Heartless City is one of my favorite dramas so I decided to recap it! It’s sleek, sexy and has some amazing characters. Sure, some of the procedural stuff is a bit shady, but what makes this drama gold is the people, actors and characters alike.
“Hurt” – Kim Yong-jin (from the Heartless City OST)
episode 1 recap
Heartless City opens with a beautiful panorama of Seoul’s night time view and some quietly pulsing, introspective music.
Dark mood for opening of noir crime drama? Check.
We meet chief of police Min Hong-gi (Son Chang-min) who curiously rips up an award for excellence in police work. He takes a call from an undercover cop who conveys important intel: a man named Joeul (which means “Scale” in English) is going to deal with Chinese. While the undercover cop babbles that he is terrified to be exposed and refuses to continue working undercover, Chief Min calmly listens to him.
Three detectives mobilize on a false lead and are surprised by a body falling from the sky and smashing in the roof of a car.
Wait…what?! Holy crap that scared the daylights out of me. *breathes* Why hello Heartless City. Nice to meet you, too.
The man who smashed the car, or rather, his dead body, is the nervous undercover cop from before. The camera pans up to the top of a building he fell from where a man reports, “It’s been taken care of.” Is that my Jung Kyung-ho? Wow, I think he just pushed that guy off a building! He is dimly lit, sharply dressed, and sports a slicked back ‘do that screams, “I am your anti-hero. Just wait for my post-military service shower scene. I will make you happy.”
Okay crime drama, you are sufficiently sexy.
There is a funeral for the undercover cop and the camera shows us moments of characters who will surely become important soon. A tall, beefy, ridiculously handsome man shows up (Lee Jae-yoon playing Ji Hyung-min) to speak with Chief Min about Joeul. They are forming a special unit to catch Joeul, supposedly the very bad man behind the death of the undercover cop. Chief Min wants Hyung-min to lead it. He has free reign over this unit because Chief Min will back him.
Chief Min hands Hyung-min a folder of intelligence and explains that what makes Joeul’s crime group different is that his drug ring is not a huge enterprise, but rather a network of small groups. It’s Hyung-min’s job to piece these groups together.
Afterwards, Hyung-min meets with the female cop who was on the body drop scene, Lee Kyung-mi (Go Na-eun) at a fancy restaurant. He avoids questions about why he was chatting with Chief Min and Kyung-mi changes the subject to why they’re at such a fancy place when they could be eating potato stew.
Okay, two seconds into your relationship and I can see it’s a romantic one. On top of that, fancy restaurants only mean one thing in dramas, Miss Kyung-mi.
She quickly changes her tune when delicious food comes out and Hyung-min confesses he’s going to return to the police force. The news isn’t well received. Apparently he was about to take the bar exam and she prefers lawyers to cops. She thinks he’s coming back to protect her. The argument is interrupted by a call from Detective Kim Do-hoon (Lee Moo-saeng), also present at the body drop and the funeral, who mentions something alarming about a “Soo-min.” Because I have access to the internet, I know Soo-min is played by Nam Gyu-ri and she’ll become important later. Right now, she’s in deep dog poo as Kyung-mi cuts the date off early and leaves Hyung-min to collect the ring off the cake he prepared.
Yeah, bad timing, brother. Somehow I don’t think your luck is going to improve.
A casually-dressed Soo-min peeks her head into the changing room of a hostess bar and greets a hostess named Joo-young (Shim Min). Kyung-mi storms into the changing room and rails on Soo-min while trying to drag her away. Soo-min stammers to explain that Joo-min leant her the cell phone, but Kyung-mi hears nothing and thinks Soo-min is just throwing her life away again. When she sees Hyung-min, Soo-min rips off her jacket with no small amount of hurt and asks Kyung-mi to leave so she can change. Falsely accused, methinks.
Chief Min introduces Hyung-min to his team and Hyung-min immediately gets to work. Goal: catch Joeul who is the the very rich head of a drug ring with a long list of dirty deeds on his record. Below him are Meth Kim and Halibut, his front men and the leaders apparent of the drug ring.
