…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 City, is 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.
That’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 Caesar, Heartless 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.]