무정도시 (Cruel City)

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무정도시 (Cruel City)

jTBC – 20 Episodes
A DRM Media Production
Timeslot: Monday and Tuesday Evening, 09:50 PM
Genre: Noir
Format: 1080i Dolby Digital 2.0 – 65 Minutes
Runs from: 2013/May/27~Jul/30

WITH 정경호 (Jung Kyung-Ho) as Jung Si-Hyeon; 남규리 (Nam Gyu-Ri) as Yoon Soo-Min; 이재윤 (Lee Jae-Yoon) as Ji Hyeong-Min; 손창민 (Son Chang-Min) as Min Hong-Gi; 김유미 (Kim Yoo-Mi) as Lee Jin-Sook; 최무성 (Choi Mu-Seong) as Moon Deok-Bae; 윤현민 (Yoon Hyun-Min) as Kim Hyeon-Soo; 고나은 (Go Na-Eun) as Lee Gyeong-Mi; 정수영 (Jung Soo-Young) as Oh Jung-Yeon; 김종구 (Kim Jong-Gu) as Chairman Jo; 김민상 (Kim Min-Sang) as Kim Chun-Seop; 김병욱 (Kim Byung-Wook) as Jeoul; 김효선 (Kim Hyo-Seon) as Kim Eun-Soo; 송민지 (Song Min-Ji) as Cha Hyo-Joo; 김정학 (Kim Jung-Hak) as Prosecutor Ahn; 길용우 (Gil Yong-Woo) as Police Chief; 이무생 (Lee Mu-Saeng) as Kim Do-Hoon; 이아이 (Lee Ah-Yi) as Seo Yoon-Gyeong; 

CREW Production Director 이정효 (Lee Jung-Hyo) Main Writer 유성열 (Yoo Seong-Yeol) Executive Producer 김운호 (Kim Woon-Ho) Chief Producer 조준형 (Jo Joon-Hyeong) 고정호 (Go Jung-Ho) Producer 강철우 (Kang Cheol-Woo) 김의석 (Kim Eui-Seok) Director of Photography 최윤만 (Choi Yoon-Man) Lighting 손영규 (Son Young-Gyu) Editor 이현미 (Lee Hyeon-Mi) 이영림 (Lee Young-Rim) Art Director 김효신 (Kim Hyo-Shin) Music 남혜승 (Nam Hye-Seung) Action Choreography 오세영 (Oh Se-Young) 김상용 (Kim Sang-Yong) Assistant Writer 임영빈 (Im Young-Bin) Assistant Producer 김나영 (Kim Na-Young) 김성원 (Kim Sung-Won)

RATINGS
AGB Nielsen Nationwide
HIGHEST: 0.97% (07/01 - E11)
LOWEST: 0.55% (06/03 - E03)
AVERAGE: 0.76%

OFFICIAL WEBSITE

Photo ⓒ DRM Media, jTBC

SYNOPSIS

The noir/crime drama revolves around the love and struggles of undercover agents and members of an infamous drug ring.

When her best friend Lee Kyung-mi suffers a brutal fate while undercover in the criminal underworld, Yoon Soo-min is driven to pick up where Kyung-mi left off. But in the shadows, there are no rules and no reason: Soo-min falls for the organization's drug kingpin "The Doctor's Son," who also happens to be the prime suspect in her friend's murder. [Wikipedia]

EPISODES 01~04 [68/100]

It is only in darkness, from afar, that true light can shine.

Light that kindles the mundane city nightlife just as it gives vigor to the most sinister of shadows, without which they would blend in with the pitch black brume of hopeless ennui and existential nihilism that defines us. Light that ever so briefly sheds some warmth upon the unremittingly cold cage we are constantly trapped in, painting sparks of vitality on the dirty carnival of bitterness that is the canvas of life. Film noir has always been about filling that dark canvas with strangely magnetic, melancholic light; a feeble but omnipresent companion that never gives us a clear explanation as to where we’re headed and what awaits for us there, but which makes the journey bearable. Seeking that light, even from afar, is a constant reminder that one day our journey will finally end. That the miserable, glorious struggle we call life must go on, if anything to reach that elusive light.

What endlessly fascinates about this genre is how something can be defined almost exclusively by its tone – that hopeless, existential bitterness and moral ambiguity permeating every character and location they inhabit. Until Nino Frank defined it with a name in the 1940s, noir was a pervading trope of what critics often pigeonholed as nothing more than eclectic melodramas – a cultural offspring of the Great Depression which began with the seminal work of the Gordon Youngs and Dashiell Hammetts of the world.

If the vibrant Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s could use the Great Depression as the perfect canvas for its film noir escapades, Korea certainly didn’t lack historical fodder for its nihilistic strolls down the dimly-lit boulevard of life – because if you consider noir an all-encompassing tonal “fluid” permeating storytelling from start to finish, then even Yoo Hyun-Mok’s 1960 neo-realist masterpiece 오발탄 (The Aimless Bullet) will easily qualify. What’s interesting, though, is how for so long Korean cinema was influenced not by what in the west traditionally registered as film noir, but by what local critics began calling “Hong Kong noir.”

