It took me at least 10 episodes out of 20 to figure out what the aim of the protagonist was and such.
Lovers of thrillers and mysteries will find HC’s story not new: police VS criminals, but with a line that is not defined clearly. There are officers who act as criminals and criminals who act as police, and it’s a whirlwind of revelations that never ends until the last episode. The main male leads are a criminal (Doctor’s Son) and a detective (Ji Hyun Min) but we soon discover that both can switch roles easily because the first is also an undercover agent and the second uses a tad bit of violence on the suspects to make them confess, making him act like a criminal would. And they are not the only ones, lol! Most of the characters cross the line quickly and betray their so-called friends or help their enemies. One never knows who is the true monster in the scene, nor if someone is good as he/she seems. It’s a big mindfuck all the time, and mostly unpredictable but I must say, realistic and not exaggerated like a melodrama could be. This is a noir, it’s a type of story where the darkest sides of people are explored to see the lengths they are willing to go to get what they want. Every action has a reaction, and even the sincerest (in their own way) behaviors can appear shady and questionable. I couldn’t help but wonder if what I was seeing was the truth or not, even from the protagonist himself.

The one I considered the very star of this drama was Jung Kyung Ho and his Doctor’s Son. This is not my first drama with him in it, and if you read my blog, you know I love him and wish him the best. He was able to do funny characters with a quirky and bitchy personality in the past, and he succeeded greatly at portraying a man who is so used at needing to dissimulate and hide the fact that he is a cop, that he cut any temptation he could have from his life including love so he would not have ties with anybody for the fear to drag them down with him because he sure knows that he is in too deep. This is why he probably keeps everyone at arm’s length, including his closest friends. He met Soo at the prison with the intention to approach him to get intel about drug deals and whatnot, but he developed a deep friendship with him to the point that despite he knows he is a criminal, he is still his friend. Jin Sook is also a maternal figure to him, and although their relationship is questioned several times because they all believe they fuck, Shi Hyun keeps a distance from her despite he’s known her for most of his life. She and Safari as well. He and the man are at odds and could be labeled as “freenemies”, but deep down they love each other. Safari showed his true heart when he took the bullet destined for Doctor’s Son. Then there’s Soo Min. She is his first love Gyung Mi’s step-sister and probably the first person that treated him like a human. She worked at a convenience store and witnessed Shi Hyun’s wounds and gave him a pack of band-aids that he would need. But it wasn’t that the true help. By acknowledging him, Soo Min attracted his attention for being pure at heart and without prejudices. His friends surely loved him but he always tried to heal his wounds alone in his car or cave not to get attention. And he kept doing this with Soo Min every time the two met casually and she showed him she hadn’t forgotten him like somebody else may have done. Probably Shi Hyun decided to kiss her and sleep with her on Episode 9-10 because he was past his limit. It’s like I go to the supermarket and want ice cream and I know it makes me get fat but I still want it. I try to keep up but in the end I buy it and I keep on wanting more but I restrain because of my fear. I think that is how was the relationship between Park’s Adeul and Soo Min. He was aware that she could be his companion and ease the pain of his wounds with her innocent heart and naivety, but he knew that to be close to him at some point these good qualities she has might be lost in the dark and corrupted… Shi Hyun came to the point to despise his persona and what he did because it conflicted with his real heart and his real needs. He wanted to get revenge but at the same time he wanted to throw that all away and live a normal life like anybody else. His reason floats between duty and pleasure and in the end he decides to give in to duty for the life of justice rather than tell the world to go to hell and let him live his life with the woman who could help him heal the wounds of his past with something he rarely found in the darkness of the city: sincerity. He doesn’t want Soo Min to become like him since she also basically lived a similar journey: went to prison to become friend of a supposed criminal, got into her circle to find her secrets to accomplish a mission to become a cop. The power hasn’t got to his head yet but he is scared to death, imo. He feels like a scumbag and tries to define his relationship with her by giving her money after he took her virginity. That could symbolize Soo Min’s loss of innocence and her step into the criminal world and her longing for it represented by Shi Hyun. And she could represent Doctor’s Son will to get into a purest world of simpler feelings he never had the chance to experience due to his goal. He probably loved Soo Min but couldn’t tell her because of this. I’ve seen people write in their recaps that they believe Shi Hyun didn’t love her because despite she told him that she liked him and she knew he liked her too, he has never confirmed nor rejected what she said. Truthfully he rejected her by saying he “doesn’t have time to like anyone”, but do I believe him? Of course not. That is a defence mechanism, his simple way to get out of things he is scared of, because had he wanted to be tempted more, he would have done so. This doesn’t mean he didn’t love her, it means he wanted to protect her and that is love and affection as well. We want the person we love to be safe, and Shi Hyun tried to take care of Soo Min at the cost of losing the chance to be with her like he would want to. His actions betrayed him because he always saved her and took her hand and hugged her when she cried. This is not a reason enough of course, but each one of us is free to see actions and words as they are. In my opinion, despite his silence and interior fight with his feelings, Doctor’s Son loved Soo Min and the way the drama ended and the fact that it was a noir kind of *justified* the fact that he couldn’t be with the woman he wanted to be with.

