Review: Heartless City (2013, jTBC)

Premise:  The mysterious Baksa Ahdeul starts a coup within a drug syndicate. Pitched against him are the cops and his rivals. Murder and mayhem ensues. Expect a high body count. 

*spoilers galore*


Baksa, the most deliciously well-dressed man in dramaland

I don’t remember the last time a show has left me so utterly enthralled yet so completely frustrated as Heartless City. I’ve wanted to marry and make babies with this show. I’ve also wanted to wring its neck and slap it silly. I’ve wanted to love it more than it objectively deserves.  But at the end of the day, this show is more than the sum of its many parts and if you can pull yourself through its painfully meandering and confusing middle, you’ll be rewarded.


Baksa: sexy when wet

HeartlessCityBaksaSoodeathFirst of all, this show is pure eye candy. It’s shot beautifully in predominantly greys and blues and mostly in the dark.  Since this is a noir-ish thriller, this is your clue that there is no outright good or bad in this story. Ambiguity is your only frame of reference.  This is set in the criminal underworld, but not grimy or seedy as you might expect. On the contrary, this world is luxurious and sophisticated, where the drug dealers don three piece suits and have expensive tastes. Heartless City makes crime seem very sexy and when everything looks this good, it’s all too easy to be seduced by this world of riches. For our main players, this world is like ‘Hotel California’–you can check out but you can never leave. 

Baksa: sexy when devastated

Baksa: sexy when devastated

Speaking of sexy, no one does it better than Jung Kyung Ho as Baksa Ahdeul, our anti-hero. The show turns on Baksa being believably ruthless and dangerous, someone who is cool as ice but is slowly buckling under the weight of the duplicity and violence. This could easily be a walking cliche, but Jung Kyung Ho has the charisma and the chops to turn this into flesh and blood. There were scenes where I was completely mesmerised by his ability to make a threat almost sound like a come-on.

He is brilliantly supported by Kim Yoo Mi as Jin Sook, his noona partner-in-crime and Choi Moo Sung as Safari, one of his main adversaries. Jin Sook is the mamasan of a high-class brothel, an all-round self-made badass. She’s hands down my favourite character, and it’s fitting that she remains the last one standing when the dust settles. Safari, as one of Baksa’s father figures, is endlessly watchable. He is emblematic of the toll this undercover life takes on someone who has lived it long enough for it to chip bits of his soul away. But yet, he is capable of love and retains his humanity. His motives are always suspect but not his love for Baksa and Jin Sook.

Heartless City Safari

Safari: not sexy

These three have entwined histories stretching back years.  They are a dysfunctional family with a love-hate relationship–they love each other, they also literally want to kill each other. The show truly at it’s best when these three get screen time to work out the pathologies of their fraught relationship. Yes, they are stock characters in archetypal relationships but the show comes alive when they engage each other. That’s the magic that happens when great actors meet great characters.

My darling Jin Sook, she of the fabulous eye-roll

Jin Sookie, marry me

Which brings me to one of the show’s biggest letdowns. The ‘good’ guys are so one-note that it renders the chase rather insipid. It’s a combination of lazy writing and serviceable acting. Or maybe it’s an inherent genre flaw in which the bad guys are always gonna be more compelling. Kyung Min is the dogged detective out to get Baksa after his fiance is killed in the line of duty. He’s on the revenge trail (like so many in this drama), completely consumed by it. I kept hoping for the possibility that he would emerge as a credible foil for Baksa ala Heat with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino but he goes no where. Lee Jae Yoon isn’t really bad, it’s just that he’s not required to do much beyond clench his large jaw. And it can’t be helped that he doesn’t have as much charisma as Jung Kyung Ho (let’s face it, not many do).

All anger no fun

“I suffer therefore I am blank”

Speaking of serviceable, Nam Gyu Ri as Soo Min is a miscast. I have many issues with how this character is written (for reasons so brilliantly detailed here) but it’s exacerbated by this actress. I get that Soo Min is cast as the innocent and is supposed to mirror Baksa before his Fall, bringing some light to his dark world. I understand that it helps that she looks like a doll. But the ridiculousness of her character’s trajectory aside, she goes through so much in the story that she should logically be transformed in some way. Nam Gyu Ri conveys none of this. It’s like nothing sticks to her–she bounces off all the terrible things she’s seen and done like rubber, absorbing nothing.

Which is why it’s so irksome that the show chose to end with her as the final parting shot. Of all the characters, the one who had the least impact on the story gets the last word. After all the corruption she’s witnessed in the police, she still chooses to become a cop. It doesn’t make much sense when so much of the drama showcased an ethically bankrupt and soulless criminal justice system. It should’ve ended with my darling Jin Sook’s departure. She is the ultimate survivor, the one who managed to walk away when nobody else could.

Soo Min

I have nothing to say about Nam Gyu Ri except I liked her dress in scene

But so much of this show just plain didn’t make any sense. If you stop to interrogate the whys of most of the maneuverings going on, the whole house of cards collapses rather quickly.  I know we all are required to suspend disbelief in dramaland but there were just too many throwaways, inconsistencies, contrivances and recycled sup-plots to be ignored. For a good portion of this drama I was on the verge of giving up because I was getting so little pay off. The drama got sidetracked by the incessant one-upmanship between the ‘baddies’ and constant police ineptitude, and the good stuff, that delicious dynamic between Safari, Baksa, Jin Sook, and Soo, got so little screen time. Many of these problems could’ve been solved if the drama was done in 16 episodes.