This neologism was born in the mid-to-late 1980s, when the competitive war between film magazines Screen and Road Show often led to critics creating cinematic currents out of nowhere, to stand out from the pack and legitimize their critical slant in a more tangible way. The latter pigeonholed the onslaught of dark and violent melodramas coming out of the former British colony as their answer, Asia’s answer, to the American monolith of nihilism that had assaulted their cinemas for decades. From Johnny Mak’s 省港旗兵 (Long Arm of the Law) to Taylor Wong’s 江湖情 (Rich and Famous), from Ringo Lam’s 龍虎風雲 (City of Fire) to, obviously, John Woo’s 英雄本色 (A Better Tomorrow), Road Show’s curious misnomer began following this genre for decades, and is still influencing local critics to this day. Rick Baker’s definition of this unique HK undercurrent was a lot coarser, but perhaps closer to the real thing: heroic bloodshed.

Closer because more than films noirs, John Woo’s work and the heroic bloodshed genre at large was the natural evolution of the bloody and violent wuxia that his mentor Chang Cheh filled Hong Kong theaters with in the 1960s, moving from errant swordsmen to gun-toting, Armani-clad jiang hu marauders whose powerwalking stroll was often caressed by fatally sappy ballads. Misnomer because the often dichotomic code of honor and loyalty (俠, xia) defining the “heroes” populating the chaotic and dysfunctional world of these films quintessentially clashed with ambiguous moral compass guiding (or perhaps misguiding) the ordinary noir protagonist. With a literary and cinematic history as rich with surrogate wuxia themes as Korea’s was – you can classify any “heroic bandit” tale a la 임꺽정 (Im Kkeokjeong) under this category – the transition from hopelessly nihilistic swordsmen to gunmen (or, in our case, knife-wielding gangsters) couldn’t be easier. And starting with 1994’s 게임의 법칙 (Rules of the Game), even Chungmuro began producing its own rendition of the Hong Kong noir canon – tradition which survived until the advent of films like 달콤한 인생 (A Bittersweet Life), whose cinematic roots were predominantly western.

Finding the first ever noir (even in the form of its Hong Kong counterpart) on TV is a lot harder, especially if you think of tone before simple genre tropes. For instance, the sinister flair and ethical fog permeating 1987’s 불새 (Phoenix) – MBC’s and Korean TV’s first ever miniseries, adapted from Choi In-Ho’s novel – would easily qualify, as would to an extent 1996’s 화려한 휴가 (Splendid Holiday). But there is no easier example than Kim Jin-Min’s 개와 늑대의 시간 (Time Between Dog and Wolf) – in many ways a fatally flawed and equally compelling show, with to-die-for directing, a killer soundtrack and a few tremendous performances. Written by “kimchi noir” devotee Han Ji-Hoon of 야수 (Running Wild) fame, the 2007 drama predictably suffered from the same pitfalls that plagued Hong Kong’s heroic bloodshed canon (particularly in terms of turgid melodrama), but it also brought an undeniably welcome air of diversity and genre flair to a TV landscape that often behaved as if random petting and raucous tirades erupting from fake mustaches were the only thing the world revolved around. Since then, noir has experienced a healthy resurgence on the big screen but a rather scanty existence on TV, where it survived through certain narrative elements in a handful of short dramas. Leave it to Yeouido’s most puzzling (and perhaps final) wonder, jTBC, to bring back all that glorious darkness and shadows to us, with their latest miniseries 무정도시 (Cruel City).

Ever since I first started covering this show’s progress months ago – back when it still was working-titled 언더커버 (Undercover) – I was certainly intrigued by the premise but rather perplexed by its possible “ingredients”: the idea that writer Yoo Seong-Yeol would debut with a noir on cable after working on its script for four years was interesting, but believing that journeyman Lee Jung-Hyo would do all this justice (especially with people like Nam Gyu-Ri and Jo Han-Seon in front of the camera) was far-fetched, in light of what he’s been involved with before. The disastrous 서울무림전 (Seoul Warrior Story) and empty corporate fluff like 로맨스가 필요해 2012 (In Need of Romance 2012) showed us a mildly competent professional going through the motions, as if directing traffic that never had a set direction, so it wasn’t exactly an ideal situation. Jo dropped out of the show in favor of 논스톱5 (Nonstop 5) alumni Lee Jae-Yoon, the drama opted for a more nuanced, noir-friendly title and here we are, two weeks after a promising start rich with pathos and the darkly lit gravitas that should define a bonafide noir.

If you’re looking for innovation, look elsewhere. The drama’s incipit is straight out of 無間道 (Infernal Affairs), with an undercover agent who had been trying to infiltrate a drug ring being exposed and thrown off the top of a building onto a car’s roof, right as our protagonist minaciously gazes at the elusive lights on the horizon from a rooftop, surrounded by that captivating chiaroscuro that will follow him around like a shadow for the next twenty episodes. Even the narrative dynamics and characterization aren’t exactly brimming with originality, with orphanage alumni aplenty, decadent femmes fatales, morbidly pathetic villains and an endless array of flamboyant nicknames – from the afro-endowed Safari to a druglord named 저울 (Jeoul, scale) with a predilection for golf clubs, not to mention our protagonist’s eclectic moniker, 박사아들 (The Doctor’s Son). But familiarity can become a weapon, if in the hands of someone who respect the genre’s canon and its legacy.