Let’s talk about the ending since I have mentioned it. Each episode of this drama was full of tension and anxiety and you couldn’t predict what would happen next but I felt like the last two were a bit sloppy and rushed, as if the writer had a lot of things to resolve but decided not to (one of those being the romance between Shi Hyun and Soo Min).

A lot of people died in these finale episodes and some were deaths I had seen long ago, but some others I couldn’t expect, like Soo’s death. Soo was shocked to learn that his friend was a cop and decided to go against him but not really. I think he was mad but in the end he tried to help him to show him that he wasn’t a “burden”, since Doctor’s Son always helped him in the fights he had in prison and when they became friends and it is rare in this kind of world – Soo couldn’t really believe it and this is why he got stuck with him, he loved his friend and they had a great bromance, but he felt a bit unsure perhaps? He was always conflicted because of the relationship Shi Hyun had with Ji Sook, because he probably feared something could bloom between them and he would be discarded and their friendship wasn’t authentic like someone told him (because SH approached him while undercover in prison). The scene of his death is truly heartbreaking but he was stupid for going there and not think about the consequences. I was a bit annoyed by the fact that the writer decided to end his storyline in such a quick way and didn’t develop Soo’s inner anger after he found out Shi Hyun’s identity. Probably Soo acted out of stubbornness, let’s say it’s like that.

Another thing that was finished off too fast was Commissioner Min’s death and Shi Hyun’s *death*. Angst was brewing between them ever since they had the scene in the church and SH told him he was done being a cop, but they kept meeting each other. Min manipulated SH ever since he was a kid and made him believe he could be a paternal figure to him (which, imo, could be Safari more than him) so that he would trust him. In reality, Min only wanted to clean the world from criminals – pretentious much? – and blame it on Shi Hyun or Safari for that matter. I was disgusted to learn this manipulation, but he kept on wash his brain with bullshit and threatened him that he would reveal his identity and it would be the end for him, that SH kept on going because he wanted to know who killed his mom and Gyung Mi and he knew he could only do it if he was in this world where the fatal accidents unfolded.

