Cruel City (aka: Heartless City) premiered almost two weeks ago on cable network, JTBC, but it’s been a busy time and I’m only now catching up on the many shows that have recently begun.
There are a few I’ve yet to watch (I Hear Your Voice, you’re next *points menacingly*), but this show immediately caught my attention and refused to let it go until I’d written up a full recap. I can’t guarantee that I’ll keep up with recaps due to time constraints, but I wanted to post at least the first episode, so that those of you who’ve yet to watch this particular drama can see if it’s to your tastes.
In part, it feels very much like a hero’s origin story. It has a sort of Batman/Gotham City feel to it with a good dose of noir Sin City mixed in, which suits me to the ground. Both the writing and acting are solid, but it’s a bit more violent than your average fare, so is perhaps not a show everyone will enjoy. However, I advise those who do enjoy the genre (or who don’t mind a taste of the dark side) to give it a watch – and thank me later (I’ll be here all week, ba-dum ching).
A man stumbles his way through downtown Seoul at night, noticeably twitchy, and with good reason – he’s being followed.
He’s an undercover cop and he calls his superior, Min Hong Ki, to explain that he thinks Scale’s onto him. We don’t yet know who Scale is, but something seems a little off with Hong Ki, who’s just received an award for his solid police work… and proceeds to then systematically tear it to shreds.
On a tip-off from his undercover agent, Hong Ki sends in a team to hopefully catch Scale in the act of making a deal with the Chinese. They search the building but come up empty-handed – until a body falls from the roof, directly onto their police car. It’s their fellow officer and we pan up to the roof to find a be-suited man (we’ll meet him properly later on, but it’s the awesome Jung Kyung Ho) standing there, confirming that “it’s” been taken care of. So, not a sky-diving misadventure, then?
At the man’s funeral, a former officer arrives to pay his respects. It’s Ji Hyung Min (Lee Jae Yoon) and he’s clearly got some history with Scale as upon hearing that a special task force has been set up, specifically targeting the organisation, he decides he wants back in. Hong Ki promises him that he’ll be protected and Hyung Min gets to work assembling his task force.
One such member is his girlfriend, Kyung Mi, and they enjoy an elegant dinner together as he breaks the news: he’s planning on returning to the force instead of taking the bar exam. She complains that she prefers prosecutors to cops, but before they can get to the meat of the matter, her phone rings and she takes off. He’s left to follow her, wryly plucking a diamond ring from the topping of their yet-to-be-served dessert. See, this is why you shouldn’t propose using foodstuffs as a prop – it never works out well.
We soon find the reason she’s run off: little sister, Yoon Soo Min (Nam Gyu Ri), has appeared in a seedy bar and as she’s presently in the changing room, Kyung Mi assumes she’s become a bar girl (note: bar girls in Korea aren’t exactly prostitutes, but they are expected to drink with and entertain their predominantly male customers, so the profession is looked down on and portrayed in many dramas as something of a last resort).
Kyung Mi tries to drag her out of there but as this isn’t the first time Soo Min’s disappointed her unni, her explanation of only being there to borrow a friend’s phone falls on deaf ears. Finally, exasperated and hurt – and catching sight of Hyung Min in the doorway – Soo Min gives up on trying to explain and lets Kyung Mi believe the worst.
The following day, Hyung Min meets with the members of the special unit he’s heading and sets out their mission statement. Simply put: catch Scale. If you were wondering exactly who Scale is, he exposits that, too: he’s a drug lord, loan shark and all-around bad guy.
That’s made clear to us when he meets with a lender, the owner of a bank that’s gone belly-up, and proceeds to bludgeon him to death with a golf club in front of the man’s horrified son. This seems a common enough occurrence, as his assistants had thoughtfully laid down plastic sheeting pre-murder. Who says you can’t find good help these days?
The team stakes out a man known as Birdie, though Hyung Min won’t yet tell them how he’s connected to Scale. They watch, horrified, as a man sells his daughter – who can’t be more than six or seven years old – to Birdie in exchange for a small packet of drugs.
