There Are Entrances But No Exits in Heartless City: An Overall Review.

Heartless City (2013)
Heartless City (2013)
poster credits to:

Heartless City is SO GOOD. So, so good.

This is exactly how much I love it: if I have 20 more hours to spare, I’d re-watch this show in a heartbeat. Sadly I don’t, what’s with winter quarter starting on Monday blegh (why didn’t I pick up this show earlier during the break?!) and even now, I’m still reeling from the aftereffects. I’ve mulled about writing my year-end drama review (I know we’re in the new year already but let’s pretend this isn’t the case with this, ha) for the past week and a few days ago, when I realized I like but did not love cult-favorite Nine: Nine Times Travel, I concluded that I don’t think I have a favorite in this year’s crop … until Heartless City came under my radar.

“This world is like a mirror.
If you spit and cuss at it, the world will spit and cuss back at you.
If you smile at it, the world will smile back at you.” 

Heartless City is so, so good. I just can’t praise it enough; so damn good I’m just oozing and beaming with pride for a show so well-done. I’m really glad I did a marathon because the wait during live-watch would’ve been excruciating. Let me tell you, my marathon was totally the can’t-get-out-of-my-bed kind and any waking moment not spent watching the show was spent mulling over the show, “Oh my god, what is going to happen to Doc?!”

Plus, I tried to mentally prepare myself for the worse case (ending) scenario (read: everyone dies) when in reality, I had no idea how the ending would play out until I reached it. I simply figured embracing the worse case scenario early on would save me the heartache but honestly, I don’t know if that mental preparation actually did me any good because quite frankly, the journey itself was painful to go through; so damn delicious to sit through but hot damn, heartbreaking as hell.

I’ve read a number of opinions from general comments to reviews across the web about the show and most people expressed disinterest in the first few episodes, especially the first episode itself. Unlike them though, episode one sealed the deal for me from the get-go – I was immediately engrossed and at the edge of my seat in terror and curiosity. I think the show had me at the following statement, “He’s at war with Scale. … It’s not an organization. It’s a coup.” 

Coup, you say? Damn show, you sent chills down my body with that revelation alone.

Honestly what’s rather surprising is I’ve never been a fan of the thriller/action/mystery genres. My acceptable level of violence is generally PG-7, not even PG-13. I’d wince at blows delivered, knives and batons in action, (fake) blood splattering everywhere – you get the picture of the kind of audience I am when it comes to any genres related to the kind of scenes mentioned. So to me here’s where Heartless City demonstrated exactly why it’s awesome – it was able lure an audience like me all-in; completely and totally addicted despite wincing at the fighting scenes, covering my eyes when someone’s throat was slit and holding my breath at the many suspenseful scenes. In fact, the closer I was to reaching episode 20 and thus finale, the more I dreaded it; no more Heartless City, oh no! In addition, I admit that I generally love a good romance so it typically takes a lot out of me to be lured in and to stick with a show if it has the bare minimums but nope, once again it didn’t matter when it comes to this show.

When it comes to its noir genre though, it’s a different story. I’ve always fancied noir films and dramas and try to watch them whenever something catches my attention but I’m incompetent to comment on it specifically because I don’t watch enough to understand exactly what and why the show did a fantastic job when it comes to upholding the concept of noir. All I know is that by my standards and comparing it to dramas which embraced the noir genre I watched in the past, Heartless City did a phenomenal job, perhaps even the best one of the lot, if not one of the top contenders.

From start to end, I really thought the show maintained its gritty, dark and edgy tone – a norm with noir – and complemented that with symbolism and representations of innocence, further spicing things up with various depictions of human flaws, heartbreak and of course, consequences of choices and decisions made. All these were done stylistically so rest assured that the show was in good hands – it was a total looker and visual treat. For instance, the close-up shots were often so appropriately inserted and not overused; they increased tension and intensity, and sometimes broke me with the raw, guttural emotions. For another, I thought that wide shot scenes taken from seemingly weird angles always turned out to carry visual meanings, thus having interpretations of their own and giving the show a two-point hit: confidence in both directing and writing.

Speaking of the writing, no surprises – tight, very tight. Of course it’s not without flaws, but I think of them as minor quibbles. I love it when a writer stays true to his or her vision in telling a story from start to finish as organically as possible, both from the writer’s own point-of-view independent of audiences’ reactions as well as based on the characters themselves, ergo trusting the characters to come to life and lead the way. Those points to me, differentiate good and great storytellers and fortunately with Heartless City, we know exactly which one we have.