I’m also annoyed at writer-nim for how he portrayed Jin Sook. Her persona had always a weird halo around her. At first I thought she had adopted him and was his stepmother, but then I realized SH was just a young guy who happened to be an orphan and wanted to be free so since she was friend with his dead mother, she helped him continue his “job” as an errand guy and the two grew closer as the years pass. When SH became old enough (I think there’s max 10 years of difference between the characters, although in real life the actors are just 2 years apart!) Jin Sook transferred that mommy/big sis/aunty love into a different kind of love, or perhaps she kidded herself that it was a romantic love she felt for SH. I don’t think it was like this. I am convinced that Jin Sook leaned towards SH and called him her “lover” because out of all the men who wanted to be with her, he was the only one who showed her his true feelings. Min stayed with her because of the job she did, Safari probably for the same thing since he used to be a cop, but Shi Hyun? He was all alone, in the beginning he only had Jin Sook and I think he’s always regarded her as a maternal figure. He called her “noona” but never showed her any sign that he wanted to proceed further with their relationship, not even a hint was given. In fact whenever somebody asked him what was his relation with her, he never knew how to respond because he probably thought “it is like you see it is”, ambiguous but there’s nothing more to show. Jin Sook was devastated when she saw SH sleeping on the bed of his cave with Soo Min with her head next to his, because she KNEW -this links to the point I’ve discussed before- that SH willingly lowering his defence meant feelings involved, because he never did it, neither in front of her despite they’ve known each other for quite a while. And she sooooo wanted him to do it and for her to become the woman who would ease his pain with sweet words. At times it really seemed like a mom who wanted to tranquillize her son or when they didn’t agree on something, a mom that told her son that she was older so she was going to do the eff she wanted. I believe a lot of screen time given to Jin Sook was wasted when it was Soo Min’s character that had to be expanded more.

I was also bothered by the other male protagonist, detective Ji Hyun Min. Honestly, a character that I have hated since the beginning. He was too stubborn, at times too violent against criminals just because they were criminals. He seemed like he crossed the line between “good” and “evil” many times, made me question if he ever become an undercover, he will remain sane or have the power get to his head. I think he’d probably lose it, lol. Too much screen time was given to him and he scratched only the surface of the story for most of the time, ordering things around to Soo Min and shooting his colleagues just to teach them a lesson (!). Honestly, at times I think he was too much. Shi Hyun isn’t justified either for using violence, but he didn’t flat-out punch or hurt somebody just because they were the *bad* guys, and always tried to help Hyun Min and others who could not deserve his help at the time. The contrast between the two leads was evident. While Hyun Min helped with the power of the law and his rage and was unreasonable at times, Doctor’s Son used his head and his heart to act. Hyun Min always called SH a criminal until he knows the truth about him, but the real criminal seemed him. At least he got closure with his father in the end.

Last but not last (I have a ton of things to say but honestly, I want to wrap the review) did Shi Hyun die or not? That is the question. I hate when there’s an open ending, especially on these kind of dramas where it seems legit to make the bad people die and have the good people live another day, despite SH himself wasn’t a kind of “good” character completely, he was simply human. My take on the finale is that Shi Hyun lives. We see Soo Min became a cop and seems to imagine SH in his cave caressing her cheek when she says she finally made it. She is alone afterwards, thus making us believe SH might have died when he was shot at Scale’s residence. But could also be that she is remembering that conversation they had, because the last seconds show us a frame with SH turned with a beige suit in broad day light talking on the phone, a parallel with his first scene where he is turned towards the audience at night. There is a scene I found on Soompi that was cut from the episode and it clearly shows that SH did not die, only made others believe Doctor’s Son is dead not to be found again. Hyun Min gives him a new identity and he explains he has to go and we learn Soo Min and Jin Sook also believe he is dead. This could be a nice explanation for the last frame, perhaps he is an undercover cop again or he is simply and finally living his life like he should had. We will never know, I guess! Since the writers said that the viewers can make it as they want it to be.

OK, now I am done. I think I will try to watch more dramas like this but also enjoy lighter stuff because this projects are good but drain your feelings… AH.

RATING: 9/10


About purplebass

hey, you! Thank you for stopping by. I'm Tweety, and I am a girl who loves writing, reading, and watching stuff on TV and write reviews about it. I currently study languages (English and Spanish) @ University here where I live in Italy. I dream to become a teacher or something more impossible, like a writer. For the moment I only write stories on my laptop and review a lot of books. Speaking of which, I'm really into YA despite I am not a teenager anymore, and if you have suggestions, I am always open to hear your book advice! :D
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