This brings us to Joeul (Kim Byung-ok) playing golf inside his mansion while a sexy lady holds his phone to his ear. Another sexy lady ushers in a president of some sort of company and then both sexy ladies lay some plastic on the floor. Eeek! That makes me nervous. The president and his son step on the plastic as Joeul swings his golf club around menacingly. Seems the president has failed to pull the correct political strings so the drugs can flow fluidly through the system and make them all rich. After a quick game of eeney-meeney to choose his victim, Joeul decides to play golf with the president’s head as the son watches, and subsequently throws up. He is warned to do better than his father.
Guh, cable. Creepy, though. I get it. Don’t mess with Joeul.
Hyung-min ponders how to deal with Donghae Construction, the front for Joeul’s drug dealings. The first roadblock in the investigation is figuring out how to get around the prosecutor’s office because they are currently investigating the chairman, Park Choong-mo.
A car with his team waits for a man nicknamed “Birdie” to appear. We’re not sure how it connects with Donghae, but Hyung-min has a plan. I’ll go with that.
Do-hoon brings back snacks for the waiting team: Detective Shin (Choi Kwon), Squad Chief Yang (Park Soo-young), and Kyung-mi to whom he plays particular attention. Birdie shows up and makes a deal on the fly with a junkie father who sells his young daughter for drugs.
Scum! I’m feeling violent. I wonder if I can jump through the screen and castrate that man?
Turns out I don’t need to because Kyung-mi impulsively chases after Birdie and boards an elevator with him and the little girl. She waits for an oppotunity and when it comes, she pins him to the elevator wall with a gun to the temple. Badass.
Hyung-min chases after her as the little girl in the elevator begins to cry and Bridie puts up a good fight. He whips out a knife, cuts Kyung-mi, and and beats the crap out of her. But she’s one tough cookie and takes the jerk out with a kick to the face. As she comforts the kid I’m thinking, “Man, you’re an idiot, Kyung-mi. But that was COOL!”
In the hospital Hyung-min pulls the alpha male card and asks her to quit the force because he hates seeing her get hurt. Feeling snappy, she asks why he came back and says he’s too testy to work under a prosecutor.
Detectives Yang, Shin and Kim question a bloodied up Birdie when a Prosecutor Ahn sends a cronie to collect Birdie for questioning. Hyung-min promises to meet the jerk again as he is escorted out. Ah, the powers that be are fighting, are they?
Hyung-min broods on the roof like a good dark hero and Kyung-mi back hugs him and suggests alcohol. Turning, he envelops her in a hug and asks why she became a cop. The answer? “So that I can make people smile. If I laugh, the world will laugh, too.” Then she calls him “oppa” and the romantic moment is interrupted by some ear walkie news – Prosecutor Ahn (Kim Jung-hak) is partying it up with some hostesses and Birdie, who unknowingly had been bugged.
The detectives crash the party and Hyung-min greets Prosecutor Ahn, who he seems to have an antagonistic relationship with, and asks about Donghae Construction and President Park Choong-mo and Joeul. Prosector Ahn tells Hyung-min not to hide behind daddy, the head of the prosecutor’s office (!!), but Hyung-min isn’t phased. He takes Birdie back.
At a playground, Prosecutor Ahn hands over a file on President Park and Joeul and Hyung-min uses the opportunity to threaten Ahn that he will rid the world of trash like him so children can play freely. Ahn’s argument: the children decide their own future.
Later, Hyung-min cuddles with Kyung-mi on the roof and watches the beautiful view of bustling Seoul. He rattles off startling (or, not-so-startling) statistics of drug sales and use and promises to find all the drug pushers to make the world clean.
Cut to a slick montage of the drug world and how it functions. Drugs are produced and passed from garbage bag to club where they are sold and taken. A girl overdoses in a club while no one notices and the pushers continue their unsavory work, withdrawing money and continuing the nasty cycle. Delivery boys and restaurant ahjummas do their part in passing keys to a man, Gi Chul (Jung Moon-sun), who pockets them.
Then we see Jung Kyung-ho for the first time in twenty minutes (YES!!!!) walking briskly into a warehouse-like building. His character’s street name is Paksa Adeul (Doctor’s Son) and Paksa answers a phone that he pulls out of a drawer of low-tech cell phones. It is Gi Chul, Paksa’s second. Gi Chul wants to know what to do with the money that came in and Paksa decides to sit on it. It’s a dangerous prospect that won’t please Joeul, which is reinforced when Joeul has Paksa called to his heavily-secured mansion of evil.
