Don’t Go Breaking My Heart: First Impressions of the Amazing Cruel City

I can sum up the entirety of this post in eight words – This. Is. The. Best. Drama. Airing. Right. Now. Three months ago I wrote that the first quarter of 2013 was by and large a disappointment. I wondered then if the new dramas premiering in the Spring would end the quality drought and herald a return to addicting and memorable K-dramas I’ve grown accustomed to on a consistent basis. There needn’t be a lot, but there has to at least be a few each season worth spending time on. I hate to write a blog about dramas and then have no actual good dramas to talk about! Oh the irony. So far this year I’ve liked a handful of K-dramas and all of them are on cable networks. tvN’s Flower Boy Next Door was unexpectedly melancholy and low key and right now its Cyrano Dating Agency is breezy and charming. Mnet’s high school music drama Monstar brings forth all those great feelings of caring about a cast of characters and enjoying their journey towards discovery and growth. That’s all good and fine, but I was feeling a bit unsatisfied without at least one substantive product to gnaw on. Never fear, once again cable comes to the rescue.

jTBC’s dark and gritty crime drama Cruel City (Heartless City) has flat out knocked me off my feet and gobsmacked me with its visceral unflinching tightly controlled power. If this drama stays true to its narrative integrity and doesn’t suddenly throw in a Disney-fied transformation, it has the potential to be the best K-drama this year and all newcomers will be playing catch up. It took me three weeks to get in the mood to check it out and mid-way during episode 1 I felt the need to go scream hallelujah or something similar (okay, I went to tweet my love for it, which is kinda like standing on a roof and screaming in this day and age). Starring Jung Kyung Ho, Lee Jae Yoon, and Nam Gyu Ri, this is the first K-drama that digs into the seedy underbelly of crime culture in Korea with the same nerve and energy usually reserved for K-movies. By the end of episode 1 you’ll meet the Doctor’s son and you’ll never look at Jung Kyung Ho the same way again. I always knew you had it in you guy, and I am honored to take this cruel journey with the most fascinating anti-hero lead in K-drama lore.

I love that this drama never panders to lowest viewer common denominator, always remaining assured and restrained in its storytelling. The details about all the characters connections, background, not to mention the twists and turns, are doled out expertly so that by the end of episode 6 is maybe when the audience finally thinks it has seen the bigger picture. There are no villains and heroes, but there are police and criminals. People have an identity but that doesn’t mean they are doing good things, and in the end you are so swept up into the world created that the nuance will slowly seep into you until right and wrong is really a matter of perspective.

The original title of this drama was called Undercover, and after watching 6-episodes I am SOOOOO glad the network changed it, because that is about the biggest title spoiler ever. Cruel City is a mix of Infernal Affairs with some Old Boy stylishness thrown in, but tempered by a still clinging sense of hope. I am already girding myself for a rocks fall down ending, but that doesn’t mean this drama feels bleak or nihilistic. It feels cruel and heartless like the title suggests, watching as people pay for their choices in life whether it’s a price they willingly accept or unwittingly step into, but there is still the possibility of redemption and/or salvation.

The drama centers around the Police Special Investigative Team’s effort to bring down a huge drug cartel in South Korea. The Team is lead by young and brash Ji Hyun Min (Lee Jae Yoon), the son of the top prosecutor in Seoul, a man who derides his father’s path of judicial malaise and chooses a different method to apprehend the criminals. In the same team is police detective Lee Kyung Mi (Ko Na Eun, who bears a striking resemblance to Han Ga In but can actually act), who is dating Hyun Min but refuses to take on desk duty to reassure him of her safety in the line of duty. Kyung Mi grew up in an orphanage and has taken under her wing and care another younger girl orphan Yoon Soo Min (Nam Gyu Ri), who wants to become a cop like her unni.

The Team has set its eyes on bringing down a Seoul drug kingpin nicknamed “The Scale”, but his organization is about to be shaken up by a coup led by the young, brilliant, and mysterious “The Doctor’s Son” (Jung Kyung Ho), a woman he calls “Auntie” by the name of Lee Jin Sook (Kim Yoo Mi) and his right hand man Soo (Yoon Hyun Min). A quick explanation of the nickname – it’s not really Doctor’s son though colloquially it works, more accurately its “PhD’s son” (“paksa” means someone with a doctorate degree, not necessarily a doctor). Unbeknownst to the Team, “The Scale” is really small fish to fry compared to a thug from Busan nicknamed “Slant-eyes” (Choi Moo Sung, who is so scary here I will have nightmares until I rewatch his cuddly plastic surgeon character in I Live in Cheongdamdong), who clearly reports to an even bigger power in Busan that controls the source of all drugs in South Korea.

