Cruel City (2013): A Masterpiece

This review does not contain spoilers. 

Today, I wanted to go back and review one of my favorite dramas. If I look at, my list on My Drama List, I have Cruel City aka Heartless Cityas my highest rated drama of all time. I wonder, if I were to re-watch this drama, today, would it still be my favorite. My tastes have changed but more importantly, I have watched many great dramas (not exceptional) since then. Unfortunately I cannot test my love for Cruel City because there is no way I could re-watch this drama and go through the emotions all over again.

I watched this back in 2014. At the time, Cruel City was like a breath of fresh air having mostly watching only romance. This was my introduction to crime dramas and I had definitely not watched anything as dark as this. I did not expect to be able to finish this drama because I was told there was a lot of violence. But within the first few episodes, I was sucked in. I could not stop watching this terribly disturbing piece of work. I remember my heart being crushed when Cruel City ended. Partly because of how it ended but partly because I was not sure I would watch anything as good ever again.

I am confident it is still an amazing drama and would still make it to my top 10 but the fact that I cannot re-watch it reduces it’s appeal slightly. I am finding that there are some dramas I can multiple times and enjoy it every single time. Should re-watch value be reflected in my drama ratings? Oh, some pretty bad, comfort shows, would go up in their rankings… I am looking at you I Need Romance 3.

I would describe Cruel City as a wonderfully deep, dark, and twisted noir with slick and stylish directing. The plot is gripping, the acting is remarkable, the cinematography is unbelievable, and the OST is perfect. I cannot say these many positive things for very many K-Dramas.

Cruel City is about Seoul’s underground drug/ crime scene complete with drug lords and undercover cops. One is quickly absorbed trying to figure out who the “good” guys and the “bad” guys. However, do not expect any answers by the end of the show. And I think that’s the point, it’s never that easy.

Lets talk characters. I think most people who watched this show would agree that the best part about this show was the remarkable performance by Jung Kyung Ho as Jung Shi Hyun aka Doctor’s Son aka Paksa Idil. This is what many would consider to be his “breakthrough” role. With this one performance he went to the top of my favorite actors list. This is the Kyung-ho that many viewers, including myself, want to see more of. I think, his recent romantic comedy ventures seem to be a waste of his skills.

Doctor’s Son is often on viewers’ lists as one of the best K-Drama characters of all time. For me, he is THE best K-drama character ever. His character is dark, mysterious, messy, complicated and even gruesome. Oh, but his charisma and crazy knife skills make him a very attractive, magnetic man. Very often, we like characters that are relatable, and realistic. Doctor’s Son is neither. He is just a messed up guy that we cannot empathize with but can feel sympathy for. In fact I could write a whole review on what makes Paksa Idil so appealing.

Thankfully, romance was not a focus of the show because Nam Gyu Ri as Soo Min was the weakest link in terms of both acting and character. Doctor’s Son was good at keeping his work and personal life separate. That allowed for his character to make (mostly) rational decisions without acting like the “noble idiot.” But the best relationship was the friendship between Paksa and Soo (Yoon Hyun Min). Who needs romance when one can have K-Drama’s best bromance. The best friends have some close calls, as to be expected, in a world where one moment of weakness could mean death but their bond survives it all.

The writing was solid and stayed true to its theme. There were no filler episodes and the pacing was just right. I also loved the great action scenes. There were some very awesomely gruesome knife scenes, very well executed by Kyung-ho. This is why I like cable dramas, there is a lot more they can show without having to worry about the ‘family audience.’ But you cannot completely escape the censors. They still blurred the knives and tattoos(!?) for reasons I do not understand.

Then there is the outstanding OST. It was dark, painful music that fit the theme of the show. The entire album was worth listening on repeat with ‘Hurt by Kim Yong Jin being the highlight. I cannot say enough about the impeccable cinematography. They stayed true to the noir genre and did it well. The lighting, the props, and the ambience they created was perfect.

In my opinion, this is not a drama suited for a beginner drama watcher. Most of us get into dramas with shows like Boy’s Over Flowers and You’re Beautiful and continue there for a while and stay or decide to branch out. Part of the appeal of Cruel City is watching something this dark when that’s not what you expect from K-dramaland. Only watch this drama if you are prepared for something heavy and dark. Expect lots of violence and really cruel characters. There aren’t well defined heroes and villains. Be ready to cry because there is no happy ending.

I must say that writing this review made me realize why this is one of my top dramas. The problem with a drama like Cruel City is that it raised my expectations for Korean dramas and I haven’t found very many as good . As I mentioned, I will not re-watch this one because it is emotionally exhausting. It stayed with me for a few months after completing it and, even today, 3 years later, it is gives me the “feels.” This is a 1 in a 100 sort of a drama and I am very glad I went out of my comfort zone and tried it.