22 June, 2013

Cruel City: A Study in Unhappy Families

The opening line to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina sums up some thoughts I have about the fantastic drama,  Cruel City. "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

As each episode has unravelled and exposed the messy, complex, dysfunctional, and intertwined relationships of each of the characters, I can't help but wonder how or even if some of the mess will get cleaned up. I am not expecting a particularly happy resolution, but I am really glad that we have such a nice, complex layering of characters which makes this drama so compelling.

At the heart of the conflict is the relationship between Jung Jyun Ho's Jung Shi Hyun/Doc's son, Choi Moo Sung's Safari, and Kim Yoo Mi's Lee Jin Sook. It's an almost perfect portrayal of a dysfunctional family. I think that their relationship is going to be a make-or-break-it storyline for each of the characters' decisions in how they interact with being bad or good, though the drama is certainly playing around with the idea of what exactly is right and what is wrong anyway.
I think that for me, one of the most moving parts of the drama so far was when Doc's son knows that he's playing with his life when he goes to Safari to try and rescue Soo. As Doc's son lies on the floor writhing in pain, and Safari leans in and has that incredibly telling conversation where they are both in incredible emotional pain.
Choi Moo Sung was just wonderful in that scene, exposing just enough emotional vulnerability so that you can sympathize. Their relationship is just so interesting. It's a father-son relationship, mentor-disciple relationship, a romantic-rival relationship - sort of, and then they're also enemies with Safari and Busan wanting Doc's son dead.
I think it was just beautiful and telling how Safari switched to the intimate Shi Hyun-nah with Shi Hyun then reciprocating with Safari's name as well. The whole name situation with them is an interesting one seeing as Safari gave Shi Hyun the name - Don's son. It is so painful to watch their love-hate-pathos interaction.

The other father-son/mentor-disciple relationships are also fascinating. We have Min Hong Ki who is using both Doc's son and Ji Hyung Min to take out Busan - well, I think that's what he's trying to do. I am still not really sure about his motivations (there is that whole certificate tearing up thing. I am still confused as to why he is having Hyung Min so completely focused on taking out Doc's son; it just seems to be working at cross purposes. I also don't sense that he cares as much for Hyung Min as he does for Shi Hyun. He genuinely seems to love Shi Hyun, and he seems to also be some sort of father figure to him. And that also somehow plays into a relationship with Jin Sook. I am really interested to see how that all plays out. We've had both Safari and Hong Ki spend time in flashbacks with Shi Hyun as a child, both with Jin Sook in the picture. I am sure that is going to add another whole layer of complexity as well. (I figure this is also a good place to mention Shi Hyun's father-son relationship where he views the world as the father he needs to get revenge on. That scene with Kyung Mi where he talks about that thought was touching and moving.)

Speaking of Jin Sook. Her relationship with Shi Hyun is fascinating to say the least. We of course know that she is in love with Shi Hyun, and he seems to know. She references to him as her lover/boyfriend, and seems to genuinely want to protect him at all costs. She played an incredibly formative role as a mother figure in his childhood - enough that he wanted to run away from the orphanage, and she has looked out for him. I am still somewhat confused as to how he trained to become a policeman (and qualified if the badge in his secret box mean anything), and then went back to the drug-running underworld all without her knowing. I wonderf if there was a time jump somehow where he was gone from her life, and then returned as an adult. Anyway, he does care for her, I just don't think in the way that she wants him to. He is actually kind of tender-hearted for being so bada** - which we see in how he treats her and his love for Soo. His sense of loyalty runs deep for people, no matter which side they're on. I am also not necessarily looking forward to the fallout when Doc's son and Nam Gyu Ri's Soo Min start falling for each other. It will force Shi Hyun to more clearly define his relationship to Jin Sook - and we all know that Jin Sook is not going to like where that line is drawn. It also makes me wonder if there really is any non-squicky way of changing from a mother to a lover role, at least in their situation.