We’re catapulted right into a chaotic maelstrom where Chief Inspector Min Hong-Gi (a wonderfully poised Son Chang-Min) is looking for his next undercover candidate, while inner warfare is ravaging Jeoul’s drug ring – with underboss Si-Hyeon (our Doctor’s Son) plotting a coup d’etat. Throw in a a social ambiance of corruption and innuendo pervading the whole evolutionary tree of characterization and that unmistakable air of hopeless bitterness engulfing the entire show, and you’ve got the perfect canvas for a good old school noir. And that’s really what makes Cruel City stand out: there are no tonal shifts here, which is incredible considering how often this basic fundamental is ignored in this industry. Everything from the cinematography to the editing, from the brooding and atmospheric music – Nam Hye-Seung’s best work since the first season of 특수사건 전담반 (TEN) – all the way to the misguiding sparks of melodrama punctuating character interplay combine to create a certain mood and atmosphere that envelop every motion and emotion (even when it’s painted in shades of seeming hilarity). You could get all those microscopic elements right and still not exude the flair and aura of a noir, but this show focuses all its effort on the grand scheme of things. On the darkness surrounding that feeble light, those small and elusive sparks of hope kindling seemingly endless clouds of bitterness and despair. And that’s a great feeling, strong enough to erase the small and little excesses this show is filled to the brim with.

PD Lee is wearing his influences on his sleeve, no doubt. A hint of Infernal Affairs here, a touch of stylized, 올드보이 (Oldboy) meets 아저씨 (The Man From Nowhere) action there, characters and situations from what for all intents and purposes are better films. But he does one thing right, one thing that excuses and legitimizes all those stylistic tributes: he makes them functional. You never get the feeling that an action scene goes into gratuitous territory, becoming action for action’s sake – and you know how deleterious frivolous bling has become to cable dramas in recent years. You never feel like whatever melodrama is there overstays its welcome. From Jeoul’s fits of murderous rage and dialectical savagery to the decadent ostentation of Jin-Sook (a hardly impressive but well cast Kim Yoo-Mi), it all feels like the flesh and bones of a bigger, a grander scheme. Something functioning in unison to eventually deliver a punch once the credits roll. The minutiae and gears making the engine run might be questioned under closer scrutiny, but the general impact of Cruel City is undeniable. It works, sometimes in disarming fashion. And should both PD and writer continue to bank everything on that pervading atmosphere, this little surprise could fulfill its immense potential.

The noir aura drenching this drama might be the highlight of the show, but it goes hand in hand with Jung Kyung-Ho’s terrific return. A character like this could easily derail if handled lightly, disappearing in clouds of pec-flexing machismo and brooding showers. But he combines the machismo with an underlying frailty and sense of despair that fits the canon like a glove. This is not a cool-as-cool-can-get knife-wielding, Armani and Rayban-donning tattooed boyo because it goes well with the dark cinematography. He’s a conflicted, empty shell desperately hanging on in search of that light. There is great physicality in Jung’s performance, obviously, but it’s the subtle veneer of despair under the stylish coat that contextualizes the entire persona and makes it compelling.

This is a pleasant surprise. It’s not perfect or even great, but it has the kind of passion that the more polished but often brutally didactic 상어 (Don’t Look Back) often lacks. It doesn’t feel like a tired replica of derivative elements, despite its inherently derivative nature. It sounds, feels, looks like something with a pulsating soul. Something looking for that fleeting light, making that journey into the darkness just a little bit more compelling…

EPISODES 05~08 [80/100]

Quick, hide the children.

Or if you’re at work, make sure you’ll be the only one to see this. I’m about to utter one of the dirtiest terms that have ever graced these sinister (sub?)domains. And I already apologize in advance for it.

I warned you.

Multitainer. M-U-L-T-I-T-A-I-N-E-R. 멀티테이너.

Yes, the proverbial jack of all trades, Robert Greene’s Johannes Factotum, or what have you; the predominantly misguided notion that someone could possess significant skills in several different crafts, and could muster enough effort and willpower to fulfill such elusive potential in all of them. There are of course a reassuringly small number of exceptions confirming the rule, but what was originally considered nothing more than a compliment has long been partaking in linguistic infamy with an additional expression, “master of none.” Spotting jacks of all trades that in truth are masters of none might not be all that easy an endeavor, for many of them will at least be good enough at giving you the idea that only the first part of that maxim is true. Most of the time, you’ll learn, the second half will eventually rear its ugly, perhaps more human, head. But there is an even more apt Korean proverb that defines what a multitainer often ends up representing: 열두 가지 재주 가진 놈이 저녁거리가 간 데 없다 (A man of twelve talents finds no dinner on his table). Because, yes, it’s all about the dough, after all.

