The mystery at the core of Heartless City is its characters. What motivates them? What are their endgames? Who should we, the viewers, trust and root for? At first, it seems very obvious and straightforward. The drug-dealers are our bad guys. They kill with impunity — throwing people from rooftops, bashing them with golf-clubs — all to maintain their wealth and power. The cops are our good guys. They throw themselves into danger just to make the world even a tiny bit safer, no need for acknowledgment or praise.
[Spoilers! Spoilers for EVERYTHING!! You’ve been warned.]
What appears to be our character of mystery is Parksah Ahdeul (or Doctor’s Son), Jung Shi-hyun. He’s a drug-dealer and a killer (responsible for the body thrown from the roof; killing an undercover cop in his establishing scene to really slather on his “Bad Guy” patina). He’s ambitious. But he’s also unexpectedly protective — putting himself in danger rather than risking his men.
All the above is well setup in the first episode and I totally expected to spend the next 20 episodes figuring out the “real” Shi-hyun. I expected Soo-min to be our point-of-view character: going undercover only to fall in love with Shi-hyun, slowly discovering the man beneath the gangster mask. (A story I’ve watched, and loved, many times before.)
Only Heartless City isn’t about the straightforward. The usual setup is only there to fall to glorious pieces when the drama throws its monkey wrench. Shi-hyun isn’t a gangster; he’s an undercover cop. He’s a good guy! Dedicated to bringing down the bad guys! Character mystery solved! …in episode 4 of 20. That’s reaaaallly early in the game. The bulk of the drama is still there, waiting to be told.
But that’s because the motivation of Shi-hyun isn’t the overarching mystery. Just as Soo-min isn’t really our overarching point-of-view character. As it turns out, that’s Shi-hyun’s role. He’s no longer mysterious (we fully understand his motivations now, even if no one in-show does). By revealing Shi-hyun so thoroughly, the drama changes the game completely. We, the viewers, are thrown into an entirely new and and unexpected story as the mystery reforms to swirl around two other characters: Shi-hyun’s father-figures, Chief Min and Safari. Of course, at first glance it doesn’t seem like much of a mystery.
Police Chief Min is obviously a good guy. A hard nosed, incorruptible cop, uninterested in accolades (ripping up an award for outstanding service in his establishing scene). He’s protective of his men: shielding Hyung-min from the corrupt Prosecutors Office, putting his undercover agents’ safety above the information they gather (per an early scene in the first episode).
Safari is obviously a bad guy. He’s Busan’s brutal fixer and, when sent after Shi-hyun, goes about it with great enthusiasm. He sets up a clever plan to get Shi-hyun arrested that involves killing innocent (relatively) bystanders. He toys with Shi-hyun. Taunting him over the phone at one point, later playing a cruel cat and mouse game when he has Shi-hyun at his mercy. Offering him a boat to China to get Shi-hyun to beg for his life before he kills him. (In the usual villain mistake, this creates enough time for Shi-hyun’s backup plan — a police raid — to rescue him.)
Safari’s evilness is made even more hideous by his past connection to Shi-hyun. We’re shown he was Shi-hyun’s first father-figure, giving him his gangster nickname (Parksah Ahdeul or Doctor’s Son). But he was also interested in Jin-sook. So an Oedipus-twist is raised as a motivation for Safari’s actions: his sexual jealousy of the boy Jin-sook was devoted to (and now, the man she’s devoted to). It seems obvious that Safari wants Shi-hyun out of the way so he can claim Jin-sook for himself.
Only, as the episodes unfold this narrative, starkly straightforward, begins to get wobbly. For such a terrifying killer, Safari seems ridiculously incompetent. Yes, Shi-hyun is hard to kill, but Safari’s plans seem bizarrely elaborate. And when he does have opportunity he hesitates. And hesitates. And then hesitates some more. More flashbacks only muddy the picture further. Safari appeared to honestly care for young Shi-hyun, and to enjoy, rather then be threatened by, Jin-sook’s love for the boy.
And then there’s Chief Min. For a man who cares so deeply for his undercover agents he drives Shi-hyun awfully hard. His comforting talks start to twist into manipulative guilt trips. His endgame (getting Shi-hyun in with Busan) starts to seem impossible (Busan really, really wants Shi-hyun dead) but he keeps pushing Shi-hyun to accomplish it.
