I ♡ 무정도시 (Heartless City)… truly… sadly… deeply…


Jeong Kyeong Ho (정경호) as Jeong Shi Hyeon in Heartless City (무정도시)

…by the end of the first chapter I could already tell that things are not going to end well for our protagonist. When we first meet him, it is the middle of the night in Seoul and Jeong Shi Hyeon is standing on the roof of a tall, tall building from which an undercover police officer who suspected he had been made has apparently just plummeted to his death in the street below. “It’s been taken care of,” the shadowy Jeong Shi Hyeon tells whoever’s on the other side of his cryptic phone call. We soon discover that the protagonist of our drama, Heartless Cityis a ruthless member of a drug trafficking ring and he is about to stage a coup together with his best friend to take over the local boss’s operation. You need only look at the deeply sad and weary eyes set in his stony face to know that this man — nicknamed 박사 아들 (“Baksa Adeul,” i.e. the doctor’s son) as a testament to his keen intellect — is resigned to simply stomaching the foetor of the criminal world he inhabits.

Heartless_0That’s right – I’m investing in what will inevitably turn out to be “The Tragedy of Jeong Shi Hyeon,” close cousin to the fantastic A Dirty Carnival and Time Between Dog and Wolf. The former is a tranche de vie study of a petty gangster’s hopelessly broken life, the gangster played with disarming volatility by Zo In Sung (recently of That Winter, the Wind Blows). The latter is an undercover thriller starring a personal favorite, Lee Joon Gi (Iljimae, The King and the Clown, Arang and the Magistrate), seconded by Heartless City‘s principal, Jeong Kyeong Ho, who also played the charming, sweet, adorkable Kang Hyun Soo in Smile, You. Judging from his brilliant incarnation of Prince Hodong in Ja Myung Go, it would appear that Jeong Kyeong Ho excels at the tragic and the dominoes in Heartless City are all lining up to deliver exactly that. For a card carrying aficionado of two of the greatest (or very possibly the greatest) tragedies ever wrought by a playwright, namely William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Prince of Denmark and Julius CaesarHeartless City is pure catnip.

Mind you, all I have to go on so far (7 chapters in) is the story’s near-flawless dramatic setup, the deeply evocative cinematography, the impeccable acting and the intense magnetic pull of Jeong Kyeong Ho’s performance on my fickle attention. This drama oozes style at every turn: the soundtrack is quite wonderful; the martial arts – especially the hero’s, is quick and deadly efficient; the dress is fine; even the speech is a stylized colloquialism quite distinct from what we ordinarily hear in contemporary fictions. It is not for the delicate constitution, so consider yourself warned.

Nearly everything about this story is gold. The four items in the YouTube playlist below — the first showing Baksa Adeul cripple Halibut’s posse as he forges inexorably forward with the single-mindedness of a shark; the second grooving on the main soundtrack title; the third witnessing seduction by, and of, Jeong Shi Hyeon’s lonely soul; and the last closing with a jazz crooner — offer just a small taste of why Heartless City will make you sit up: it is spare, elegant and soulful.

Nearly everything about this story is indeed gold. And even as Jeong Shi Hyeon’s death looms ever larger with each episode, I know that there is nothing to be done except watch it approach. And somehow that works – anything else would either be a cop-out or would require an alteration in the Universal Laws of Inevitability…

That said, drama is drama is drama, so occasionally the audience has to make allowances for preposterous circumstances – like the Chief of Police, and then later a seasoned detective, sending an untrained police academy rookie on deep undercover assignment to infiltrate a drug trafficking gang in order to bring down the kingpin — and basically making that assignment the rookie’s police training(!) It happens at least twice in Heartless City, the rookie’s motivation in both cases being the desire to avenge the death of a loved one at the hands of said kingpin. Given the fundamental logic of basic police procedure, (to say nothing of the social and institutional rigors of Korean — nay, any — society), the idea so strains credulity that it even threatens to undermine the viewer’s investment in the rest of the story.