The show throws in constant violence and numerous cliffhangers for distraction but the shock value wears off very quickly. For instance, I question if it was necessary to make Safari an undercover cop. The fall-out seems rather minimal for such a major bombshell. In fact, Jin Sook doesn’t bat an eyelash. Pusan’s hand would’ve been forced eventually, and Baksa could’ve started to question Min’s motives through other means. I get that a hook is considered necessary for dramas but this feels manipulative and cheap for a show of this caliber.

The scene that gutted me...

The scene that utterly gutted me…

Despite the show’s superficial treatment of the world it presents (we never actually see any of the business of drug-dealing or nitty gritty of police work), Safari’s and Soo’s death, the fallout of Baksa’s betrayal of Jin Sook and Baksa’s own death were so devastating because their characters weren’t treated superficially. The pathos was well-earned. And it was here in those final two episodes that the show redeemed itself a little in my eyes. I’m glad I stayed in the game because at it’s best the show was spellbinding.

Heartless City

Starring:  Jung Kyung Ho,  Kim Yoo Mi,  Choi Moo Sung, Lee Jae Yoon, Nam Gyu Ri

Crack-meter: 3/5 (at it’s height it was off the charts) 

Overall rating: 3.5/5 (minus points for clumsy plotting) 

Recommended: Yes, just be ready to be frustrated.

Director: Lee Jung Hyo

Screenwriter:  Yoo Sung Yul

6 thoughts on “Review: Heartless City (2013, jTBC)

  1. Yay! Finally time to read both Idle Revelry and your post! 😀 I’ve got a lot of different thoughts rummaging through my head, now. They may come out in a post at some point… we’ll see.

    But! To share a few… I really, really have an unpopular view of poor Soo-min and Nam Gyu Ri and… I’m not sure what I’m missing? I think NGR did a good job. She didn’t blow me away, but I believed her and therefore her character. And I liked Soo-min — both what she stood for within the story, and what she stood for at the end.

    I felt that the corruption wasn’t the entire police force — it was the selfish greed of Min, specifically. That’s what Safari was trying to fight, and what Shi-hyun eventually beat. So we had to have Soo-min, in uniform. She was making the choice both Safari and Shi-hyun (and his bodyguard guy, and the guy he threw from the roof in ep. 1) tried to make that Min twisted into something ugly.

    So… that’s my initial reaction — but… definitely good food for thought. And I’m thinking. 🙂


    • Oh I think your view of NGR/Soo Min isn’t unpopular though? I’ve come across many who think NGR was fine. It’s not that I think she’s bad, its just that had she been played better, I think I would’ve felt more charitably towards this character! Yeah, she really rubbed me the wrong way.

      Hmmm… I think it’s arguable that Shi Hyun beat anything at all. At best, he died with a little of his humanity because he chose his loved ones over Min. But in the end, as Jo tells him, nothing will change. I didn’t think it’s a triumphant death (and please let’s not go into that scene in the end credits!! I’m ignoring that!!).

      I never got the sense that it was finished at all, rather that another Min is just around the corner. Because what is Hyung Min but just a cop a few shades away frm Min (yes he did eventually choose differently, but still, he had already gone so far over the line). So in that sense, the corruption is everywhere, in the hearts of the cops and in the system itself i.e. the politician.

      And in turning away frm Min I took it to mean that Shi Hyun turns away frm the police and their world, because that wasn’t where his true family was to be found, that world was meaningless to him. So that’s why Soo Min choosing to become a cop, I don’t buy it, if she is supposed to continue on in Shi Hyun’s stead. Or no?


      • Huh. I must be reading in the wrong NGR circles. 😉 (Or maybe I’m overly sensitive? That could be, too.)

        Oh yeah, that last scene — strictly symbolic, please! Just a symbol! Otherwise the story is… lame.

        Rather than representing the police, I saw Min as the big bad — the heart of darkness at the center of it all. The one without any soul or love or mercy. So his death was the victory because, without him there to twist their choices, the “children” were now free to create the world of their choosing — spitting at the mirror or smiling at it. Yeah, the world remains hard and rough but there’s a fighting chance now.

        I don’t think Hyung-min was heading towards becoming a Min. He was providing Min some good cover — but he never stopped feeling love. Min saw it as a weakness that made Hyung-min exploitable (ditto Shi-hyun), but in the end, it was love and loyalty that beat Min.

        (Actually — for such a dark drama, it actually has a pretty sweet message.)


      • Yes, as the big bad puppetmaster, Min is supreme, and if we never saw any other powerful, corrupt figure in the drama I wouldn’t take him as symbolic of a larger problem. Problem is, the drama shows us Kang, the politician dude and daddy Ji as other shady operatives in the criminal justice world, which is a big part of the dark milieu which traps all our players. The idea of entrapment and not being able to break away is a such a huge refrain in the drama, that with SM’s entry back into that trap as it were, it just undermines all of this it seems to me. Which is why Jin Sook leaving makes more sense frm where I’m coming from because she is free now. Or maybe seeing NGR and her freaky contact lenses having the last word really bugged me more beyond all reason! ;p


      • Hah! Yeah — if the actor is a turn-off, it’s hard to get behind them and whatever it is they’re saying. 😉

        (I had a similar experience with… a show I can’t remember the name of right now. *facepalm* Everyone loved it, but the actress just grated on me so I could never make it through an episode.)


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