And then comes our halfway point (episode 10). Safari reveals that he’s an undercover cop. It’s a strange scene on the surface. He and Shi-hyun have been fighting in the library — a life and death struggle between two men who are very good at killing. Shi-hyun gets the upper hand and Safari pulls a gun. He’s got Shi-hyun dead to rights (again). One pull of his trigger and Shi-hyun is dead. Only Safari hesitates (again), Hyung-min shows up, and it’s too late to kill Shi-hyun. But he can at least get him arrested, right?
Except. Safari doesn’t let Hyung-min know Shi-hyun’s there. Instead, he pulls his badge and reveals himself as a cop. Right in front of Shi-hyun. Then he lets Shi-hyun slip away while Hyung-min is distracted. Why? Why reveal his undercover status there? Why not kill Shi-hyun and then pull his badge to explain he was taking down a dangerous criminal? Or, why not allow Hyung-min to arrest them both and then, in the relative privacy of the precinct, let Hyung-min know he’s undercover?
This is where the motivations begin to really twist, and where Shi-hyun’s world becomes more and more unmoored. As the drama progresses, Safari begins to seem less a monster and more the good father. And Chief Min seems to become more and more monstrous. The brilliance of the drama is, even as viewers begin liking Safari (pulled in by his charm despite their better judgement), even as they begin disliking Chief Min (put off by his harsh treatment of Shi-hyun), there’s doubt. Maybe Safari is charming, but… he’s still gone bad, right? And sure, Chief Min is harsh, but …he’s still got the greater good in mind, right?
It’s only at the penultimate episode that the mystery is solved. Shi-hyun’s world, as he thought he knew it, is shattered… and then it reshapes and we have to re-see what we’ve seen.
We realize that Safari had been doing his best to keep Shi-hyun out of the gangster life. We realize Chief Min is the one who sucked Shi-hyun into it. We realize that Safari has been tying himself into knots trying to free Shi-hyun from that darkness. We realize that Chief Min has been using Shi-hyun to get himself to the power center of that darkness.
Safari abandoned Shi-hyun (dropping him for the police, and unfortunately Chief Min, to catch) to try and keep him from following Safari down the bad-guy rabbit-hole. The reason he came up with complex plans to arrest rather than kill Shi-hyun, the reason he hesitated and hesitated and hesitated some more when killing seemed the only choice was that he didn’t want to do it. Even with his own life on the line, Safari kept looking for a way to save Shi-hyun and get him out.
So that fight in the library… Safari didn’t pull the gun to kill Shi-hyun. He pulled the gun because Shi-hyun won the fight and Safari needed to push him back, hold him down and show him that all was not as Shi-hyun thought it was. He wasn’t showing his badge to Hyung-min (though that was a beneficial side effect) he was showing it to Shi-hyun. (Hence his little grin. Safari was good at finding the humor in things.)
Chief Min picked up Shi-hyun, carefully planting the lie about his mother’s death (that Safari killed her), because Chief Min collected people to use for his own gain. He had Shi-hyun kill that undercover cop in the first episode because an exposed undercover is useless. Just as he had Shi-hyun gunning for Safari, and had Shi-hyun’s minion gunning for Shi-hyun. Once a person was done being useful, they became a liability, best disposed of quickly.
Chief Min wasn’t ripping up his award in his establishing scene because he was above such things. He ripped it up because he wanted more. More money, more power. He wasn’t protecting Hyung-min from a corrupt Prosecutors Office. He was setting Hyung-min against a power structure he wanted to weaken and then take over. He didn’t want Safari or Shi-hyun to take down Busan. He wanted to force Busan to work with him. He was a spider, spinning out his sticky web, trapping and using others to benefit only himself.
It’s a horrifying reveal. Shi-hyun spent eight years serving the man he should have been trying to destroy. Fortunately, Heartless City doesn’t end it there. Finally exposed as evil and corrupt, Chief Min tries to manipulate various characters into turning on and destroying Shi-hyun. None of them fall for his ruse. Their love and loyalty towards Shi-hyun prove more powerful than the lies and emotional manipulation Chief Min relies on.
All three men die in the end. But both Safari and Shi-hyun fulfill their goals before they go. They protect those they love and they expose and bring down Chief Min. Which means when Chief Min dies, he dies a failure — his web of lies cut down and destroyed.
Heartless City is a sucker punch of a drama, but it is intelligently and cleverly told. In the end, the various characters were true to their motivations and goals. It took all 20 episodes to reveal what those motivations were, and the reveals were often breath-taking — for Shi-hyun and the viewers, both — but once exposed, things clicked right into place. It’s a hard type of story to tell well. Heartless City did it beautifully.