The first thing Paksa does is dodge the lowball glass that Joeul chucks at his head. He is scolded for dodging and takes another lowball to the head. Rather bravely, Paksa defends holding Joeul’s money hostage because he needs a larger cut to run his end of the operation. Joeul takes the opportunity to laugh at the suggestion and to insult Paksa for being a fatherless orphan and brothel trash. Paksa stands there, jaw tense, as Joeul slaps him. He is saved from a golf club to the head by Joeul’s adorable son who wants to go to a girl group concert. Joeul may play golf with heads, but he does seem to genuinely care for his kid.
Paksa runs to the convenience store to buy supplies to treat his lowball head wound and, wait a second, I recognize that cashier! It’s Soo-min. The two take little notice of each other. He lays down a large bill and leaves her staring after him. Then he heads to the amusement park to wait for someone while he mulls over Joeul’s threat – deposit the money now, or die.
Meth Kim (Kim Min-sung) reports that the money still hasn’t been transferred and Joeul orders him offed and replaced. We get a short scene between Meth Kim and Halibut who describe their drug system: a network of small groups meant to hide their activity from the legal side of things. But they are now stymied on how to find Paksa because of it. They wonder if someone named Soo knows his whereabouts.
Cut to: Soo and a woman about to get it on. Rawr. Abs.
His second interrupts sexy times and Soo (Yoo Hyun-min) reluctantly halts his, um, activities to greet Halibut. He is asked to help find Paksa or else he is dead, too. Soo asks for time and puts Halibut up in a room in his hotel to dig around.
Then Soo meets Paksa on the roof (a favorite spot of this show already) to ask what Paksa is planning. Oh, is this a bromantic bestie? Anyway, Paksa says that to survive in this world you need to kill or be killed. Soo worries about going against someone as powerful as Joeul, but Paksa points out that it took eight years to rise where he’s risen to and is tired of always giving. Soo, who already seems rather easy-going, decides to go along with Paksa, takes a couple of playful punches at the air and calls an underling to “hit it now.” Moments later, his second and a bunch of henchmen take on Halibut and his men.
Paksa plans swallow the streets whole with Soo at his side. You are an ambitious man, Paksa Adeul. And a scary one.
Gi Chul mobilizes a bunch of Paksa’s men and Paksa storms Joeul’s residence with Soo at his side. He walks like a total badass down the boardwalk as his men take out Joeul’s cronies. Soo even throws a few punches for fun along the way. But when they get inside, Joeul is already gone. On the way out, Paksa knocks over Joeul’s ornate chair. Nice symbolism there, show.
Paksa Adeul gets to questioning Halibut about Joeul. He deposited all of the money he collected into Halibut’s account and will return him to Joeul without a scratch. Halibut understands he’s being framed and asks what the next step is: revealing Joeul’s location. Halibut says Meth Kim probably knows where it is and is forced to call Meth Kim who still believes Halibut is only with Soo. Meth Kim will be at a furniture factory electing Paksa’s replacement.
Kyung-mi is undercover as a janitor at a hostess bar where she and the detectives are tracking Halibut. They wait for him to pull some hard assets from a safe and then he is waylaid and abducted by Hyung-min. He works Halibut over, which earns our sexy cop the location of Meth Kim.
Oooh, are we going to get the first meeting of cop and druglord soon???
Hyung-min’s team bursts into the warehouse where he is keeping Halibut and they put on a show of arresting Hyung-min. Kyung-mi handles the handcuffs, roughly letting out her anger on him for urging her to quit the force.
Young Detective Shin asks why they had to put on such a scene so that we could get some exposition: Halibut would never give up information if he thought the cops were onto him.
The news of Halibut’s exposure to the cops quickly reaches Soo. He meets Paksa and his army at the Han River to hash out a new plan. Soo worries about Paksa going to the furniture factory where the special police unit will most definitely be. He wants to cancel it, but Paksa has this determined look on his face that makes me think he’s still going.
Hyung-min’s unit stakes out the furniture factory and Paksa Adeul strides in just beyond Hyung-min’s sight, then moves on.