The result? A powerful, impacting and impressively well-thought out story about the journey our anti-hero, kingpin-drug-overlord-mastermind, Doctor’s Son or Jung Shi Yun goes through as he embarks further along the path of no return where loyalties are constantly questioned, survival is key, having and keeping secrets are second nature and redemption is a bleak notion. As another drug lord and comrade Safari aptly summarized it, “You and I know the truth about our world. There are entrances into the cruel city, but no exits.” 

So begins a 20-episode show full of characters who are never as they seem whether in the form of seemingly upright public figures, underworld kingpins, undercover agents and circumstantial families. In a world full of twists, expect double, triple-crossed agents left and right, forged and broken alliances as ranks change from boss to underling or friend to foe or lover to enemy. In short – always, watch your back.

The writing was air-tight nine out of ten times, alas not perfect. I won’t say the show dwindled in the second half but it did almost lose me in a game of mindfuck frenzy at the revelations – some I’d guessed from the get-go while others I never saw coming. Plus, suddenly deaths were taking place almost every minute that it was quite hard to keep up both story-wise and emotionally. I admit that in some instances, I noticed that some secrets were guarded so damn desperately and built up so magnanimously from early on but were resolved too simply, or accepted way too lightly that they slightly weakened the strength of the writing but again – minor quibbles overall.

If I were to pinpoint a major quibble I have, it would actually be the love story arc. In fact frankly, I’m using the term ‘love story’ very loosely. I actually don’t think ‘romance’ is even right to use either, because I thought the relationship between the Doc and our supposed heroine, Yoon Soo Min played by Nam Gyu Ri is lust and passion at its best, far-fetched love affair at its worst.

I’m honestly on the fence when it comes to this arc of the story because for the most part, I really thought that the romantic scenes between the two were often randomly placed and off-track from the main story line. I also thought those scenes were too far and few in-between for the two to develop a deeper connection ergo the sort where they’d willingly die for each other. However at the same time, I do believe the attraction between the two was real and rather magnetic and especially for him, I understood and could get behind the reasons he was drawn to her. In my opinion, she is a symbol of purity and innocence, representing a world that’s still untainted and nothing like the one he’s all-too familiar with. It’s for that reason that she becomes someone he dearly tries to protect, also the same reason why he keeps trying to take her out of it. As the story progressed, I agree that they genuinely cared for each other, but in my opinion at least, to call it romantic love is a wide stretch.

Which brings me… to another small issue I have with the show. Honestly, I thought our heroine was more plot plodder and representation of a concept (or a few) as opposed to being another central figure in the show. Important regardless to the Doc and the show itself because she is indeed a representation of the world most of us know – more light than darkness and hope when there is none.

Here’s my issue: Nam Gyu Ri did what was required of her, but unfortunately failed to inject more. I thought that on paper, the character was a novel idea and held so much potential within the premise of the show’s world when one thinks of the overall thematic message and tone, but… if only… a better actress had played the part. To her credit, I don’t find Nam Gyu Ri offensively terrible that she ruined the show completely for me – I think I’m more disappointed at what the show could’ve been had a stronger actress carried the role, because Nam Gyu Ri‘s obviously limited acting and (extremely, if I may say so) artificially reconstructed face were jarring at times and sometimes even painful to watch. Ultimately, had an actress with meatier acting chops taken the role, Yoon Soo Min wouldn’t just be a beacon of hope to the Doc – she’d also be a more nuanced and layered character. Shame.

The good news though, is that everyone else was fantastic. Absolutely, unanimously and utterly fantastic. For instance, Lee Jae Yoon‘s police officer role was fitting, well-acted and convincing. When his lover died, his heartbreak, grief and anguish were so clearly and painfully felt and in moments when he was blinded by rage, the fury was also clear. Doc’s right-hand man and bromance-partner, Kim Hyun Soo played by newcomer Yoon Hyun Min also deserves a nod for breathing to life a character that’s more bravado than anything else, but undoubtedly a true friend to the end. Then there’s Uncle Safari or Moon Duk Bae acted by the chameleon Choi Moo Sung, who was amazing in this show, period. Half the time I couldn’t tell which side he was on, but I always knew I could count on him to have our Doc’s back.

However, my best side-character award goes to none other than Kim Yoo Mi for her portrayal of Lee Jin Sook. Aw man, this woman was on fire. She was not just bold and feisty, she commanded and owned each scene she appeared in no matter the circumstances or party. Whether she was acting like an uppity CEO chairwoman or a lover scorned, she was friggin’ fantastic in each persona.