To say anymore about the plot is ruining all the wonderfully gripping narrative reveals about this drama, but I will say one spoiler that I’ll attempt to put into code – at the end of episode 1, I called it that S*i *y*n was an *n**rc*v**, but I did not expect his backstory to dovetail with *y*n* M* and definitely not in that tear-inducing way where I was literally sobbing my guts out at the beginning of episode 4. I appreciate that characters think on the fly, make bad decisions, get out of jams sometimes due to luck, so in the end nothing feels artificially constructed to happen just to propel the plot along. In the first 6 episodes alone, you better have a steely stomach for beatings (fists, golf clubs, bats, belts, whatever is handy), knifings, sniper bullets, attempted rapes, attempted murders, copious amounts of blood, and tension so thick you can slice it with a spoon.

So far the acting is wonderful, everyone is in character and the PD doesn’t film anyone with star-like absorption so the focus remains on the story rather than the usual drama idoltry of its big-name famous faces. Jung Kyung Ho is absolutely the stand out here, wisely choosing this gritty drama as his first small-screen come back project since military service and he delivers above and beyond where he left off in his acting repertoire when he enlisted two years ago. Nam Gyu Ri doesn’t take the stage fully as the leading lady until episode 5 but this is the first time I’m able to look past her circle lenses and foundation-caked face and see the actress trying hard behind the pretty façade. She’s improving, and picking this project also shows me she’s not some brainless wannabe actress. Now if only she can get rid of those circle lenses some day, hopefully soon. She doesn’t need it, she actually has acting potential deep down in there.

Son Chang Min is finally paying me back after I endured his most crazy-eyed acting EVER in Man of Honor, here he plays Police Bureau Chief Min and he’s every bit the man on a mission and filled with lots of unspoken information. If I had to pick a weak link, I would say second male lead Lee Jae Yoon is relying too much on his physicality and on brooding to convey nuanced emotion, he’s coming off more like hot-tempered lunkhead more than cop with conviction and worries. The supporting cast from Kim Yoo Mi’s Auntie to Yoon Hyun Min’s lady-killer Soo to Choi Moo Sung’s Slant-eyes are all excellent and you never once think of them as anything other than their characters. PD Lee Jyung Ho did I Need Romance 2012 and Auction House, while newbie scriptwriter Yoo Sung Yul doesn’t any prior works on his resume but whatta way to make a first impression. The music is fantastic and mood-setting, so definitely this is a drama to watch more than it is to just read the recaps.

I worry that the “romance” element once its thrown in might disrupt the tenor of the narrative, but then again so far what bits of emotional narrative introduced have been of the unsyrupy variety so I shall remain hopeful the writer continues with the unsentimental storytelling. I am DYING for the OTP to meet properly, one that doesn’t involve him sporting some injury or another and buying medical supplies from her at the convenience store. Of course, the complete and utter incorrect assumption she holds of him is going to tear me to pieces once they start falling for each other, which is why I say this drama will not end will rainbows and unicorns and kisses in the rain. The cat and mouse game here is but bait for even bigger fish to fry, and I can’t wait to see who is the ultimate Big Bad, but I rather have this bleak view that none of it is going to matter in the end. Justice is always just a drop in the hat and when one organization dies ten more spring up to take over like a hydra. If we’re lucky one person may come out alive, but everyone will pay the ultimate price in the ongoing struggle for power and money.


Don’t Go Breaking My Heart: First Impressions of the Amazing Cruel City — 56 Comments

    • It took me a really long time to finally decide to watch Smile, You, mostly because its 45 episodes, and if I’m not watching it as it airs, I tend to lose interest at the halfway point.

      But I started watching that a couple weeks ago, and then I started watching Heartless City, so I’m getting A LOT of Jung Kyung Ho on my computer screen right now. Not that I mind.

      Can I “mine” him?

  1. OMG OMG! You have no idea how I am happy to see this! I am watching plenty of dramas right now but this has me on my knees begging for more. Best DRAMA ever! Can’t wait to hear your impressions of the future episodes 🙂

  2. My reaction after each episode: OMG I love this show!
    It’s smart, intense, and intriguing. And JKH is definitely killing it!

  3. Ohhh! Thanks for sharing your first impressions of this drama! I’ve been meaning to check it out sooner or later because of Jung kyung (love that guy) and I’m so happy to hear that the drama is turning out to be that good! So my plans to wait has been utterly shattered and I’ll be jumping into the fray as well XP From the sounds of it, it’ll probably be yet another kdrama addiction to add to my growing list… right alongside “I Hear Your Voice” and “Monstar”!

