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.
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.
First 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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