Meth Kim arrives with a legion of guards and Hyung-min confirms his identity. As Meth Kim and his men walk down a hallway, they are assaulted by Paksa Adeul. We are then treated to the most badass display of Jung Kyung-ho’s badassery (the word needs to be used multiple times) that involves wrapping a walkie in a jacket ripped off a cronie and then systematically taking out over ten men in a fluid, beautiful, well-choreographed fight. To make it even better, the background music is as broody and fantastic as Paksa Adeul is: Kim Yong-jin’s “Hurt”.
Near the end of the hallway beating, Paksa spots Meth Kim, his target, and pulls out a knife. He finishes off the rest of the men and approaches Meth Kim.
A gunshot spurs Hyung-min’s team into action and all they find is the hallway littered with bodies and injured men. Hyung-min chases Meth Kim’s trail and is hit by a car. WHAT?! And then…he continues to run a few more feet.
The numbers going in and out of the factory are off by one and they assume that Meth Kim escaped. Hyung-min searches the survivors of the hallway attack and violently demands a conscious gangster who took Meth Kim. He stammers that “Paksa Adeul” took him as Paksa drives Meth Kim into the city.
And with Paksa Adeul’s name in his hands, Hyung-min can now give chase. Bring it on!
Kyung-mi wonders how one person took out all those people. Hyung-min says that it is possible, but to do it in only twenty minutes is the truly surprising part. He guesses that Paksa Adeul’s target is the same as the police’s and that the man is staging a coup.
We are treated to Joeul holding a private girl group performance full of waggling hips and tight black clothing for his nine or ten-year-old son. Now that’s fine parenting right there…
Joeul asks his son to study now that he’s seen the girl group, but the kid wants to be a singer. In the middle of scolding his son for having low priorities, Paksa storms into the room with Meth Kim in tow.
I’ve seen this show already, but I’m coming at it with 20/20 hindsight vision that really clarifies Heartless City’s strengths and weaknesses.
Heartless City’s first episode moves fast and did a decent job of introducing all the necessary elements while setting the requisite dark tone of a noir crime drama. There were a few too many characters to keep track of, but in such a complicated world of cops, prosecutors bad guys and, well, everyone else, an extensive cast is to be expected. The drama’s job is to sort them out as time goes on.
There is nothing really new about Heartless City. It has the cop gunning for justice and an anti-hero who is top notch in fighting and brilliant to boot. Despite that, the show is sexy, violent, and everything I want out of this genre. What’s more, the characters are immediately intriguing and I’m already invested in Hyung-min and Kyung-mi’s doomed relationship. They have chemistry and they’ve got issues to work out that I would like to see them have time to work through. I’m also invested in Paksa Adeul’s and Soo’s relationship. These two have chosen to take on a very dangerous task and their relationship needs to be strong in order to do it effectively. The rooftop chats already show some hints of future bromance, which I am all over. I’m also anticipating the meeting of Paksa Adeul and Hyung-min that was hinted at in the “almost” meetings.
As for the tone, it was spot on. It focused on nighttime cityscapes a lot and had characters watching the city from rooftops. That could get old quickly, but for now, it was effective in getting the point across: bad things happen in that beautiful nighttime glow of lights and moving cars. Small details like Paksa’s drawer full of cheap cell phones and the clarity of the camera work all add to the overall tone of Heartless City that creates a riveting world. Withholding information on Paksa Adeul made him even more mysterious as we got to watch him prance about the city, stage a coup and beat the crap out of a gaggle of men in twenty minutes. We saw what he did, but we don’t know much about him – that makes me eager to learn more.
Let’s not forget the shocking violence and the refreshingly open approach to sex. There was just enough violence to make the world that Paksa, Soo and Joeul live in believable. And I loved how Soo was frustrated by his second interrupting his mojo for a phone call. It’s just realistic that a man in full swing would be pissed at the interruption.
Lastly, the music is kickass! It relies a lot on mimicking heartbeats, sustained long notes and swelling in dynamics. Basically, it plays on tensions in a similar way the lighting and filming style does. It sneaks in and hooks you before you realize that you’re hooked. If Heartless City continues this way, it’ll become highly addicting.