  4. Oh thank you so much. I’ve been watching this since the start and from ep 1 I was blown away. This really is sooooooooo good and I’m glad I’m not the only one who loves it. This is the best drama of the year imo. And Jung Kyung Ho is a revelation. He is so good in this I don’t have words. It’s one of the best acting performances I’ve seen on a tv show, Korean or any other nationality.

  5. Hmm, thanks for this. This one wasn’t even on my radar. But now I’m curious. I tend to trust your judgement on dramas. 95% of the time if you like it and rave, that means I’ll probably end up liking it. The other 5% it’s usually not the drama but one or more of the actors that kinda turns me off. LOL

    I’m going now and checking some of this Cruel City business. I’ve been on board Monstar and Cyrano for a while. ^_^

  6. OMG! Ever since your twitter rave about this, I’ve been keeping an eye out for when you’ll be posting something. Yaaaay!

    (Gotta say “Can You Hear My Voice” is my first favorite, but this is a super close second)

    For me on the other hand, I thought it was a bit slow in the first two episodes. Not enough Doctor’s son. After the 3rd ep, I was hooked! I agree with you on the second male being the weakest link. I totally thought it would be Gyuri that would ruin this for me. I wish they chose someone else, lots of other male actors were available at the time. But it’s alright, he’s not that bad to the point I want to chuck my laptop out the window. So I’m just crossing my fingers that he won’t make me do that.

    I love, love, love the character developments/reveals, and their developing relationships. Like, not saying that bromance is a bad thing, it’s a goooood thing, but it just feels so refreshing seeing Soomin and Jinsook friendship blossoming. Like I saw the preview for ep. 7 and I was like :O!!!!

    I love dark twisted things like this. Like bad people are actually the good guys. The good guys are becoming bad. And everything in between is so gripping. I hope it gets crueler. Hehe. Something tells me lots of people will die…

  7. Actually parksa is not really the anti-hero, he is more of a Byronic Hero, just like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights or Hamlet from….well Hamlet. In a way parksa is more like Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo. Sorry I am an English major so I just had to say that or it would drive me crazy. The drama is by far THE BEST thing on tv right now and so far this year. I have never picture JKH as hot, but my word did being in the army paid off. I am a little sad that they blurr some stuff in the drama.

    • “Anti-hero” was the best I can approximate his character without MAJOR SPOILERS. I know what you are saying but actually explaining his character arc properly would ruin the narrative steps in the first arc of this drama. I tried hard to avoid talking about him too much in this review because its counter-intuitive to my hope more people will watch CC and actually experience it properly without knowing too much beforehand.

  8. Thanks I will start downloading it now.
    Have to say,every still so far looks kind of scary serious. Am sick of the same ol’ same ol’ so thanks for this.

  9. This is my favorite drama of the year after Nine. Jung Kyung Ho is absolutely mesmerizing, he is kicking so much ass and those suits that he wears are amazing. I watched all 6 episodes over a 24 hour period and am now bereft until Monday. I might have to start a rewatch of Time Between Dog & Wolf.

  10. Hi Koala unni, I am sooo happy that you are into this drama.. I will watch the two latest episode later on.. I totally love love this drama… =D

    I literally squealed so loud when I saw you’d made a post about it!!!
    I love every single minute of this drama, Jung Kyung Ho is brilliant and he also knocks me off my feet. I am literally itching for the romance to start because its going to be a very bumpy ride. I really hope the drama continues to be fabulous
    and deliver as it has been doing so far.
    I just want to give the drama a great big hug lol

  12. I’ve really heard a lot of good stuff about CC, and I think I’ll check this out, anyway did you watch “I Hear Your Voice” like did you try to watch it? because you SHOULD. ^^

  13. I agree with you completely. I have not been satisfied by any drama this year until Cruel City. The first episode grabbed my attention and the rest of the episodes have me acting like a crack fiend. Everyone is hitting it out of the park…well, everyone except Mr. Officer. I admit to sometimes yawning when he comes on the screen. I’ve decided it is an actor flaw and not the character. Even so, this show owns me right now. Pacing and characterization feels honest and in the world of the show, nothing seems OTT. Love it, love it, love it.