Birdie drags the girl off and the team remain stationary – with the exception of Kyung Mi, who takes off after the man. She follows him into an elevator and delivers a mighty smack-down… but not without sustaining a knife wound to the arm.
In the aftermath, Hyung Min asks her to quit her job, because he can’t stand seeing her in danger. She bites back that if he doesn’t want to see it, he shouldn’t have returned to the police force.
Birdie’s been connected to the murder of another young girl, but on request is handed over to the prosecution – which Hyung Min finds suspicious. He slips a bug onto Birdie’s collar and finds that he is indeed with Prosecutor Ahn… at a bar. The room empties and Hyung Min and Ahn get down to brass tacks: the Birdie sting was solely to get to Ahn, who’s as dirty as most officials are in the noir genre (i.e.: very). But Ahn wonders if Hyung Min’s father – the Chief Prosecutor – will be willing to co-operate, now that Hyung Min’s switched sides. Is he implying that Hyung Min’s father is dirty, too? Interesting. I guess there’ll be a father-son clash (or twelve) before the series ends.
(Cutely, as they leave Kyung Mi pats his butt in recognition of a job well done.)
Prosecutor Ahn apparently decides this a deal worth taking, and hands over the requested information. He asks why Hyung Min is going to so much trouble and, as they watch the children before them play, Hyung Min replies that he’s doing all this to give those children a better, safer future. Ahn says cynically that it’s the children who’ll decide what kind of future they want and gets up to leave.
Hyung Min surveys the city from the rooftop and notes how lovely it looks from a distance. But those bright lights hide the seedier side of Seoul and Hyung Min reaffirms his desire to wipe out the narcotics trade.
We see the delivery of drugs from a dark alleyway to a flashy nightclub and its wealthy patrons. One such girl downs drink after drink before collapsing on stage before an oblivious audience.
The money changes hands numerous times before making its way to Shi Hyun (Jung Kyung Ho, we meet again), known to the drug world as the Doctor (I will refer to him as Shi Hyun, as to me the Doctor is – and will always be – Doctor Who), or the Doctor’s Son. He has a drawer full of (presumably) disposable phones – one for each contact – and just as he informs one such contact to leave the money where it is, another phone rings.
It’s one of Scale’s minions: he’s been summoned to a meeting with Scale. He does not look happy, but on the plus side, there’s no plastic sheeting in sight, so at least it won’t be a bloody death?
Scale’s already pissed off with Shi Hyun for daring to disobey his orders and is further infuriated when he dodges a thrown glass. So he steps closer, closer and hurls another glass directly at Shi Hyun’s head. He doesn’t flinch as blood trickles steadily down his face, nor does he reveal any emotion when Scale denigrates him as fatherless trash. He just takes it, face impassive, even when the man picks up a golf club to swing at his head. Ack, not the face!
He’s saved when Scale’s young son wanders in, complaining about a concert and diverting his father’s attention away. Shi Hyun says nothing, does nothing, but that look in his eyes is just chilling.
Shi Hyun picks up a package of band-aids on the way home and the convenience store clerk turns out to be our heroine, Soo Min. So, not a bar girl after all. They two pay each other no attention and when she looks up from her mobile phone, finds he’s paid with a cheque rather than cash.
Upon hearing that Shi Hyun still hasn’t paid in the money, Scale orders his death. His minions complain that the very thing that makes their organisation undetectable is now thwarting them when it comes to finding Shi Hyun. But one man might know where he is…
Enter Hyun Soo, currently too busy making time with a girl to, er, make time for anything else, much to his underling’s embarrassment. When he does finally manage to tear himself away, he promises to find Shi Hyun for Scale. But, he cautions, it could take some time.
Next thing you know, he’s meeting with Shi Hyun (location: rooftop. of course.) warning him about the seriousness of the situation – Scale isn’t someone to mess around with. Shi Hyun agrees and says that he’s tired of being someone else’s lackey; he plans to take this all the way (or die trying?). Hyun Soo sighs and sets the plan into motion.