It will also be interesting to see what happens when the Shi Hyun-Soo Min loveline unfolds, how that will effect everything around them. They're essentially on the same side, they just have no idea. They're also incredibly similar (and obviously they've been written that way). They are both orphans, they both have strong emotional ties to Go Na Eun's Lee Kyung Mi, they're both undercover cops working in the same business, they're both emotionally fragile but resilient (I just love her sweetness when he comes into the convenience store and she wants to help with bandages etc. - and the car-handephone scene - so sweet!), I could go on. I also think it's also interesting that Soo Min is caught between between two men who have both loved Kyung Mi.

Both Shi Hyun and Soo Min need some support in the shadow world they live in. The scene where Shi Hyun on the phone with Hong Ki and essentially breaks down was beautiful. Jung Kyung Ho played the scene so well - it was heartbreaking. [side note: I LOVE what they're doing with all the blue and shadowed tones/filters in this drama - it's gorgeous!]. It also somewhat mirrored the scene where Soo Min has just slashed the cell-mate's throat, and cries in the corner with hands covered in blood. They both have to make choices of what is personally, morally acceptable to them so that they can function in their roles to get the results they want. It is painful, but beautiful to watch.

 The drama is definitely calling into question morality and right and wrong and who is really bad or good. At the heart of a lot of the relationship conflicts we can see people who have redeemable qualities - even Scale loves his son - but who do horrendous things. And the police are no exception.

 Hyung Min is rather brutal in many of his interactions, whether it's interrogating people by shooting them in the thigh, setting them up to be sniped, saying harsh things to Soo Min (ack, that scene made me want to hit him), and just his general surliness. I know that he's mourning Kyung Mi's loss, and the loss of a happy family life, which motivates him to catch Doc's son, but sometimes I want him to take a step back.
He's ruthless - and this might push him to darker places than perhaps someone in his position should go. It is almost as if Kyung Mi's death has robbed him of some of his tenderness, some of his humanity. He reminds me of a darker version of the Prosecutor in City Hunter, someone who is fighting against injustice, corruption within his own family, and in this case he is also trying to avenge the death of Kyung Mi.
He also has no qualms about sending Soo Min to do things that he would never have allowed Kyung Mi to do. (Which Nam Gyu Ri is portraying fabulously). It makes me like him a whole lot less as a character, then again, it most definitely drives Soo Min to more implicitly trust Shi Hyun and Jin Sook.
The idea just occurred to me about how differently Shi Hyun and Hyung Min would have reacted in the situation where Kyung Mi gets shot. Shi Hyun, it seemed was not going to hurt Kyung Mi, but what would Hyung Min have done if he found out Kyung Mi was the "bad guy"? Would he have shot her? I don't know. I just wonder. We see Shi Hyun constantly make choices to save people he cares about, in situations where he could be hurt. We have not yet really seen that from Hyung Min.

The whole motivation of all the characters is so messy, I am not sure I can even try and unravel it. Shi Hyun seems to want revenge on something or someone. Whether that is still the world, or someone more specific in Busan, or also in part to avenge Kyung Mi's death, or to stop corruption, I just don't know. Soo Min is probably going to mess up that seemingly suicidal path he's set on. Soo Min wants to avenge Kyung Mi's death, but her long-term motivations seem unclear to me as well. She is another orphan out against the world. She hasn't really ever received any favours from the world - attempted rape and subsequent victim blaming incident as proof - and she is just as alone as Shi Hyun. It is interesting to me how Kyung Mi, Shi Hyun, and Soo Min decided to enter the police force as a way of righting the injustice they had received. I also think it's really interesting how it is Jin Sook who sorts out the rapist, and not the police. Just who exactly is able to mete out justice is rather interesting in how justice, and hopefully mercy plays out in the remainder of the drama.