Lee Jin Sook’s ambiguous relationship with the Doc also added more layers to her already rich and multi-dimensional character, where underneath all the bravado and glamour is very simply, a woman who loves a man unconditionally, irrespective whether that is from the role of wife, mother, sister or lover  – I know I make it sound kinda creepy, but it really isn’t. It’s more beautiful than anything else because in short, she loves him wholeheartedly because she grew up with him, then raised and cared for him; she is the only family he has and vice versa. The scene towards the end between them when she found out the truth about his identity and embraced him despite that – wow. Just when I thought I couldn’t be more impressed and taken by her character, there she went and did it again.

Last but not least, let’s discuss the crux and central figure of Heartless City – who else if not our Doctor’s Son, more specifically Jung Shi Yun and narrowing it even more, the actor Jung Kyung Ho. My first impression when he finally appeared on my screen: holy smokes, I had no idea he’s capable to go dark and deep like this! The years in the military definitely did him good I think, because I didn’t just detect a deeper level of maturity, but also a groundedness that was absent in the actor before this.

Honestly, I don’t know if I can call him an exceptional actor altogether – I have watched him in other shows in the past and thought he was decent – but in terms of this show he was undoubtedly exceptional. I thought he completely embraced the character and became one with Jung Shi Yun, whether that was Shi Yun the man himself or Shi Yun as his kingpin role, Doctor’s Son. Despite being billed as an anti-hero, kudos to Jung Kyung Ho for such restrained acting, never once over-doing the emotional meltdowns or cool facade. Plus I thought his action scenes were really cool and not at all lame, ha. Jung Kyung Ho was engaging and captivating onscreen from his first scene to his last, but I thought he absolutely nailed it in the scene aforementioned where Lee Jin Sook embraced him and he sobbed like a baby in her arms; the brokenness, the heavy weight he’s shouldered, the regret, the pain and suffocation, the point of no return… each complex emotion resonated in that one scene as he teared. Powerful.

Heartless City… totally a keeper. If you haven’t watched it – you’re missing out.

Final Verdict: 9.5/10

PS I am only now backtracking and reading through Betsy’s reaction posts and reviews/thoughts – they are AMAZING. Why did I even write this review?! Aha. For in-depth, insightful and well-written thoughts related to Heartless City from the ending to the women to the motif used and more, look no further – peruse here!


16 thoughts on “There Are Entrances But No Exits in Heartless City: An Overall Review.

  1. Yay yay yay! I’m so glad you loved it, I hoped you would! Plus, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love it! Totally the best drama of 2013. I was engrossed from episode 1 as well.

    “I admit that I generally love a good romance so it typically takes a lot out of me to be lured in and to stick with a show if it has the bare minimums but nope, once again it didn’t matter when it comes to this show.” EXACTLY my thoughts. I almost didn’t watch this because it wasn’t a romance but boy, am I so glad I did. The romance (as you said, it can hardly even be called that) was totally out of place. It was necessary for some things to happen, but it didn’t really fit in with everything else.

    Fun fact: getting towards the end of filming, Jung Kyung Ho injured his back quite severely. He basically pushed on through the filming and then had to take a break afterwards and rest. You know how in the last couple of episodes, there was a lot more gunfight rather then the knife fights that had practically characterised the show? I reckon (totally supposition) that he just couldn’t do those fight scenes anymore. They were so amazing, weren’t they? When he went down that alley and fought all of those men? So well done.

    It ended how it was always going to end, hey. Thank god they didn’t try for a happy ending, that would have been horrible.

    1. Honestly thank YOU for recommending both Nine and Heartless City to me! I’m so glad I took up the suggestions :D

      Also yay to having similar thoughts when it comes to the kinda-romance. Watching scenes between them independently they’re really kinda cute together (and I admit I did initially hope the show would go down the whole epic-love-that-cannot-be kinda approach … but fortunately easily accepted what we got instead) but once we put those scenes into the show as a whole, they didn’t fit as well as they should’ve. But oh! Did you read Betsy’s thoughts on the show and the “couple”? She gave a whole different outtake when it comes to these two which now makes me wonder if I am missing something when it comes to their connection and kinship.

      (I think a re-watch is necessary…)

      Ooooh thanks for the fun fact, NO WONDER he was suddenly gunning people down in the last two episodes and not slaying them as per usual. I did notice this and thought it was kinda odd cos by then I was so used to the polices having guns that I kept thinking it was Hyung Min or Director Min. Those fight scenes with his small knife (blade?) were really, really cool though. Very slick and stylistic and okay, he looked really hot as he took down the baddies dressed in a crisp suit and tie. *swoons*

      But but but that final scene as the credits rolled! Thoughts? It was obviously him in that beige suit… I read at Koala’s and The Vault on what was supposedly in the script versus what eventually made it to the screen and I’m quite content to believe the following as pointed out by some folks (I think primarily Mr X at Vault): the man himself is alive and perhaps with a new identity, but the Doc is dead. It’s really not a matter of happy/sad ending though, but a well-thought out one and either way i.e. the ending we got or this interpretation (or possibly real ending?), I think both did the show justice.

