A huge part of what I loved about Heartless City were the women. They were powerful and smart and strong and sometimes terrifying. And they achieved their power, maintained their strength despite the mind-boggling, ugly and brutal sexism surrounding them, and the many, many attempts to reduce them to mere objects.
There was an unexpected abundance of female characters — especially for this genre. In this post, I’m going to focus on three of them.
When we first meet grande dame of the gangster world, Jin-sook, she’s called a bitch by a henchman and leered at and bad-touched by two fellow gangsters. She physically schools the henchman (to the amusement of the men around her) but she takes the overly-aggressive flirting as a given. She rolls her eyes and she stops it before it goes too far, but it’s obviously a form of interaction she’s used to. Jin-sook, herself, owns several high-end hostess clubs. And she’s definitely not above using her female employees’ sexual attractiveness and availability to ensnare and spy on the men around her.
On the police side of the fence, Kyung-mi, a capable and talented detective, is pulled out of the field because her team-leader (and boyfriend — another can of worms) is worried about her safety. Hyung-min doesn’t move her to another team — he keeps her under his authority in a “safe” desk job. Later, when he sends out Soo-min to infiltrate Jin-sook’s gang, he fully expects her to use sex to gather her information. (At least, I figured his dismissive, “they’ll like you better if you’re inexperienced,” showed such an expectation.)
So, no matter where you are in Heartless City — in the dark, drug-fueled gangster world or the slightly brighter world of law and order — women are treated as lesser-thans, either sex objects to play with and/or use, or cherished objects to keep safely tucked away. But the women fight against this view — and that’s what makes them interesting.
We’re not merely told that Kyung-mi is a good cop. We see her grit and ability when she chases down a man who’s just bought a little girl off her junkie father (and we can guess the use the dealer has in mind for her). They get into a brutal fight in an elevator (there are no pulled punches — the man is aiming to kill) and Kyung-mi wins. She saves the little girl and arrests the man. And, through him, her team moves one step deeper into the hazy gangster world they’re trying to infiltrate.
And Kyung-mi doesn’t accept Hyung-min’s decision to take her out of the field. When an undercover mission arrives she convinces Hyung-min to let her do it. And then she goes in and does her job. Things do go horribly, horribly wrong but not because Kyung-mi didn’t belong in the field. In fact, I’d argue it was her ability — she learns too much — that led to her being killed.
Her death does teeter on becoming a “fridging” (an ugly trope from the comic-book world wherein a female character dies solely to propel a male character’s story-arc — learn more about it here) in that it does propel both Hyung-min’s and Shi-hyun’s stories. And the dips into emotional shlock surrounding her death don’t help. (Especially the surprise pregnancy that, frankly, served no purpose other than to twist grief’s knife for Hyung-min as far as I could tell. Kyung-mi didn’t even know she was pregnant so it, oddly, has nothing to do with her.)
What pulls it back from the brink for me is how much meaning her death has for Soo-min — Kyung-mi’s little sister. They’re a found-family; both of them orphans who’ve created a little family of their own. Soo-min is following her sister’s path (she learns she’s been accepted into the police academy just before she learns her sister has died) and in her grief and rage she demands Hyung-min send her into the gangster world as an undercover cop to finish her sister’s work and find her killer. That Kyung-mi’s death also served to propel a female character’s story-arc is a good thing.
But I also see Kyung-mi as a meaningful character in her own right — not just a motivational-because-dead character. Her clear-eyed view of the world, a philosophy she passes on to Soo-min, serves as both a reply to Hyung-min’s less realistic idealism and a rebuttal of our chief villain’s selfish and calculating greed. And again, it’s a philosophy we see Kyung-mi put into action.
As a girl from the bottom rungs of society (at least, within the show being an orphan was painted as pretty bottom-rung) Kyung-mi faces a very stark choice on how to live her life. She’s pressured to join a gang — become a sex-object using her attractiveness to rob older men. She chooses to become a cop because it’s either smile at the world (improve it) or curse the world (steal from it).
(It’s something Shi-hyun teaches her. Right after she pretends she’s a prostitute to, I assume, impress him with her street-cred. She was young. Actually, it’s interesting to me that a fatherless son of a prostitute, raised in the red-light district, is the one man in the show who consistently treats women well.)
When Soo-min goes undercover, her moments of existential crisis boil down to how she’s going to treat the world. Like her sister did, even though it killed her? Or is she going to go the opposite route and become a killer herself? Kyung-mi does serve as an ideal — but it’s an ideal Kyung-mi earned. Which makes a difference for me. She walked the path Soo-min is trying to follow.