It’s Shi Hyun and Hyun Soo’s minions against Scale’s and as the fight rages on, Shi Hyun coolly walks through the centre of it. Bad. Ass. But Scale has disappeared and without a flicker of emotion, Shi Hyun takes in the news… before quietly toppling Scale’s throne (ooh, foreshadowing).
He threatens minion no. 2 into telling him how to find Scale and is annoyed to discover that they’re planning on inducting his replacement that very evening. O RLY? Off Shi Hyun goes to disrupt that plan.
And speaking of disruptions to the plan, Hyung Min abducts minion no. 2 before he can escape to places unknown and threatens to torture the information out of him. With an axe. Um. When the gangsters are less violent than the cops, you know something’s not right.
But no, it’s just a scam to ensure the minion’s co-operation. Hyung Min doesn’t seem to care either way, so long as he gets what he wants: the location of Scale.
Shi Hyun receives word that the minion blabbed to the cops and calls off the operation, though, interestingly, the minion’s words about his replacement sound again in his mind.
That evening the cop team surround the warehouse where Scale’s minion (the one who’ll lead them to Scale) is supposed to be, but the first person to arrive… is Shi Hyun. What? No! Go back, go back! Hyung Min looks surprised to see him; surprised and a little shocked, as though he knows him. Omigod, do they know each other?
When the minion they’ve been waiting for arrives, Hyung Min’s eyes lock on to the target and he tells his team to wait for his order before moving in.
The first wave of cops storm the building, only to find a pile of bodies – Shi Hyun’s taken them all out. Single handed. With nothing more than a jacket and a walkie-talkie (he saves the knife for his ‘replacement’). Like a boss. An evil, murderous drug-dealing boss, but still.
The team race inside, trying desperately to find minion Kim, but to no avail: he’s been taken (alive, it must be said) by Shi Hyun. And it would appear that Hyung Min did not recognise Shi Hyun – that look of wide-eyed surprise must be his usual expression when catching sight of a good-looking guy.
He leans on one of the thugs (and I mean that literally. he’s practically suffocating the guy.) until he chokes out all he knows, which is just what minion Kim called the man: the Doctor’s Son.
He thinks out loud that it seems he and the mystery man have the same objective: Scale. But if he’s willing to take on Scale and has managed to remain off their radar for as long as he has… he isn’t going to simply take Scale down – he’s going to take him over.
Elsewhere, Scale sits with his son, both enjoying the sight of four young women dancing to Girls’ Day’s ‘Expectation’. The ladies leave and amidst an argument over his son’s career prospects, the door is forced open by Hyun Soo, who has a present for Scale: it’s a thoroughly beaten minion Kim… followed by a thoroughly pissed off Shi Hyun.
Wow, what an incredibly strong first episode. The first half, with Hyung Min and the cops, was engaging enough and had the focus remained solely on them it would’ve been a perfectly fine drama – interesting and well written, if occasionally a little sanctimonious. But. The moment they introduced Shi Hyun (aka the Doctor/the Doctor’s Son), the show became utterly riveting.
Something about his cool nonchalance paired with that glimpse of raw fury and bitterness that he so quickly and ruthlessly tamps down… it’s fascinating. And, oddly enough, I find that I’m rooting for him to succeed – not only against Scale, but against the cops, too.
Do I think he’s a good guy? Ha, no. Definitely not. But at this point in time, he’s the lesser of two evils and the more humane, if only by degrees.
One complaint I’d make is that it’s a little too dark sometimes, and I don’t mean figuratively. Rather it’s that the lighting is sometimes so sparse that it can be hard to see what’s happening, which yes, could be a real metaphor about the darkness of our souls and the difficulty we have in seeing what’s right in front us… but I think is just an issue with the lighting director.
But really, if that’s the only (very, very minor) complaint I have as a viewer? It’s a very good sign.