P.S. With all that seriousness, I forgot to mention just how thoroughly I am enjoying this drama; how invested I am in it. I think that Jung Kyung Ho is fabulous, and yes, he is incredibly handsome, elegant, and sexy too, but wow, his performance is just fantastic. I just feel so much for his portrayal of Shi Hyun. My love for him has motivated bustered and I to start watching Time Between Dog and Wolf, another drama that is quite excellent - and also happens to involve similar material as Cruel City. What can I say, I'm a glutton for punishment. (And Lee Jae Yoon is yummy too).

P.P.S. This drama is incredibly beautifully shot, and uses light and shadow incredibly well - chiaroscuro might actually be the best way to describe this drama - the interplay between light and dark. My only beef - the silly knife blurring. It also has an amazing OST, especially Kim Yong Jin's Pain (상처).

P.P.S. I really love Safari's character. Who am I kidding, I really love all the characters even if I want to hit them sometimes.

◀ Trial and Error with K-drama Watching                    Cruel City: Through a Glass, Darkly ▶ 


  1. Yay I'm so happy I found this review! It's for sure one of the most interesting reviews for Cruel City that I've read yet. I really like how you focused a lot on the family dynamics in the drama. I too think that Safari/Shi Hyun/Jin Sook's relationship is the most compelling so far.

    I don't think it is obvious that Jin Sook likes Shi Hyun romantically because at this point, I'm still trying to figure out what her relationship with him is. I think she considers herself to be the noona but she is also verrrry close to being something more than that. Honestly I wish Jin Sook and Shi Hyun could be together, even though I know they aren't the OTP. They have such amazing chemistry!! Anyways omg, I didn't think about how Soo Min getting together with Shi Hyun might separate Shi Hyun & Jin Sook. NUUUUUUUU!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Oh, and I'm happy you like Safari because I like him too!

  2. Thank you so much! I am glad you like it ^^

    From what I am learning about the genre that Cruel City is, the more I am learning about how complex these relationships will stay. I love how in noir there is this melancholy loveliness to the hurt and pain.

    I think that Jin Sook and Shi Hyun have a very complicated relationship with plenty of sexual tension. I don't think they have said, or might never explicitly state what their relationship is, and that just adds to the complexity. Whatever happens, Jung Kyung Ho is giving the performance of a lifetime. This drama does so well to play with the subtly and nuance that good drama, and good noir demands. (If you're looking for more good reviews, you should check out The Vault).

    Choi Moo Sung's Safari is so fabulous and excellent!

  3. I agree, I am a new fan of Jung Kyung Ho, OMGGG. But I also feel we must appreciate the awesome supporting cast too. Characters like Safari just make the drama even better. *W*

  4. The drama would not work so well without the excellent supporting cast (and the writing and direction too)...oh, and the music and cinematography...man, I just LOVE this drama so much!

  5. From what I have learned of the Hong Kong noir genre (and I am no expert by any means), we are going to live with lots of darkness and uncertainty. I don't think it's wrong to wish Soo Min and Shi Hyun some happiness, but there is no guarantee we're going to get it completely. I am sure there will be a lot more interaction between the two because things are going to get a lot more complicated between them I think before she finds out he's Baksa....

  6. I hope they have more interactions. I understand Shi Hyun's attraction to Soo Min, she's not intimidated by him, she seems carefree and unaffected by the drug world, and I sort of understand Soo Min, but I would like for their relationship to be deeper. We can get to the point where he doesn't leave money on the table! I believe! Then when she finds out the truth it will just add to how hard her decisions will be following, and I will believe in her being torn more.

    Oh I like that "seeing through a glass, darkly!" I agree there is not way to truly know all of Doc's motivations. I don't know if he fully understands them. That's why this show is so great. It refuses to give us characters that can see the world clearly when in reality no one really can. We are all clouded by our feelings and motivations!