The world Soo-min is entering is ugly and brutal no matter your sex. Violence is meted out to everyone in it (I don’t think a single gangster character goes unscathed). But women are treated especially badly. Serving as her protector and guide is Jin-sook. However, even with all her power (putting together major drug deals, running an impressive — and legitimate — business), Jin-sook is still threatened with sexual assault and rape.
But she is no easy meat. And she’s definitely no damsel. When a guy tries to rape her, she beats the crap out of him with her heels. The police arrive and end up rescuing him rather than her. When the disturbingly unbalanced Director Jo treats her like an object, there to entertain and sexually please him, when he does the same to Soo-min, Jin-sook has him killed.
And Soo-min wins Jin-sook over because — despite her fragile, porcelain doll appearance — she’s no easy meat herself. She’s also fought off an attempted rapist. And it’s her scrappiness that Jin-sook considers (all the scenes where Soo-min fought someone and won) before choosing to take Soo-min fully into her world.
However, despite being from the opposite world, Jin-sook isn’t actually a counter to Kyung-mi. Her world is slightly more brutal (though, the cop-world wasn’t a walk in the park, either) but I don’t think Jin-sook chose spitting and cursing as her philosophy. She understands the sentiment, of course. We know Jin-sook came from a bleak background where prostitution was apparently her only choice. But, as her story unfolds, I think we’re shown that Jin-sook has been doing her best to smile at the world, rather than curse it.
She loves Shi-hyun. (Which, that Jin-sook loves the one man who never treats her like a sex-toy? Not a surprise.) Every choice she makes in the drama (becoming an informant for Chief Min, going after Soo, setting up drug deals, finding Professor Jang) is to protect and support Shi-hyun. If he’d been able to tell her he was a cop, I think she would have gone legit, too. Or at least become the best informant ever.
Then, Jin-sook comes to love Soo-min. The one time she makes a choice that hurts Shi-hyun (the one time she admits she made a mistake) was when she had Director Jo killed — and that was to protect Soo-min.
The amazing thing about Jin-sook’s love for Soo-min (and Soo-min’s love for Jin-sook) is that it weathers some pretty big storms. They learn that they’re both in love with the same man and they actually sit down and talk about it. Which is almost unheard of in the usual depiction of female friendships when a man is involved. (I adored everything about those scenes. Except for Soo-min’s blouse. The butterflies didn’t quite work for me.)
And Chief Min’s attempt to turn Jin-sook into his attack dog by exposing Soo-min’s undercover status completely backfires. If anything, it only strengthens their friendship by giving Soo-min a chance to prove the depth of her love for Jin-sook. So after it’s all over and they’re left picking up the pieces, they’re picking them up together — Jin-sook as proud of Soo-min’s uniform as Kyung-mi would have been.
Soo-min is aware of world’s ugliness. Kyung-mi’s funeral is barely over when her boss tries to rape her. Up until then, her life wasn’t a sheltered one (she was a bit of a delinquent — per her conversations with her bestie, Joo-song), but she had a fierce protector in Kyung-mi, and she knew she was loved and valued.
Once Kyung-mi was gone, the world closed in. Her boss tries to use her grief and apparent isolation. Hyung-min uses her dire circumstances. He chooses to manipulate Soo-min into become his undercover agent rather then honestly asking her. This despite the fact she’d earlier asked for the job. He keeps her isolated (a given of the job) and in the dark (most definitely not a given), treating her more like a machine than a person. (To be fair to Hyung-min — he was like that with everyone. It was just particularly egregious with Soo-min because she was so completely dependent on him. Again, a facet of her job he just did not seem to get. Until he was schooled by Safari.)
So that Jin-sook recognizes something in Soo-min — her rage at being treated like an object to be used and discarded at will (her parents at the zoo, but also her boss and Hyung-min) — is no surprise. It becomes something awesome when Soo-min begins to return the sentiment (protecting Jin-sook from Director Jo, throwing away the lipstick-recorder).
It’s interesting to me that the ones who chose to curse the world were all bad father-figures. Chief Min obviously, but also Congressman Cha and Prosecutor General Ji. They cheated and used and stole and they did get the money. But they, each of them, lost their families in one way or another — and thereby any kind of love and warmth.
Which made it particularly cool for me that Soo-min smiling at the end is a victory. She’s survived, she’s still strong, and she will smile at the bleak and brutal world and expect it to make a difference. And it’s because of the example Kyung-mi gave her and it’s because of her relationship with Jin-sook. That there were three such strong women, and such strong relationships between them, in this type of male-oriented story — and that these aren’t the only interesting and complex female characters populating the drama — it’s a big reason why I enjoyed Heartless City so much.
[For a different and thought-provoking view, check out Ladida’s blog-post on the subject (spoilers through episode 10).]