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Heartless City - A Review

If you haven’t watched Heartless City yet and are just thinking about trying it, read this.

We start off with a hero who is a cold drug lord with no particular qualms about killing men. Jung Shi Hyun aka Baksa Adel is the head of the distribution channel of the drug cartel. He wants more than just the meager earnings that comes with that low down position and he's willing to bleed for it.

When he starts a coup to bring down his boss he unwittingly ends up at war with Chairman Jo, the head of the drug cartel. What’s worse is that he’s framed for killing undercover cop, Detective Lee Gyung Mi.  No one knows that Gyung Mi was Baksa’s childhood sweetheart.

This setup is amazing. The first four episodes are dark, atmospheric and Baksa comes across as hard, and ruthless with a strong sense of loyalty towards his friends. The fight scenes are well choreographed, the relationships are complicated and setup well, the bad guys are cruel and nothing less, or more for that matter, than we expect in this dark world. And Baksa, oh Baksa. He is so perfect as the man we should hate...

but end up loving, just because. (Yes, Jung Kyung Ho is that good. )

But then we find out that Baksa is actually an undercover cop.

The big reveal of Baksa’s identity comes as a total surprise and I immediately am far more invested in Baksa. I pity him as he is trapped between those he loves and is betraying,
and those he is loyal to but can’t trust.

Hyun Soo, Baksa’s best friend and right hand man, will do anything for Baksa and his devotion is even more heartbreaking in the light of Baksa’s true identity.

Jin Sook, his one-time aunt, now noona is such a well-rounded character, part sleazy (as we witness in the beginning), part soft (especially when it comes to Baksa) but all smart. This is one of the few female characters done right in Korean dramas.

Baksa has to keep his two friends safe, both from Chairman Jo and from the police.

Commissioner Min is Baksa’s chief officer, doling out instructions that keep him in constant danger. He starts off seemingly good but as time and episodes pass we see quite clearly that all is not what it seems with the Commissioner.

Min plays chess master with both Baksa and Baksa’s one time father figure and old time rival, Safari. Safari starts off as an enabler for Chairman Jo, but we soon find out that he’s actually an undercover cop gone rouge. (Yes, second undercover and we’re not done yet)

The one person Baksa can truly trust is actually his nemesis, Detective Ji Hyung Mi. Hyung Mi was all set to marry Lee Gyung Mi when she was killed. He doggedly believes Baksa was behind the killing and is obsessed with catching him. Of course he doesn’t know of Baksa’s identity, nor of his past relationship with Gyung Mi.

Hyung Mi coerces our heroine, Yoon Soo Min, to go undercover (so what’s new, huh?) to help catch Baksa. Soo Min has her own reasons to agree. Lee Gyung Mi was her Unnie, her only source of support in a world where her own parents abandoned her on the doorstep of an orphanage. She wants to catch Baksa as badly as Hyung Mi does. But she is so out of place in this world that she sticks out like a sore thumb. Baksa can take on ten men singlehandedly,

Soo Min fails at even tailing her own boss. Baksa stitches up his own wounds,

Soo Min uses pororo band aids for, you know, when she fell off her bicycle.

It’s this dichotomy that probably draws them to each other. She knows Baksa only as Jung Shi Hyun and has absolutely no clue who he actually is.

Their relationship (NSFW) is fascinating because of the contrast in his dark life and her light nature.

Chairman Jo decides to punish Baksa for the death of his son (an infantile psychopath with a penchant for rape and videogames, “ugh” is all I can come up with for this one and I don’t want to devote any more time thinking about him) by killing a person dear to him. Of course he chooses Soo Min.  The scene is so compelling it will forever live in my memory. 

When you compare it to the one in episode eight where basically the same thing happened, but to Hyun Soo, you can see the difference in Baksa’s attitude. He’s willing to die for both of them, but it's only for Soo Min that he’s willing to beg.

Baksa knows that the only way to keep Soo Min safe is to get Jo out of the way. But of course all of his planning and plotting come to naught, because to Chairman Jo, the police headquarters is nothing but a revolving door and he knows the way out. Jo is supported by the head of the prosecutor’s department, none other than Ji Hyung Min’s father, Prosecutor Ji.

And this is where things falter. Around episode 14, when Prosecutor Ji and Cha appears, things get murky. There are now too many big-bad-wolves in the picture, yet not enough bad things going on.

