Heartless City: the review

heartless city photo heartlesscity_zps456b0d08.jpgHeartless City (aka: Cruel City)
air date: 5.27.2013 through 8.30.2013
number of episodes: 20
I watched it: one intensely breathtaking marathon; then I watched it again

In a nutshell: Deliciously noir, this stylized take on drug lords and the police who hunt them pulls viewers into a labyrinth world where motivations are shadowed and cruelty seems the rule. Jung Kyung-ho, as the mysterious Jung Shi-hyun or “Doctor’s Son,” is a mesmerizing mix of burning ambition and icy efficiency. We follow his journey as the story winds its way through the murky, midnight gloom of Seoul’s criminal underworld. Nothing is as it seems here, but the drama is told with an intelligent confidence that rewards a willingness to let go and let it take you where it will. This was a stunningly good drama; a sleeper that deserves to become a hit.

The Atmosphere: The stylish camera work, the gorgeous costumes, the evocative soundtrack all serve to setup an otherworldly feeling. Characters drown in the murky-green…

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wallow in the blood-red…

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battle in the steel-blue…

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and sink into shadow.

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Even innocent, natural white has menace lurking beneath its surface.

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It all adds to the feeling that the world of this drama is a step or two removed from normalcy. It’s a world regular folk may brush up against every now and again, but when they do, when they get that thrilling fission of excitement and danger, if they’re wise they retreat to the safety of sunlight and routine. Because it’s a world that, once it grips you, doesn’t let go.

The Plot: It’s our players maneuvering within that grip, whether to escape or dominate, that creates the plot. Questions of trust and loyalty, ambition and greed, swirl around all the characters, jinsook photo jinsook_zps6fe99200.jpgpulling the viewer into the game as well.

Fortunately, the storytellers have a very firm handle on their tale. There are no shortcuts or cheats used here. Characters may not know the motivations of those surrounding them, may even be going through existential crisis of their own, but the storytellers know exactly what’s going on. They carefully spin out their tale, revealing information in well measured portions, each fragment building on the last, to slowly illumine the shadowy world they’ve created.

The Players: All style and no substance makes for an empty story. That’s where our characters come in. True, they are, most of them, cruel men and dangerous women, dressed to the nines and ready to kill. (Literally.) soomin photo soominready_zps60d8d9f6.jpgBut, by the end of the first episode characters you know you should despise, will own your heart. And, as the episodes progress, characters you knew you did despise will have wormed their way in as well.

For a drama named for cruelty and heartlessness, there is an overflowing of deeply sincere and deeply loving relationships. And it’s because of that deeply felt emotion that the characters feel real and solid despite the glitz and the glam, the fog and the shadow. (Where those relationships actually lurk is something you need to watch to find out, of course.) whutyoudo photo whutudo_zps9eca879a.jpgIt’s the characters that will have you holding your breath as the plot spins out. And it’s because of the characters that the various revelations and resolutions will matter, and matter deeply.

In Conclusion: This is a drama that tells its story with care and precision. It’s chasing shadows in the dark, but it’s a thrilling chase because the answers do come. Intelligent and heartfelt, it’s a drama well worth watching. And then, once you’ve got your breath back, it’s worth watching again.


15 thoughts on “Heartless City: the review

  1. What a lovely, lovely review!! Full of gorgeous, delicious phrasing, and written with such loving care. I can just FEEL your love for this show and its characters, Betsy!

    I’m 7 eps in at the moment, and letting myself sink in slowly, by degrees. So far so good.. Crossing my fingers that I’ll grow to love it as much as you do! 🙂

    • Yay! Thank you! 😀 I really, really did love this show to bits and bits. Shi-hyun had my heart pretty much from the get-go. ♥

      Oh — I’m excited you’re watching it! I’m not sure it’ll be quite your cup of tea as perfectly as it was mine but I hope you enjoy it! 😀

  2. I agree on every front…especially the one about rewatching. I’m even more tempted after reading your review than I was before. I think this will probably be my favorite drama of the year.