The idea of multitainer is not exactly a new concept in Korea, as already by the sixties actors would often crossover and multitask their way to a healthy career in several different media – not to mention the wild array of singer-cum-actors that infested the airwaves in the 1990s, from “pioneers” like Ahn Jae-Wook and Kim Min-Jong all the way to the fin de siecle artistic diaspora hordes of K-pop starlets experienced. But from a mere exploration of different artistic venues by a selected few (read: they didn’t make enough money in the puny music business) this trend has evolved into a bonafide industrial model an increasingly significant number of young prospects are subjected to, seeing as much of the funding structure that keeps this industry afloat is dominated by market forces that have their foot in several shoes – think of SM Entertainment, for instance. In this environment, young “talent” is groomed very young by being subjected to a summary educative paella: they learn how to shake their behind, how to dilate their pupils and contort their eyebrows for music video consumption and future small screen pestering, and perhaps even marinate their verbiage with sparks of alleged diligence, hard work and humility. Sounds good in an interview, you know. Give them a ticket out of puberty, and they’ll be ready for the ground and pound of mixed media arts. They’re multitainers, after all. They can handle it (?).

But today the Rains, Park Yu-Cheons and Gu Hye-Seons of the world will be of no concern to us. I was rather more interested in extending that initial concept to the realm of dramas – that is, the idea that there can be the equivalent of a multitainer in dramatic terms. To anyone who’s been observing this industry for long enough to notice, the biggest change between the Yeouido of the 1980-90s and that of 2013 is the fact that the concept of genre has pretty much disappeared from K-drama shores. Leave out the increasingly rare exception, and what we today call Korean dramas are nothing more than prepackaged junk food in three or four apparent variations that almost infallibly all more or less resort to the same ingredients. Frivolous jacks of all trades, and conspicuously masters of none.

Trendy dramas are the biggest offender: in reviewing 응답하라 1997 (Reply 1997) last year I explained the evolution of that term from a specific genre definition to a sort of far-reaching collection of cliches targeting specific age demographics and their fickle interests – more carefully constructed marketing escapade than storytelling.

You’ll see a recurring theme in most of the shows that end up being panned in the K-Drama Hub, particularly those very trendy dramas: tonal shifts. There is nothing as miserably amateurish as a drama alternating between maudlin, garden-variety melodrama and spurts of hyper slapstick comedy punctuated by cutesy muzak, exaggerated facial expressions and/or editing and cinematography that drive the point home with the subtlety of a wrecking ball. Sure enough, among the consequences of the disappearance of genre is the notion that such egregious thematic and tonal incongruity should be accepted – an argument generally supported by closet mainstream viewers who will want to check their brain at the door every single time, despite their claims that meatier fare deserves and needs to exist. It’s like going from Barry Manilow to Justin Bieber, then to a cover of vintage Grandpa Jones, all under the influence of that “something for everyone” mantra. It’s narrative paella, but without the carefully constructed balancing act that defines that Spanish delicacy. Just random ingredients, a bit of what everyone likes. You’ll find something to munch on eventually, right?

But here’s the catch: mixing random tones and elements as if fulfilling an all-encompassing quota is not storytelling, just like throwing random ingredients inside a cauldron and boiling them long enough to make them edible cannot be construed as cuisine.

A proper melodrama knows how to find fleeting, precious moments of levity even in the darkest recesses of the gloomiest of stories; a historical drama needn’t litter its narrative with anachronistic spurts of puppy love, moments of alleged hilarity that stand out like a sore thumb, or sophomoric action that only serves a superficially aesthetic purpose. In the realm of a proper genre drama, all the sentiments in the world can co-exist, just as long as they remain firmly rooted in the canon that defines such genre. The best dramas of 2013 so far are shows that proudly stick to their genre identity without the need to apishly cater to an invisible, vague but seemingly all-encompassing mass of viewers and their alleged taste. 동화처럼 (Like a Fairy Tale) works because it’s a sharp, mature and affecting journey into the lights and shadows of a romantic relationship, from the first sparks to the eventual warts. Just because it was a melodrama it doesn’t mean that the show never flirted with lighter moments, but it never betrayed its narrative core and defining mood. And neither did the masterful 세계의 끝 (The End of the World), Jung Ha-Yeon’s disarmingly effective 꽃들의 전쟁 (War of the Flowers) and Kim Yoon-Cheol’s charming 우리가 결혼할 수 있을까 (Can We Get Married?). These were, are, dramas that know their boundaries, and the thematic foundations that sustain and define them. Undermining them would undermine the whole drama and their ultimate narrative goals. And they know it.

Those shows refused to take the easy way out, by focusing on one thing – and on doing that, and only that, well. They began their journey by opening a door that let them in, fully knowing that there would be no door on the other side. That there would be no little window you could peek out of to take a breather, or remind you that this was nothing more than a job, a paycheck. That it’s just a drama, you know.