  14. I agree this is the best show on right now (monstar is a close second) its gritty rawness is so good. I’ve seen a few dramas try it but this is the first I felt pulled it off. Hating waiting for new episodes

  15. This is the first Korean drama that is very graphic and unapologetic. Layers of corruption, mafia groups fighting with each other, secrets within secrets in the police force. Keeps me on edge, never knowing who the bad guys are. Smart writing, excellent acting.

  16. Omo Unni! I was hoping someone would post about this so I could determine if I wanted to dive into another currently airing drama ( I am watching I Summon You, Gold which is good for a makjang nice predictable fun, You’re the Best Lee Soon Shin cause who can resist Jo Jong Suk?, and I Hear Your Voice, which YOU HAVE TO WATCH!!!!! I haven’t been this addicted to a drama in 2013 yet, and even late 2012 did not have this kind of hold in me! It’s phenomenal!!!! Plus I am totally mineing Lee Jong Suk just saying that guy is mine! Liked him before LOVE him now! If I Hear Your Voice continues being this good it is headed into my top 10! And I have been drama watching for a while! So definitely a must see!!! To anyone who reads this!!!!). Thank you for the review Unni I will start watching ASAP! 🙂

  17. Yes yes yes yes. Now I can make lotsa headers, too!

    Are you recapping?
    I know there is a audience for it because of the hits I am getting on my blog are from “Heartless City recap.”

    I am having a little trouble following all the names that fly about each episode, it would be cool to have a place where we nickname and establish who is what to whom and what they are to each other.

    But isn’t Bad Perm Cop supposed to be a hot tempered lunkhead?

    I think the romance would work if they face each other honestly and accept each other as someone who can provide solace. She is currently going down a dark alley in her life, facing demons she never would have if she didn’t agree to what she agreed to. She WILL have to make difficult choices and she will be tortured.

    I like his tortured + her tortured to meet and possibly torture each other for a little before they decide to help each other. I haven’t been impressed by NGR yet, so I hope she can bring it.

    Love this show!

  18. That’s it. Im watching.
    I have been wanting to start watching but no one really giving me their take on whether or not it’s worth it…I have so much on my drama-watching plate right now, which is one of the reasons why i have yet to check out heartless city. I was already intrigued by the trailers and now, i’m definitely going to start watching.

    • 4 minutes in and did they just use inception-esque music?!
      So excited. *microwaves some popcorn, sits in the dark, presses play on Cruel City.* Ready to marathon the next 6 episodes.
      I’d be so excited if you could recap this series, Koala. I think there’s gonna be alot of explaining that will help alot of people better understand the story.

  19. So I have been meandering around looking for different dramas to peak my interest. I am caught up on ten 2 which I knew I would like being crime show buff that I am and also Galileo 2 despite the casting hoopla. I heard good reviews about this one but was still on the fence about heartless city. Your rave review here tipped it over the fence and into the watch category. I will wait until more episodes air before I start it. Can’t wait. Thank you for sharing.

    Aside. i hear your voice – shot up overnight (as in last night) to be my current favorite drama. I never thought I would like it despite liking all 3 actors. It just didn’t really interest me until I saw ep 3 randomly and then I was hooked. First quarter really burned me in kdrama land. And sageuks that turned out crappy (IMO) also burned me. So I am happy that latter spring and summer looks like a lot of decent stuff out.

  20. Yeah glad that you like this drama too!! This is one drama that has hooked me in “hook, line and sinker” What a ride so far – it is gritty, noir, and take no prisoners. Fully smitten with Jung Kyung-Ho and am in line to “mine” him!! He has changed so much – he lost his “baby-face” innocent, sweet look – change to the better. I lurv his smoooky brooding look – the man liner is killing it and if i may say so, much more smexy than the Vampire Prosecutor. The OST rocks as well. Hope you will recap the series koala!

  21. That’s what I love about you ockoala. You are so passionate about your dramas and it rubs off on all of your readers. Thank you for pimping this show. This has gone under my radar, but now I am so curious I just have to watch it. *Excited…!

  22. Hands down…the best drama of 2013. Just thinking about the lady six episodes gives me shivers all over again.

    No need for anyone to hesitate. It must be watched.

  23. You totally said it right! Best DRAMA airing right NOW!!! I’m so addicted with this drama wishing it would always be Monday and Tuesday! Jung Kyung Ho is just so fantabulously AMAZING in this role!!! And CABLE TV rocks rewarding us viewers with awesome dramas such as this!

  24. In just 6 episodes, Heartless City has reached top status in my book. The characters, the world they live in, their motivations … all seem so unflinchingly ‘real’. How can something be this good, this stylish, this entertaining in its portrayal of the cruel and sadistic underworld?