  7. I think you're right that he's not even sure about his motivations sometimes. I have a theory about the money (and bustered agrees) which actually might be a really good thing...it's going in the post we're working on ^^

  8. I love that this is a deeper, more fleshed out piece including a lot of stuff that we've discussed over the last few weeks. It's nice to have it all in one place. ^^

    I definitely think you hit it right on the nose: this emotional core of the drama is definitely the conflicted, messy relationships. And I have to be honest, I'm all for squicky when it comes to Jin-sook and Shi-hyun--not that I think they'll go that far, and it wouldn't really fit his character anyways. I am a really big fan of Jin-sook. However, I am super excited to see how their relationship fractures as the relationship between Shi-hyun and Soo-min intensifies--even if it never reaches anything like OTP status.

    Also, I really don't like Hyung-min. He's a gorgeous man, and I love that he likes his white T-shirts, but that awful scene at the beginning of episode 8 with Soo-min really destroyed what fledgling feelings I had for him. That was just cold and awful. Sure, if he had said yes to her, that really would have been screwy but it also felt wrong that he said no, and especially the way the communicated it to her. Man, I could go on and on about this drama.

    I love Jung Kyung-ho. And his beautiful, graceful hands.

    This is such a great drama.

  9. Glad you liked it chingu! ^^

    I love how you pointed out Hyung Min's love of white T-shirts. Yeah, I think it says a lot for the drama that we don't necessarily want to root for the "good" guy Hyung Min, but for the conflicted man, Shi Hyun.

    I could probably write all day about the drama too. Good thing we also have more Jung Kyung Ho and his beautiful, graceful hands to watch in TBDAW...

  10. so glad to find kindred souls who love Heartless City! i am loving this drama tons, it's been pretty amazing so far (logic loopholes, knife-blurring are minor quibbles), and Jung Kyung-ho is giving the performance of his life. he has incredible screen presence in this drama, and it's riveting to watch his every move, every emotion.

    i don't quite like Jin-sook as much after what she did to Soo, i think my OTP for now is still Shi-hyun and Soo, though i find the relationships in this drama to be really fascinating. i am still pretty okay with Hyung-min ... at least until he hurts Shi-hyun. as for Soo-min, she's becoming rather irrelevant, especially in the light of episode 8, where the triad dynamics really came to the fore.

    music and cinematography have been awesome, as you pointed out. and thanks for the many gorgeous shots of Jung Kyung-ho, he's been simply fantastic so far.

  11. I am so glad that you love this drama as much as we do! It really is the best think airing right now, and I anxiously wait for the new episodes each week.

    I think that Soo Min's part has been very understated so far, but I think she will become a lot more important from this point on. Even Shi Hyun's character didn't really come to the forefront until later in the opening episodes. And yes, Jin Sook is an interesting character - I feel a lot of pity for her, but she has the potential to be rather horrible. I am really interested to see how Safari plays into the whole dynamic. We are in for an interesting ride to say the least.

    I am happy to provide pictures of the wonderful and talented Jung Kyung Ho - he really is giving the performance of a lifetime as you say - and it really doesn't hurt that he's gorgeous to look at as well ;)

  12. The quote at the beginning is apt! I actually love that the mob family seems to be the most cohesive unit in that we really see Doc caring for Soo and Jin Sook and they care for him in return just not each other. They just take family fights to a new level since they have a band of men to beat people up. I definitely love this show because of the complicated relationships (and how that complicates the characters motivations). Doc and Safari's showdown left me speechless and it was also the highlight for me in the most recent episode. Oh what a tangled web we weave!

    Doc and Jin Sook's relationship reminds me of the relationship in Me Too, Flower! Where while they are not actual lovers, they take that place in each other's lives. It's an undefinable place where they are both dependent on each other and only works because nothing tips the balance. Well, I think Doc's new concern for Soo Min will tip the balance since he went out of his way to rescue her. I doubt Safari will leave that out if he can speak to JIn Sook.

    It just boggles my mind that we are halfway through the series and I have no idea what the lead character's motives really are. Why did he do his coup?

    Also, am I allowed to request more cute scenes between him and Soo Min? Or does that show too much my bias towards romcoms...