And after what for all intents and purposes can be defined as a turning point, 무정도시 (Cruel City) seems fated to join that elusive elite. We talked about what defines the noir genre more than anything last time – mood, blurry ethical mores, those clouds of doubt hovering over the characters like an impending storm that is always present but never seems to hit them. And after eight episodes, those elements are still the strongest, most unifying thread of this show. It’s not the fact that Jung Kyung-Ho is giving the performance of his life and Choi Mu-Seong is channeling Kim Yoon-Seok in his riveting turn as Safari, that PD Lee Jung-Hyo has managed to limit the warts to an occasional, nearly insignificant presence, or that Yoo Seong-Yeol’s script is becoming tighter and more incisive by the minute. It’s that for once we’re seeing a noir that takes itself seriously, that takes the genre seriously. And, evidently, that takes its viewers seriously, and shows them respect.

Take that scene in the car with Soo-Min and Si-Hyeon, in Episode 7. It’s the first substantial moment of intimacy between the two – set aside their perfunctory previous encounters – and could have been easily handled the way a mainstream network drama would handle it: forgetting for a moment what kind of show this is, and giving the viewers (the casual ones that might not care about this being a noir) a bone. Throwing a cutesy interlude at them, punctuating it with lightweight music, letting the actors have a little too much fun. The temptation would be there, and it would certainly make this a much more accessible drama. But no, Cruel City remains cruel, thankfully. Soo-Min teases him, and the moment certainly conveys a certain sense of levity. But it never goes too far; it never forgets what kind of man our Doc is, the demons he (or even she, truth to be told) is facing; or the world they live in. So it might be silly and lightweight to a certain extent, but it’s also a little bittersweet and miserable. It’s not a hearty, rambunctious guffaw in your face, but a gentle, feigned simper to the side.

That the scene doesn’t play this situation for laughs (removing it out of our thematic and “atmospheric” context, which would in in turn exploit it and the characters that populate that scene) but makes it functional by yet again highlighting the mood that permeates this show is what sets Cruel City apart. This drama oozes noir ambiance all the way, all the time. Even when it could stop for a moment and wallow in empty style or frivolity. That commitment, that respect for the viewer and the genre canon it abides by still remains its most endearing aspect. And it extends to nearly every relationship in this show.

Take the implied but never professedly declared sexual tension between Jin-Sook and Si-Hyeon, or the lingering remnants of affinity between him and Safari – affinity for each other which is inevitably trampled upon by their affinity to the darkness that surrounds them. Take the way characters exploit and yet protect each other at the same time, like Hyeong-Min and his new favorite undercover, or Hong-Gi with Si-Hyeon. It’s a wonderfully multi-faceted concerto in D Minor, where the D stands for the darkness, duplicity and doubt that makes noir so compelling. It’s something very tangible, but never too explicit, like make-up that’s barely visible but omnipresent.

It’s wonderful to see a show, even a clearly imperfect one like this, display such classy parsimony when dealing with elements that could make it a lot cooler, but possibly infringe upon the same ambiance which defines it. It could, for instance, give us cool sashimi action in close quarters every episode (which is admittedly well shot and choreographed but hardly impressive, something not entirely regrettable as it merely acts as a functional lever that is pulled, leading us to yet another stage of this neverending layer of noir), grace us with steamy sex scenes (a bit too tame for the melancholic decadence that suits this genre, but it’s better than nothing), or sudden and shocking character departures. That this kind of restraint actually adds to the experience is something few people, especially on cable, understand. Don’t be surprised when you’ll see 3-4 minute scenes with no dialogue whatsoever, and characters left to interact with their surroundings in a pleasantly realistic way.

That’s the point, really. This show is not cool as in flamboyantly stylish and hip, but cool as in meticulously calculated and exhibiting great poise in dealing with its narrative and everything that makes it come alive. Cruel City doesn’t do many things, it doesn’t even bothers attempting to do so. But it does one important thing very well, and sticks to it from start to finish (at least up to this point). If that’s too cruel for an audience that still compulsively demands for their bathroom break or moments that remind them that their appetite for frivolity will always be catered to… well. Blame Lee Jung-Hyo, Yoo Seong-Yeol, Jung Kyung-Ho and everyone who still cares enough about this industry’s future to support real genre fare that takes itself and us seriously.

Blame them and us for being too heartless. And let us continue basking in this glorious darkness…

EPISODES 09~14 [79/100]

They’re like a clear beacon of hope kindling the uncertainty of the night.

City lights, so deceptively close and yet so miserably elusive, like the window to an enticing, neverending dream that keeps haunting you, but never quite feels like tangible reality. How to escape from that suffocating brume of doubt and finally reach a destination, if all you see are the lights from afar, those beacons whose warmth you can perceive but can never really feel?

I can’t exactly pinpoint the specific moment (you know I’m not good with details), but it was probably around Episode 11 when I finally realized why they cast Nam Gyu-Ri, at first sight someone who would neither have the experience nor the necessary thespian ingredients to aptly convey the complexities of a character like Soo-Min. It was back in 2008 when we saw her move her first steps as the flagbearear of the sensory marketing overload surrounding sophomoric summer teen slasher 고死 (Death Bell). Five years have passed since, years in which Nam has concentrated nearly all her efforts on her acting career but which haven’t produced anything that could define her identity in the sea that is (supposedly) professional acting in Korea. She certainly had the looks to play a femme fatale, but she would almost certainly derail any attempt to add decadence to the mix. And in a genre where decadence, which succinctly and effectively sums noir’s three core tenets (3D: doubt, duplicity and darkness), is evidently crucial, she could have become a “fatal” character, indeed.