In trying to manufacture scene time worth six episodes, the same conflicts are rehashed and the same scenarios are replayed just with different people. Jung Kyung Ho’s injury takes a toll, as their star player now cannot do what he does best – fight. The most he can do is walk fast (which he manages to do in an awesome James Bond style).
This is so painfully obvious that it kills the pacing.

The drama tries to go lighter (God knows why!) so a guy who once killed a man with a golf club now suddenly grows pale when watching a clean cut murder. The police take the fall for writer’s block as we find them time and again fumbling around in covert operations, messing up stakeouts, arriving too late, being at the wrong place and losing their guns!

We forget about the drugs and about Lee Gyung Mi, our plot catalyst, and end up drowning in “who’s the boss?” when we really truly don’t care.

Soo Min is relegated to annoying bystander and the only thing she ends up doing is put herself and others in harm’s way.

With Safari’s coming out party we have two too many undercover’s. In fact, the whole drug ring could have been made up of cops.

One undercover cop is good, two could be explained, but five???

These are not informants we are talking about. These are bonafide trained cops going undercover and are now in key positions at the top of the cartel. It’s wrong to the point of being silly.

Or so I think for the final stretch. But it all becomes clear when we find out in the last two episodes who the big bad really is.

Commissioner Min has played everyone, pitting cop against cop, father against son, friend against friend all for the sake of covering his misdeeds.

As Min tries to isolate Baksa, we find out how deeply loyal Baksa's friends are.

Safari was the most pitiful of Baksa's friends, as he has to fight the man he thinks of as a son. And then finally gives up his life to save the same man.

When Jin Sook finds out that her Baksa is actually a cop, the first thing she says : "it must have been so difficult for you." The one person she loves has betrayed her and she only thinks of him. It's the first time Baksa breaks down and cries uninhibitedly.

Hyun Soo is less forgiving but he still protects Baksa at the cost of life.

His death is what finally breaks Baksa. He realizes that everything he has struggled to do, the eight years of living a lie, betraying his friends only to see them die for him, all of it was for Min's selfish reasons.

He kills Chairman Jo in one very satisfying scene. But Min has the final say as he shoots Baksa - to him the boy who grew up by his side, who thought the world of him and who wanted to be just like him when he grows up.

There is a hint at the end that Baksa might not be dead, but whether he lives or dies is not really what this drama was about anyway. This open ending is truly the best one for this story. It is also the saddest. We see Soo Min miss Baksa, but it is Jin Sook I feel the most for.

There many things this drama didn't do well. It didn't pay attention to details nor did it care much for how we got to where we got.

But no one can argue that this drama delivers compelling. It might not do it in a way that makes total sense, and there's only so much one can ignore the gaping plot holes, but the bottom line is that I’ve watched each episode looking like this:
Kudos to all the actors who brought their characters to life. But there's only one person I watched this drama for - Jung Kyung Ho.

I can't remember the last time I was so enthralled by a character. Baksa wrist-grabbed me the first time he fought ten men in a tiny passageway, and he didn’t let go. Ok, so there were times that he had to piggy-back me through plot holes and absurdity, but in the end I walked all the way to the finish line crying like a baby.

Uri Baksa. He deserves a post all of his own.

Image Courtesy: www.dr-myri-blog.blogspot.com, www.soompi.com


  1. I too share your sentiments exactly, I truly love this show. It may not be perfect but for me it is. One of the few dramas that is done right in many aspects. And of course jkh's incredible performance as well as all the cast. I wish they would make more dramas like this.

    1. "It may not be perfect but for me it is." what a lovely way of putting it. That's how I see it as well.

  2. I just finished watching this and what a drama...YES it was baksa adeul who kept me riveted to the screen. What a great portrayal...JKH makes me a fangirl of his in CRUEL CITY...and that's how good he is. Nevermind the plot holes!

  3. I watched Heartless City for Jung Kyung-Ho after Beating Again on Netflix, and I so wasn't disappointed. Is it possible to be even more love with someone? I loved the drama. It was intense, had amazing fight scenes and literally kept one hooked. It did spiral into a whole lot of "WTF is going on" in the middle, but started to make sense toward the end.
    Who knew Min could be such an a**hole!
    I even loved Team Leader Ji. They were worthy adversaries/partners towards the end. And I cried buckets at the end, but loved the last scene when Su Min sees a happy Gyung Min and Si Hyun together.
    I'm not one for crime dramas, but I cant recommend this enough.