    I so want it to keep its storytelling intensity all the way through to the end. I loved Mawang. I enjoyed Black & White. I loved Tsuiokuhen. I liked Vampire Prosecutor. I liked Time Between Dog and Wolf …

    Cruel City seems to have combined all the elements that made those shows so compelling to watch — and served up the amazing character of Shi-hyun to boot! The man just oozes charisma; he’s the epitome of cool. He exudes a deadly aura and mystery but possesses a sort of boyish innocence. I’m both scared of and scared for him!

    As for the romance … the anticipation is slowly killing me. I expect it to be sizzling … but yet I want it to be natural at the same time. There will be twists and likely betrayals which will hopefully keep me guessing as to whether or not OTP can ever truly fall for each other. Whatever the case, I’m just hoping the bromance of Soo and Park-sa survives! (Unlikely, perhaps?) Watching how certain relationships develop and evolve in — or despite of — the circumstances will be fascinating.

    Anyways, if I seem too effusive in my praise, blame it on the name. Open City, City Hunter, City Hall, now Cruel City … I can’t seem to resist any of those titles. ^^;;;

    Thanks, Koala bear, for giving us a space to gush about this show! I enjoy your blog tremendously and am happy to join in the fun of crushing on great actors, writers, directors, and the crew. 😀

  25. And I thought I was the only one crazy for this drama!!!I was surprised that no one is recapping such an awesome drama except for “akiko” @…I hope more and more people start watching this drama,its too good!

  26. Truly believing HC will be the best and my favorite drama this year. The week is so dull once its aired. *Sigh* Thank goodness for recapping and blogger pals! Having a great time chatting about this joker.
    JKH is outstanding! NGR is the biggest fright for so many reasons but I know she has “it” in her. And the random meetings work for me. I can be patient though, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a meeting in an ep or two.
    Also I agree about LJY as well… Guess we’ll have to see. I can def tell by 6 there’s a little shift in his approach. Layers will peel and I can’t wait!

  27. I’ve been waiting for you to do a post about this drama! I started watching it because of NGR somehow I really like her since 49 days, but now I’m crazy about JKH!!!! He is uber-super-cool!

  28. Thank you for posting this, I am so glad I found you to rant my infatuation of the drama. I was reluctant to watch this drama at first so I have not seem it until yesterday and Jung Kyung Ho totally reeled me in. Like most of you, by the end of the first episode, I was jumping up and down and screaming for more of “Doctor’s son”. I finished the 6 eps yesterday. This is the first drama this year that I watched fully without fast forward and repeat some parts that have JKH in them. I am sorry to say I have totally no interest or pity for the other male lead (the detective).
    anyway, I am totally in love with JKH now and still drooling over his shower scene (sorry if I sound perverted right now).
    hope to see more of your posting.

  29. I freakin love this drama too.
    Shark is not as gripping and dark as this on one yet…..
    Though I love that drama for the directing alone.

    My love for this drama mainly due to shi hyun ‘s character and the execution.
    Nam gyu ri in ep 5 shock me as well. Just didn’t expected she could pull it off!

  30. Love this drama too! I’ve been bored of dramas lately and haven’t been watching any, but dang cable has released some good dramas that I’ve been back to watching some. This one for me is simply the top of my watch list. I like the way how they carry and stay true to the story line. No cliche yet. Jung kyung ho was smexy in ja myung go, cute in smile you, but he is just screaming hot in heartless city. I can’t wait to see when the OTP will meet! Even though there isn’t any romance yet, the storyline still keeps me interested and entertained. Each episode is grippingly great!

  31. Omg! I wanted to recommend this drama for you, but was afraid it’s too dark for you. I’m sooo glad you liked it!

  32. I luff this show so much! Between this and I Hear Your voice, I am dying! Both are so good and dark and creepy! I wish these two shows weren’t airing live because the wait each week is killing me 🙁

  33. Enjoyed reading your first impressions of Cruel city 🙂 I love badass Park Sa <3 The actor who portrays his character is bloody brilliant! His eyes speak volumes! Totally love the way he calmly threatens his enemies like he's discussing the weather outside & then even gives them a chance to choose the weapon they prefer to be tortured with *shudders*

  34. You are absolutely correct! No words can describe the feelings I have for this drama. How can a drama be this beautiful? All the characters are engaging and the love story of the main leads is so compelling that it leaves a warm spot in my heart. So goooood this drama! Love it and my #1 drama of all time. Finished watching it and like to watch it again and again. Gotta give to to JKH, you’re acting is superb! love it!

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