But then it dawned upon me that she needn’t necessarily be decadent; that she could even explicitly render any tentative to “dirty up” Soo-Min a miserable failure, and for a simple reason: this drama is filled to the brim with dark souls meandering the night in search of a meaning that might not even be there, but she’s that ever elusive light that has long found one. She along with her acquired sister Gyeong-Mi, devoured by the night and its darkness, indomitable forces she couldn’t vanquish. And when you look at Soo-Min as the sprightly, silly girl who nicknames a menacing gangster “Pororo” and falls in love with him without much in the way of cerebral rumination, then the casting of Nam makes a lot more sense. She doesn’t look believable in the slightest when trying to essay a low rent version of her mentor Jin-Sook, and that paradoxically makes the character work even more – because suggesting that this level of subtle introspection was the result of character interpretation on Nam’s part would be laughably misguided. If this were Son Ye-Jin, maybe. But Nam Gyu-Ri?

Complicated, you say? Look at the noir canon and it will come to your aid: 3D. If the story’s ambiance is basking in doubt, duplicity and darkness, she’s the very opposite of that notion. Her effervescent personality combines with the kind of sincerity that is seldom seen in this neck of the woods, erasing any doubt there might be about her, what she does and what her ultimate motives might be. Everyone else is painted in shades of gray, trying to struggle their way out of emotional and moral quicksands that are slowly strangling them, but she swims as if the water was limpid and crystal-clear. Is she scared, happy, enamored with someone? She’ll make it explicit to anyone who happens to come into contact with that strange, sometimes even dumbfounding warmth. And she shows them that there can be certainty in a world shrouded in shadows of doubt.

Don’t mistake what our Doc feels for her as love. He says it himself: “누구를 좋아할 시간이 없습니다 (I have no time to like anyone).” But there is something about Soo-Min that captures him, and to a lesser extent Hyeon-Min (because of the similarities she shares with his Gyeong-Mi). She’s like that elusive city light shining from afar, the warmth he can see from inside that window that traps him and everyone else who so miserably wanders inside this world full of darkness. She’s the hope that there might be a way out of all those clouds of duplicity, of days that feel like nights and nights that seemingly never end. That hope is stronger than any sense of protection he might harbor towards her, the intimacy they shared in that fleeting moment, or the few instants of levity that she granted him. There’s a tremendously pervasive aura around her that Si-Hyeon (and even Jin-Sook) feels, warmth he can’t help but being enthralled by.

She’s not like us. She’s real. There are no masks, no poker faces, nothing to read and interpret beneath the surface. What you see is what you get, inside and out. And you seriously think someone like Si-Hyeon or Jin-Sook wouldn’t be captured by that? By the glimmer of hope that one day they might experience something even remotely close to that? Even the title says it all. 무정도시. 無情 (Mujeong). Devoid of warmth, affection, compassion, all the wholesome human qualities we associate with light. But this is a cruel city, where the night reigns supreme, along with all its ruthless little children.

I might have had a few problems with the way the show was beginning to bank a little too much on “shocking cliffhangers,” because unnecessary exposition can derail that enveloping aura and tonal uniformity (again we go back to 3D) that defines the noir identity. But then if you look at the way the show handled Safari’s denouement, you can’t help but be impressed, as it inevitably goes back to the same thematic ambiance we started with: a “lost undercover,” someone whose faith in the tenets which guided his decision to plunge into the dark and seedy underworld slowly eroded, making the distinction between the darkness he mendaciously subscribed to and the light supposedly shining outside a matter of semantics. And if you think about it, the fact the writing gives you the impression that nearly everyone might be an undercover for the other side only renders those clouds of doubt and duplicity resonate even more. There is a protagonist (Si-Hyeon) and his symmetric counterpart on the other side of the fence (Hyeon-Min) desperately looking for an answer, people who have long given up on finding one (Jin-Sook, Safari), and all the souls who have been devoured by the dark, trying to change all the questions.

And then there is her. The answer. The light. The hope that this desperate tango might one day end, and that it will take the night along with it.

Yes, it’s an imperfect drama, for a variety of reasons. Writer Yoo Seong-Yeol has a very good idea of the direction the show should take, and speaking of macroscopic narrative structure, there are little to no flaws. That aura permeating the entire show is so pervasive (aided immensely by the directing and especially Nam Hye-Seung’s finest soundtrack to date), so strong and omnipresent as to cancel out any faux pas that might endanger the core. Any complaints that might remain after 14 episodes are just cosmetic minutiae, really, like the fact that Su’s constant use of 진정 (for real, really, seriously) has long become grating – as mentioning it once or twice per episode would suffice to make a mark, but he pretty much uses it every other sentence – or that some ancillary characters look like the low-rent regurgitation of better examples from dramas and films that influenced this show.