      Also interestingly there seems to be lots of talk/comparisons/insights into this whole light versus darkness theme when it comes to this show. Mr X wrote about it at length and Betsy touched upon that time and again in her write-ups too – did you have the same kind of ideas while tuning in? I didn’t think too deeply about this while watching haha, so was pleasantly surprised when so much was written about it by other bloggers.

      All in all, Heartless City is pure gold. I’m so glad I watched it and I can’t wait to re-watch when I can!

      1. I have chosen to flat out ignore the credit scene because I think the show ended the way it should have ended, lol. So if they negate that by having him alive, it just annoys me. I mean, i guess it’s possible, but i don’t think it’s necessary. Ha ha, does that make me a terrible person, that I actually want to believe that he’s dead? :-P

        I watched it straight through in 2 days without a break, and didn’t think too deeply of anything until afterwards when, same as you, i read other peoples reviews and blogs on it. To be honest, I’m quite a superficial watcher. I miss a lot of things, and it’s only when i read what someone has written about it that I think “oh, that makes a bit more sense now”. I do need to rewatch it though, to pick up for myself all of the things I missed first time around. Although, I do worry that if I watch it again, I’ll lose some of my love for it. You know how that can happen if you watch a show again, or if you watch it too closely? I have a very nice memory of Cruel City in my mind, and I don’t want to ruin it.

        1. Ahhhhh I agree with you about losing the love the second time! Totally hear ya and that has happened to me with other shows. BUT I actually think HC is a show that one will appreciate more with a rewatch. At least I know it’s so for me cos when I watched it I was basically whizzing through it so fast, also anxious and at the edge of my seat to know what happens. I think the second time I can now watch for the details. That’s the hope at least, but damn school is killing me!!!


  3. I was quite taken by the beginning of the drama but by the end I was not so enamored with it. >__< There were so many undercover cops that it got a bit ridiculous. T_T" BUT CC had such amazing characters. Safari & Scale were such memorable 'antagonists' (<sorta?) and I liked how they were always switching sides, heh. Jin Sook was hands down one of my favorite favorite characters of the year, omg. Yes, I even liked her more than Shi Hyun. O___O JIN SOOK FAN FOREVER!!

    1. Apparently according to Betsy a rewatch will actually paint a clearer picture! I might try haha (time, where are youuu?? T_T) but I am with you that the undercover/not undercover gets kinda hard to follow, though honestly the show had me from start to end that I overlook any flaws haha. The night before my final marathon day I even had nightmares of being part of the underworld haha OMG that’s how deep show had me in its reins!! And yup I would consider them as antagonists too, but definitely the interesting ones :)

      How can you like anyone else above Shi Hyun?? :O He’s OMG *melts* but okay, Jin Sook is maybeeee acceptable :p

      1. I know, shocking huh? :P I am just that much of a fan of Jin Sook’s character! Shi Hyun was awesome but JIN SOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AHHHHH!!!!!!!

        Not sure if I will ever rewatch CC. I rewatch some of my favorite scenes from time to time but I don’t think I could rewatch the entire drama. T_T

        1. I’m actually with Heisui in loving Jin Sook over Paksa.She had so much fragility and grace, so much strength yet so much vulnerability. It was beautiful.

          1. Ahhh I saw your comment while in class this AM and couldn’t reply until now. I had such an insanely long first day. Class-shopping is hectic “-_-

            You said it so well about Jin Sook! Absolutely what I had in mind too when I think of her :) I’ll let you guys slide on this haha, they’re both just really awesome characters!

  4. Wasn’t Jin Sook like, three steps beyond awesome? I adored her so, so much and I think part of the reason the ending was sad but didn’t shatter me is that she survived.

    Also — your entire paragraph about “noir” — that’s exactly my thoughts on it! I love it, it intrigues me… but I can’t quite define it. I know it when I see it, but that’s about it. :)

    (Thank you for the lovely shout-out, by the way.)

    1. You absolutely deserve the shout-out! I LOVED all your analysis, especially those on the women and the ending, really made me think and look at the show from varying different perspectives.

      Jin is definitely three steps (and more!) beyond awesome. I admit I was surprised that she survived – I actually thought she’d sacrifice her life for him, because it’s just sooo something she’d do. But her surviving and moving on was also just so her, so it’s all cool :)

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