But, being of sound mind and free will, I choose to hugely suspend disbelief and make an allowance on this count for the sake of the story, for the sake of my tragically doomed Jeong Shi Hyeon and for the sake of his brilliant performer, Jeong Kyeong Ho. I have done this before with fantastic results: the “Face/Off” style identity switch in Ghost; the time travel inducing incense in Nine; almost everything in Iris and in City Hunter; everything in Gaksital. Yes, my friends, suspension of disbelief can indeed be rewarding… [special dispensation for  Nine which owned its fantastical conceit]

Anyway, Heartless City is currently airing on Mondays and Tuesdays on JTBC and available on DramaFever. I remember resolving to not watch any more live shows after That Winter, the Wind Blows because I cannot stand the week-long hiatus between installments. I managed to wait for Nine to post its final chapter before signing on. However, Jeong Kyeong Ho’s Prince Hodong was just so intriguing that I got curious about other things the actor had done and now here I am – ensnared, and not-a-little besotted, watching Heartless City live. And stoney though Jeong Shi Hyeon’s face may be, half the fun of seeing him is in watching him move, redefining “badass” with every stride. See for yourself what I mean in MASA JaM’s ingenious compilation below:

So while I watch the fighter, the lover, the badass promeneur, and let Heartless City‘s oodles of style enchant my mind, I want to discover what it is at the ethical core of Jeong Shi Hyeon’s story that has me so invested. As mentioned above, the production is impressive and the protagonist actor dangerously charismatic — but all of that is just on the surface. So I will submit my notes in comments below as I discover more.


PS. I found this fabulous little number that sums up the drama pretty well:


[Originally Posted on June 20, 2013 by Curioser and Curiosor]

[All video clips were added after the conclusion of Heartless City. All quoted video material courtesy of their originating YouTube Channel: jtbc; BubbleFeetBeat; DramaFever; MASA JaM; EmyRose1705. Click on YouTube icon to see full source credits. No rights infringement is intended.]

This entry was posted in (정경호) Jeong Kyeong Ho, KDrama, Music, narrative, Notes on..., query, rhetoric, song and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to I ♡ 무정도시 (Heartless City)… truly… sadly… deeply…

  1. Pingback: Playing Favorites… the KDrama and Film ‘Must See’ List | SPQ&R

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  3. Notes on Heartless City I: Loyalty and Self-Interest

    Jeong Shi Hyeon is one of those dramatic gems: the virtuous anti-hero whose appeal rests in ethical character attributes that stand out regardless of his ignominious circumstances and the shameful things he is driven to do as a result of those circumstances. Among Shi Hyeon’s finest such attributes is his unwavering loyalty to the two people closest to him, his best friend Kim Hyoon Soo and his mother-sister-guardian-figure Lee Jin Sook.

    While every chapter since the beginning offers clear evidence of out hero’s ethical sensibility, the final scenes of chapter 8 go a long way to explicitly underscoring his priority of loyalty over self interest. Facing inescapable death at the hands of the traitorous Safari, Jeong Shi Hyeon has but two requests: that Safari let the kidnapped and manhandled Hyoon Soo go unharmed, and that both Safari and the Police Comissioner look after Jin Sook.

    What is especially interesting about these final requests is that they are meant to ensure the safety and wellbeing of two people who are bona fide criminals. Neither Hyoon Soo nor Jin Sook know that Shi Hyeon is an undercover cop; Hyoon Soo met him in prison and they have been fast friends ever since; Jin Sook for her part, has known Shi Hyoon since he was a little boy and he has never given her reason to imagine he may be in law enforcement.

    That Shi Hyeon time and again goes out of his way to see to the safety of these two individual says a great deal about how strong his sense of loyalty is. I look forward to seeing how this informs the way his assignment continues to unfold.

  4. Notes on Heartless City II: Sex and the Heartless City

    There’s an interesting post over at Jomo’s Findings about something that we don’t often see in KDrama: that scene where a couple actually couples, physically, that is. Jomo’s observations about the dynamics of this coupling in chapter 10 of Heartless City really made me appreciate how well this series is developing its potential in the service of the story’s more subtle ethical concerns. To wit, presenting the couple’s sexual encounter not as an end in itself or some mere titillation for the public’s entertainment, but rather as a window into our protagonist’s hunger for a connection with another human being:

    Why did Baksa kiss Soo-min anyway? Before him sat a pretty, playful, interested girl who did not know anything about his past or present.

    He was lonely and frustrated. He needed to be himself for a moment. He needed comfort. It started out with him reaching for her, and Soo-min responding in kind.

    What we see next, back at Noonah’s, happened for the same reasons. It was beautiful beautiful to see how they connected. I wonder how long Baksa has wanted to be touched and to touch someone else in a non-threatening way. The acting and choreography were breathtaking.

    I quite like this reading of the scene: it underscores a judiciousness in the writers’ and actors’ choice to delve into the verbally inexpressible depths of natural human inclinations in order to explore what they say about how we experience life. For while Baksa might live in a cruel, cruel world, the brutality of his life has not eroded his need for intimacy and his impulse for tenderness.