But then any critic worth his moniker will look at the big picture. What we have here is a love letter to the noir genre, a gripping tale of decadence where lost souls desperately look for a way out. Because, yes, there is a light out there. Its warmth feels close, tangible and alluring, but that emotional glass stops the show from taking one step too many every single time. As if it had no hope of ever basking in that warmth.

That’s something to build on, to the very end…

FINALE

“As I groped my way through the mirror maze in Lucerne’s Glacier Garden, I kept bumping into a mirror where it appeared that I was walking down a long corridor framed with Moorish columns. At the far end of the corridor, I saw a young man approaching. He kept disappearing as both of us turned corners or pursued blind alleys. Finally, I bumped into another mirror, turned right, then left, and there he was again, now quite close. He reached out and, as he touched my face tentatively, he asked,
Sind sie echt?”
In German, he was asking me if I was real.
I laughed and said “Ja,” and he laughed too. But for a confusing moment of disequilibrium, he wasn’t joking. That’s what mirrors can do to us human beings. They can jolt us out of reality or fantasy with equal ease.”
[MIRROR MIRROR: A HISTORICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL OVERVIEW – Mark Pendergrast]

Who knows if a mirror is what Jung Si-Hyeon stared at on his way out of that barren four walls he had for years called home. Who knows if it was himself he saw on the other side. Who knows what he saw, if anything at all; if it was real, an enthralling fantasy he was willing to believe in, or just a faint, delusional hope. That a noir would leave us by quoting the immortal (?) words of Ella Wheeler Wilcox – just like Park Chan-Wook’s 올드보이 (Oldboy) did a decade ago, albeit in a markedly different context – is rather curious.

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;

Weep, and you weep alone.

For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,

But has trouble enough of its own.

Sing, and the hills will answer;

Sigh, it is lost on the air.

The echoes bound to a joyful sound,

But shrink from voicing care.

If you want to get pedantic, what Si-Hyeon said (while talking to Gyeong-Mi back in a past he can never go back to) is a slightly more modern rendition, a mix of Paulo Coelho’s O Alquimista (The Alchemist) and one of former Hyundai Heavy Industries’ chairman Min Gye-Shik’s most famous (recycled) maxims:

“거울이다 세상은. 니가 침뱉고 욕하면 세상도 너한테 침뱉고 욕할거고, 니가 웃으면 세상도 따라 웃을거야.”

“This world is a mirror. Spit at it, curse it all you want, and that’s all you’ll get in return. Laugh, and the world will laugh with you.”

Why would something whose genre is defined by suffocating clouds of nihilism wallow in what at least on the surface seem like such hopeful words? The answer goes back to that mirror, I’d argue: it’s not so much about what is shown on the other side, but what you see in it.

When you talk about this genre as a narrative construct, you’ll always hear of certain quintessential elements – like the aforementioned nihilism, the ethical brume moving the characters, the decadence associated with the world they inhabit. It’s often so wide-reaching a concept that pigeonholing it with a clear definition might even be counterproductive. But for ease of use I frequently define that overarching mood as a matter of three crucial ingredients, the 3D: doubt, duplicity and darkness. They are the building blocks of the noir genre, without which it couldn’t have any identity. But even when that is made clear, we still remain within the boundaries of a narrative structure, a construct. You’ll know how this world and its inhabitants move, but that still won’t tell you what this journey is about.

Of course you’re open to interpret it in a completely different way, but I always saw noir’s raison d’etre as a hopeless struggle to find an elusive light – all three elements of that sentence (hopeless, struggle, and light) being crucial. The genre was born in the pages of hardboiled fiction during the Great Depression, so nihilism was a given. Accepting that the struggle to find the light (i.e. happiness, a better, more normal life) would mostly be fruitless was part of the game. But you’d still have to play it, because remaining idle would mean that you’d already be dead. The “light” assumes otherwordly semblances to these noir protagonists, like an alien element suddenly crashing into their world from another planet, breaking status quo. They can’t help but fall in love with it, inebriated by what that change represents.

There’s a masterful six minute video by Serena Bramble – an homage to noir aesthetics entitled “Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir” – that perfectly exemplifies this, particularly because of its apt use of Massive Attack’s Angel in combination with those gloriously edited images.

“You are my angel

Come from way above

To bring me love

Her eyes

She’s on the dark side

Neutralize

Every man in sight

I love you love you love you love you”

That love, mind you, is neither physical attraction nor platonic infatuation. It’s like how a man wandering in the dark will welcome the advent of light, how someone gasping for air will look at air in his lungs – a much more visceral feeling, the lifeline that makes that struggle of yours seem worthwhile, even if that light might soon vanish and plunge you back into darkness. Mistaking it as simple romance would be ignoring not only the core tenents of the noir genre (3D), but also what that journey is about. You don’t love that light for what it is right now, but for what it represents – the proof that there might be a better life out there, at least for someone. Even if that someone might not be the protagonist himself.

