WHAT IT'S ABOUT
Fate forces a young woman into undercover police work, leading her to spy on Seoul's up-and-coming drug kingpin--a suit-wearing uber-gangster known only as the Doctor's Son. She discovers a dark, dangerous world where nothing is what it seems.
After a long string of romantic comedies, I decided I was in the mood for something with teeth. I think I've chosen wisely--Cruel City is crisp, cinematic, and brutally effective as its follows cops and gangsters on their bloody travels through Seoul. Like many shows on Korea's cable channels, it pushes far, far beyond what would be acceptable on a mainstream network: it's graphic and unvarnished in its depiction of violence, and also in its exploration of moral ambiguity. Its characters aren't necessarily nice--or even on the right side of the law. I do think, however, that jTBC might have been influenced too heavily by this spring's (revolutionary) flop The End of the World. Cruel City is completely different from other Kdramas, it's also a little bit the same--there are diarrhea jokes and plucky young women and hammy drug lords in showy outfits.
Stylish, thrilling, and filled with a cast of indelible characters, Cruel City is the most compulsively watchable drama I've come across in a long time. It may not be my usual kind of show, but whenever I sat down to watch for a few minutes of it, I would stand up dazed and sweaty-palmed two hours later, trying to figure out how to shirk my real-world responsibilities in favor of another episode.
Writing a spoiler-free review of this series is next to impossible. Its plot is a twisted funhouse of unexpected revelations and reversals of fortune, and each shocking turn acts as foundation for more of the same. While the tension falters a bit in its last few episodes, Cruel City is taut and propulsive, a perfect mix of action, character development, and epic battles between good and evil that are played out in both the gritty city streets and the souls of their inhabitants.
At the heart of this drama is the underworld family Doctor's Son has built for himself. There's his stand-in mother, an impossibly gorgeous and sophisticated drug-running madam who might just have more than maternal feelings toward him; the withholding father he's desperate to prove himself to; and two brothers--one older and leading the way into the criminal life, and one younger and constantly in need of protection. (It was a nice change of pace that the person always requiring a rescue mission in this show wasn't one of its women.)
The relationships between this constellation of characters fill most of the drama's running time, and what's left is devoted to the light doppelganger of the Doctor's Son--a man so principled and exacting that he's abandoned his own imperfect family and doesn't bat an eyelash at the prospect of using the people around him to further his own (admittedly noble) cause.
A few people cross between these groups, but the one who fully belongs in both is the doppelganger's almost-sister-in-law. Even as she spies on the "bad guys" for the "good guys," she's drawn to the Doctor and his family, both terrified of them and longing for the warmth of their connection. She also acts as a love interest for the Doctor, although I wish that plot thread had been more fleshed out. Romantic love isn't something Cruel City forefronts, even if it simmers in the background between any number of its characters.
The Doctor himself--played with chilly nuance by the always wonderful Jung Kyung Ho--is what really made this show for me. He's a Korean Batman with an extra-large helping of angst: he's got carefully cultivated dual identities, a killer quest for revenge, and a most excellent wardrobe. His many fight scenes are fleet-footed and arresting, and his bed scene isn't anything to turn your nose up at either.
Like its dm-witted cousin City Hunter, Cruel City wavered when it came to big-picture issues. When your primary characters make their living giving drugs to the addicted, it seems to me their moral complicity deserves some examination. There are moments of understanding for many of the characters, but I could have used more exploration of the line between a good person doing a bad thing--and vice versa.
Ultimately, though, my gripes with this show are few and inconsequential. It was a pleasure to watch and its acting, writing, and direction were uniformly spectacular. Cruel City was lovingly crafted, and never lost its distinct visual flavor or evocative cinematography. It's also a member of an exclusive club: it's one of the few dramas I think would be improved by a second watching.
* Episode 1. Show, I have no idea where you're going with the wonderful, gorgeous Jung Hyung Ho, but I can already tell I'm going to like it. He's the exact opposite of the flamboyant drug dealer who's always throwing heavy crystal and laying out tarps to keep his floors clean. Instead, Jung's character doesn't waste words or gestures, which makes him seem sleek and efficient and about 90 percent scarier. (And pretty damn sexy, too.)
* Episode 1. Why is it that the good guys are always so boring and the bad guys are always so interesting? So far we have a cop who sits around on playgrounds and talks about how he wants to make a better world for kids (yawn) versus a gang member who not only fights ten guys simultaneously, but does it with graceful panache, remaining icy calm and composed all the while. I bet his blood pressure didn't even rise from the exertion. The true scene to beat so far, though, is the one where he walked into the meeting with the rival drug lord with his hands in his pockets, as nonchalant as if he were walking on an empty sidewalk on a sunny afternoon. All around him there was gang warfare and criminals who wanted to kill him, but he never missed a beat.