    I am reminded at this point of how willfully blind we often let ourselves get to the fact that we are all driven by that basic impulse to genuinely connect with the world around us. How we set about satisfying that impulse speaks volumes not only of our experience of the world, but also how we chose to be as a consequence of that experience. I look forward to expounding on this some more later.

    The section below, reposted from Jomo’s blog, conveys some of the thoughts I had about how well this show makes use of the coupling scenario and the circumstances surrounding it; in essence, I found some insight related to the teaching of — wait for it — the Church Fathers(!) Go figure — it’s a hazard of the trade.

    People are attracted to people that the Rules say they must stay away from. They are married to someone else, the wrong gender, the wrong color, the wrong religion, whatever. Problem is the force that drives humans to keep the species on this earth is mighty. It doesn’t know the Rules and folks often risk everything for one moment of release.

    Reading this passage in your post reminded me how among all the Seven Deadly Sins (Lust, Gluttony, Avarice, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Arrogance), it is the one nearest to that “force that drives humans to keep the species on this earth,” i.e. Lust, that is actually considered the least ethically damnable of the lot. And, without including explicit acts of violence and exploitation which are recognizable as crimes, indulging the impulse of this force only becomes a sin when it is either damaging to some third party (e.g. adultery that destroys families) and/or when it is purely about self gratification without regard for anyone else’s welfare (including one’s partner) — all this according to Medieval thinkers who fretted over this sort of thing.

    I really like how Heartless City sounds out ethical complexities like these with both subtlety and clarity – a pretty rare feat in popular media. I like that they bring up the issue by dramatizing how two healthy human beings seeking to connect don’t know not to hurt each other as they try to navigate the crazy maze of Need and Desire that is so fundamental of the human experience…
    End repost.

  5. Notes on Heartless City III: A Tourchsong Classic in Heartless City

    Shim Soo Bong’s teuroteu classic “사랑밖엔 난 몰라” plays in chapter 12 (~24:30) ! 🙂

    And while I’m at it, might as well remember where to find Kim Yong Jin’s very cool 상처

  6. Ice cream, you scream, we all…

    Heartless City is getting a lot of love out there and I do so enjoy the shared delight of:

  7. dramafan says:

    This is a really good read for me. Must admit that you are one of the best bloggers I ever saw. Thanks for posting this cool article.

  8. Notes on Heartless City IV: What a tangled web…

    Ten minutes to go and I was resigned to — and somewhat relieved by — the idea that the storytellers of Heartless City had found a seamless, painless way to avert the inevitable. Death did come knocking, taking our hero’s childhood friend, his sometime surrogate father and even his best friend, but mercifully leaving him be. Yes, Kyung Mi was felled early by the sniper’s bullet, the sniper was cut down by Baksa Adeul’s trusted driver/bodyguard who turned out to be an undercover cop himself, a puppet to Min Hong Ki’s manipulations. This poor puppet, in turn, was killed by his puppet master and in the next instant Safari leapt in the path of the puppet master’s bullet meant for Shi Hyeon, assuring his own belated redemption in a final act of avuncular devotion.

    All this because once Baksa Adeul rebels against his machinations, Min Hong Ki, drunk on his ability to play puppet master, decides to alienate Shi Hyeon from those who love him by outing him to both Kim Hyoon Soo and Lee Jin Sook. At first, it appears to take with Hyoon Soo, but Jin Sook remains true and overflows with a compassion so overwhelming that Shi Hyeon cannot but weep all his grief, frustration and loneliness in one mighty, heartbreaking flood of redemptive woe.

    And when Hyoon Soo also proves himself true, despite Min Hong Ki’s efforts, Death takes him too. And with that, Shi Hyeon breaks completely. So many of those he has loved and who have loved him are mercilessly slain and his grief throughout this final episode is wrenching. He does not even think twice about simply shooting Chairman Choo regardless of whether it will resolve the problems of the long drawn out case.

    So you see, it seemed that by having Shi Hyeon suffer so much loss, the storytellers afford him some reprieve from the death that seemed so inevitable for him at the beginning of the story. And with ten minutes left before the end, I could buy that, did buy that, with a quiet sort of relief, newly hopeful that now Shi Hyeon might get to simply live an ordinary life, away from all the intrigue and corruption and manipulation — all the foetor of the world he was forced to inhabit as little more than the fading memory of a mythical shadow known as “Baksa Adeul”.