I find no use in reiterating what’s already been said in English and Korean about the finale of 무정도시 (Cruel City), but the facts are as follow: the original script by Yoo Seong-Yeol had written in an insert which made this ending a lot less open to interpretation – showing our leading man walking back into the dark after a not-so-fatal-after-all shootout, with a new identity (a name he was visibly attached to, 진정) and a new beige jacket (hurrah for colors), leaving the two women who loved him behind, blissfully unaware that the man they just buried was still out there somewhere, looking at the city lights in the endless night. And why, you’d ask? Because he saw light in Soo-Min and to an extent Jin-Sook, because plunging back into their lives would have broken the closure they experienced with his alleged death, and it would have clouded the little happiness they can enjoy right now. It certainly would have pleased the kiddies, now enraged because their beau has been disposed of so brutally. And without any significant petting or brooding showers to cement his legacy in their eyes, at that.

But this is noir. Remember what this journey is all about. Doubt, duplicity, darkness, and a hopeless search for the light. Punctuate Si-Hyeon’s struggle with explicit closure, and you’ll leave the realm of noir. Do it this way, in a nuanced, open manner that still leaves you with questions, and all those elements remain intact. Is Si-Hyeon still alive or is that a pipe-dream by Soo-Min, hoping he still might be out there, somewhere, happier? Did he “conspire” with Hyeong-Min to deceive both Soo-Min and Jin-Sook, to start a new life away from the chains of his past? And most importantly, after having experienced all that darkness, will he find any light out there? Can he? Isn’t it a hopeless struggle, anyway?

The fact that director and writer debated over the finale’s direction until the final moment – as supposedly they even shot parts of that infamous insert, which was uncharacteristically (for Korean TV) left on the cutting room floor – shows what really mattered to them. And that wasn’t so much the notion of giving closure to Si-Hyeon’s journey and sending the masses home happy (this wasn’t a mainstream show anyway, what with its perennial sub-1% rating performance and rather slim prospects of success overseas), but that of creating something that respected the legacy of film noir, and the immense need to diversify its input that this industry has. From day one, this production screamed its love for the genre that defined it, and it proved it until the very last moment – that ambiguous shot at the very tail of the ending credits.

Anything else, including speculation over what will happen in the future (movie adaptation? Season 2? Spin-off? Prequel?) is fruitless at this point. Look at the mirror and see what’s before you for what it is: a bonafide noir on Korean TV, finally.

Certainly, those last few weeks weren’t smooth sailing all the way. There were a few redundant narrative choices (Busan going in and out of the police station on a weekly basis and people showing up at his door to supposedly risk their lives was beginning to run its course, for instance), logistic issues (including Jung Kyung-Ho’s declining health) forced a few peripheral narrative trajectories to the backburner, to eventually be handled with in a much too haphazard manner towards the finale. Plus of course timing got a lot tighter, as although the show never really went into live shoot mode (or at least the kind of live shoot your ordinary network TV trendy has gotten us used to), the last four episodes betrayed what kind of haste the tail end of the production was handled with.

Does that really matter, though, in the grand scheme of things? I’d answer with a resounding no.

Lee Jung-Hyo was nothing more than a honest journeyman, the kind of technician who does his job just fine, but never really writes any significant page in the annals of K-drama history. Yoo Seong-Yeol was a debutant who had worked on this script for four years – which in industry lingo generally means “it took me six months but people ignored it for three and a half years.” Before this started, this combo practically had nothing to their name, but now they can pride themselves on having created Korean TV’s strongest homage to the noir genre – much more so than 개와 늑대의 시간 (Time Between Dog & Wolf), although Lee and Kim Jin-Min’s directing aren’t even in the same galaxy. From the first frame to the very last one, this show never let go of that pervading ambiance and mood, tremendously aided by Nam Hye-Seung’s finest work to date.

But even more than for the quality of its directing and writing, this show will likely be remembered for having changed a few careers in the process. Not that people like Jung Kyung-Ho and Kim Yoo-Mi had ever been bad actors before, and you know how much Choi Mu-Seong can stand out when given the right role. But these characters, from Doc to Jin-Sook and Safari and all the way to Kim Jong-Gu’s fantastic portrayal of Busan are almost iconic – people who, thanks to writing this strong and fantastic performances, will live on for far longer than the twenty hours we’ve been together.

Because they’re still out there in this endless night, staring at the elusive lights of the cruel city…

ACTING GRADES

89 정경호 (Jung Kyung-Ho)
89 최무성 (Choi Mu-Seong)
88 손창민 (Son Chang-Min)
86 김유미 (Kim Yoo-Mi)
86 김종구 (Kim Jong-Gu)
72 길용우 (Gil Yong-Woo)
71 김병욱 (Kim Byung-Wook)
70 이무생 (Lee Mu-Saeng)
70 이아이 (Lee Ah-Yi)
69 김정학 (Kim Jung-Hak)
68 송민지 (Song Min-Ji)
68 김효선 (Kim Hyo-Seon)
67 이재윤 (Lee Jae-Yoon)
65 고나은 (Go Na-Eun)
64 남규리 (Nam Gyu-Ri)
60 윤현민 (Yoon Hyun-Min)
60 정수영 (Jung Soo-Young)

~ Last Update: 2015/06/05