    • I can definitely say a re-watch is well rewarded. I’ll be coy and not name names but there are some characters who are fascinating to watch again, knowing their true motivations.

      And yeah — I think this is the one to beat. It’s so different from what I’m used to seeing in a k-drama.

  3. It is one of my favourite dramas and your review is amazing.
    It really was an amazing journey watching this drama. It’s dark, hopeful and not hopeful at the same time and it really makes you question the way you see things and people.
    It has amazing characters and especially I loved Shi Hyun, Safari and Jin Sook. Great great characters and amazing performances.
    In the end what stuck with me the most is that people dream of a better life and a better world. They are hopeful that they can change the world for the better but in the process things stop being so clear. As it happens.. You might try and try and try and all you succeed is ruining your life instead of making it better.
    After finishing this drama I was so bitter, because I felt that the overall message was so painfully pessimistic. You know “the city stays cruel until the end”. But I think that now I can see and appreciate the realistic and I guess kind hopeful aspect it had.
    I don’t know I feel like my words are not good enough to describe how good I find this drama.. It really was great..

    • Thank you! I totally agree on your character-favorites. I adored them as well. 🙂

      I think… I wouldn’t call the drama uplifting certainly. But… I did see hope in it. There was tragedy but I didn’t think it was wasted tragedy. I honestly felt the big bad was ultimately defeated, though the price was high. (Oh my gosh, I went on and on about HC in previous posts… so much to think about.)

      But yes, this was definitely a meaty drama, incredibly well told and most definitely one of my favorites.

  4. Hello!
    I am new to your blog ( only came across it 2 days ago). Your writing style makes an addictive read, plus we seem to share similar taste in Kdramas with my list of awesome dramas in 2012 exactly the same as yours, so I will check out your blog often in the future. Keep up the good work!

    I have heard good things of Heartless City and like your review here, hence have decided to give it a try.


    • Hi and welcome! 🙂 I’m really glad you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read. And that we have matching drama-tastes. 😉 It can be so subjective with one person’s “yay” being another’s “meh” — so it’s always cool to run across someone with a similar view.

      And I hope you enjoy Heartless City! It’s a dense, dark watch, but it is such a gooder. Let me know what you think! 😀

  5. UGH OMG Betsy I think I’m in love with you (and your writing!) haha – finally finished my backtracking (I linked your Heartless City tag to my review too ;)) and ah, you expressed everything I attempted to with mine. I love how you’re able to kind of narrow in on each character and how you sum up the story that’s sooo worth telling in this show. I’m still reeling in the aftereffects – which funnily isn’t exactly the “OMG I think my heart is still broken” but more subdued and in awe like “Wow… so that’s the ending.” – and I can’t get enough of our anti-hero. You’re totally making me see Soo Min and Safari in a different light though, which is totally awesome. Thanks for the insightful write-ups!! 😀

    • Huzzah! That’s exactly the response I dream of! 😀 Seriously though, I really did adore this drama. It hit me in all the right places — the brain and the heart and the gut (which, getting all three is a hard trick apparently) — so I poured my love into the many, many posts.

      I know what you mean about the ending. It’s… I think it’s how it had to end and it heart-wrenching but it doesn’t totally shatter you. There’s hope there — though not an unrealistic (for that world) amount. Enough that contemplating a re-watch doesn’t seem like an exercise in self-punishment, you know?

      • You are totally correct! Or so I think now, because I’m convinced! *quietly adds rewatch of Heartless City to drama diet* (hehe)

        PS I almost – almost! – kinda wish they’d do a Season 2, just because I can’t get enough of Doc! (although… there’s no more Doc, regardless how I think of the ending)

        • I would be so onboard a season 2. 😀 I mean, I do like this ending — but if they wanted to do a second season and come up with a way for Shi-hyun to be there? I’d take it! 😀

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