    It is this hope in which I had newly invested Shi Hyeon’s future prospects for quiet happiness that makes his death so much more bitter, and the drama so naturally whole. I remember writing, after the first chapter, that there was no other way out of this story for Shi Hyeon except death; I remember declaring my conviction that the story that we were being told allowed for no other outcome, even citing the Universal Laws of Inevitability and recalling Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, that tragic masterpiece in which everyone — protagonists, antagonists, innocent bystanders and even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — dies in the end.

    I am thrilled that this drama ended the way it did. I am glad that the storytellers neither violated nor simply capitulated to the Universal Laws of Inevitability. I am glad that they rather seeded just enough hope in the possibility of an alternative to the inevitable so that in spite of its ultimate triumph, none of the souls felled by it went either gently or pitifully into that good night.

  9. Just sayin says:

    Found your lovely blog through your message…I’m glad. Extremely well written, it almost makes me fear of leaving a message. It appears we share the same thoughts…only you are much better at articulating it 😉

  10. Betsy Hp says:

    Argh! I have to run out the door but clicked your link and read your opening post and… I have thoughts! So I’m sharing them really quickly. (Hopefully they’ll make sense. ;))

    I think what at first appeared a plot-hole — Chief Min recruiting not-even-rooky-yet cops to use to take down a massive drug-ring — became a plot point once all was revealed. He took in young idealists because they were the most malleable and more easily manipulated. He’s their only teacher, and their only link to the world of light they think they’re fighting for.

    Which is what makes him even more evil. Because he recruited people from rough neighborhoods who were trying to change things for the better, and used them by keeping them in that place they were trying to escape from, and to make those places actually worse.

    I’m thinking Chief Min might have “learned” from his losing control over Safari, that he needed to take them in young, as he was able to do with Shi-hyun.

    With Hyung-min and Soo-min… yeah, he was just crazy with grief. But Chief Min okayed it — which would have boosted Hyung-min’s sense of, ‘no — crazy like a fox’ thoughts on what he was doing.

    And those are my thoughts on that one point! (Also — totally loved that fan-vid. It does capture the feel of the show.)

    • Yeah, I can buy this interpretation of the unusual pre-rookie-undercover recruitment program Chief Min Hong Ki has going on. *Oh! Of all the nefariously manipulative…!*

      In truth, I really don’t mind extending my suspension of disbelief to normalize this practice within the context of the drama for the sake of the story. In the end, it did not diminish the impact of the story. I like your interpretation because it offers the possibility of seeing how it in fact compounded the story’s dramatic intensity.

      What remains weird about this recruitment program is that Chief Min Hong Ki is not the only one who does it: upstanding Team Leader Ji Hyeong Min offers the same deal to Soo Min in the name of justice and sends her to Jin Sook undercover as a condition or component of her Police Academy training.

      So, yes, this strange recruitment method works in context as the misguided crusader Chief Min Hong Ki’s control mechanism of choice for the instruments of his mission. But since Team Leader Ji Hyeong Min does it as well with Soo Min (gosh, there sure are a lot of Mins in this drama!), you’ve gotta wonder about just how broken the system must be for it to only be able to function in the interest of justice by ignoring order within law. Well… actually… even as I write this it occurs to me that this may in fact be part of the purpose of this weird program — illustrating how the layers and layers of corruption in the system beget a system so dysfunctional that agents of law and order have to operate outside organizational formalities if they hope to get anything done.

      Or maybe it means that Ji Hyeong Min is poised to become another Min Hyeong Ki: starting out righteous and idealistic in the cause of justice and gradually winding up utterly rotten yet believing oneself still (or maybe even more) righteous — with recourse to this strange recruitment method symbolizing the first step toward the dark side…

      But I won’t speculate. In any case, I don’t actually see the pre-rookie-undercover recruitment program as a plot hole per se. In fact, plot-wise Heartless City was tight as a drum. Rather, I consider it just a preposterous premise that I don’t mind accepting ‘as is’ because its absurdity does not really undermine the story. So maybe it is okay in this story regardless because it adds to the hyperbolic staging of an undeniably dramatic tragedy…

      • Betsy Hp says:

        I think Hyung-min’s recruiting Soo-min was him breaking the code because he was crazed with grief. If his superior had been someone other than Chief Min — I doubt it would have flown. At least, I didn’t get the sense it was a by-the-book thing. (He certainly wasn’t a by-the-book cop. I wouldn’t say he was upstanding, even. He was smart — very smart. But he shot suspects as a form of questioning. Not upstanding behavior. ;))

        Though, I think it all goes to the desperate scramble the police were in to fight the drug-rings. They grab who they can to throw into the ring because they’re all on the ropes anyway.

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