* Episode 3. Gang warfare is so quaint in Korean dramas--it's all clean-scrubbed young men with clubs, like something out of an S.E. Hinton novel. Much to my surprise, they're even blurring the knives that all the characters are packing in this show--what's the point? Are we supposed to believe that the lead just got stabbed with a pencil? What difference does it make to see the blade, not just what it does?
* Episode 3. Episodes like this make me glad I haven't committed to doing actual recaps in a timely fashion. I'm not sure how many times I would have to watch this hour before it made sense, but it would definitely take a while. It was still fun to watch, even without a clue what was happening.
* Episode 3. Well, that ending was simultaneously unexpected and to be expected. Let me guess: they met at juvie? [Finale note: Your second guess would have been right.]
* Episode 4. Excuse my French, but Holy shit. I was mentally composing on the topic of why this show is too good to be bogged down by a standard-issue first love story. And then that happened, and made all of my reservations go away. I keep waiting for a "Ha! Fooled you" moment, but it looks as if it's for real.
* Episode 4. Two jaw-dropping reveals in one episode? These writers need to pace themselves--there are 16 episodes left! If they aren't careful, they're going to run out of material and the actors will be stuck reading aloud from the Seoul phonebook by episode 8.
* Episode 4. And now we're headed into female Time between Dog and Wolf territory. Can't argue with that.
* Episode 5. I've heard things fall apart before its finale, but as of now I can't remember the last time I had this much fun watching a Korean drama. It approaches every scene with a devilish glee, like a kid standing up on his bike and yelling "Look Mom, no hands!" There's a phone conversation in this episode that's perfectly meaningless on one level--a young man talking with a family friend. On another level, you know the whole time that you're watching a battle of wits that's going to get one or the other of the participants killed.
* Episode 8. This show continues to remind me of Time between Dog and Wolf, but while that drama was all about the daddy issues of its characters, Cruel City is mommy centric. Both the madam and the cop fill this role for various characters at various times, and their unconditional love is a key to the ongoing story. Plus, they both kick ass--a refreshing change after They Kiss Again.
* Episode 8. Usually scenes that make me swoon with emotion come much, much later than the episode 8 finale. Yet here I am.
* Episode 9. It's a wonder more Kdrama girls aren't prostitutes. Apparently all the job requires is dressing up in pretty clothes and spending lots of time alone in your luxurious room. That's a pretty sweet gig. (Come to think of it, I've been considering a career change.)
* Episode 9. So a character just stabbed an apple...and they blurred the knife blade. Why haven't the knives of all those good little daughters-in-law I've seen slicing fruit been blurred, too? Does Korea have a new movement against cruelty to fruit?
* Episode 5. I saw what you did there, show: Those prisoners are watching Padam Padam, another jtbc drama that happens to be about prisoners. Nice touch!
* Episode 10. Who's good? Who's bad? Who knows? This show and its stunning revels is starting to remind me of early Alias--which is a very, very good thing.
* Episode 10. My god. What do you think this is, show--Taiwan? That was the hottest Kdrama scene in recent memory. And the girl practically took the lead!
* Episode 11. The only time I can tell if someone is using polite speech is when they say no. (The difference between ani and aniyo is pretty obvious, even to me.) So that's why I just noticed that the girl in this show isn't using polite speech when she talks to the burly lunk of a cop, even though he's older than she is, in addition to being her boss and brother-in-law. Has she been doing that all along, to emphasize that she was a badly behaved punk? Dramabeans, how could you not have recapped this show? I'll never know now...
* Episode 13. I usually only like dramas that have a strong romance component. Hordes of flower boys in natty, well-tailored suits make up for a lot of failings, though.
* Episode 16. Jung Kyung Ho is great in the role of Doctor's Son. He's the epitome of cool, never breaking stride however horrible things around him may be. And the drama's best supporting cast member isn't a human being--it's his tie. The only sign he ever gives that his character is a person with fears and emotions is when he fusses with his collar, and when he undoes his tie you know all hell is about to break loose. Without it, he's literally off the leash, reverting to brute force instead of logic.It's telling that in the big bed scene, he wasn't the one who removed his tie. Undressing someone may always be incredibly intimate, but when a piece of clothing is so integral to a character's soul, it's even more powerful.
* Episode 19. It's nice to see a Kdrama lead who has skin like a normal person for a change--so many of them look like they must sleep in brine mixture intended to leach away all of their color, leaving them pasty and marble-white. (Yes, Kim Jae Won, I am talking about you.)