K-Drama Review: Heartless City (2013)

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Williams goes on to argue that the methods of representation of the ineffable in melodrama come down, almost exclusively, to the excesses in representation of the key figure in the narrative in his or her struggle against time to regain a lost innocence. The protagonist’s journey will take one of two routes – s/he will either become an effeminised body that suffers a paroxysm of pathos or can channel this paroxysm into more virile and action-centred variants of rescue, chase and fight (58). Williams does suggest however, that instead of a fork in the road between virtuous sufferer and active hero, there can be instead a hero-victim and she provides Rambo as an example of such a figure.


It is in this same vein that I want to approach Heartless City (2013) in my analysis of its main character, the mysterious and extremely charismatic Baksa Aduel (Doctor’s Son), a.k.a. Jung Shi-hyun, to suggest that this series is an atypical melodrama in that it fulfills the overarching demands of a melodramatic mode of story-telling while defying most of the specific 5 tenet structure of the melodrama laid out by Linda Williams in her essay.

However, before I go into that, I want to reshuffle Williams’ 5 tenets of melodrama into 3 key elements. Firstly, here is a brief summary of Williams’ 5 tenets of melodrama:

  1. Melodrama begins, and wants to end in a space of innocence.
  2. Melodrama focuses on victim-heroes and the recognition of their virtue largely by concentrating on the point of view of the victim.
  3. Melodrama appears modern by borrowing from realism, but realism serves the melodramatic passion and action.
  4. Melodrama involves a dialectic of pathos and action – a give and take of ‘too late’ and ‘in the nick of time’ wherein being ‘too late’ results in a paroxysm of pathos and being ‘in the nick of time’ results in the exhilaration of action
  5. Melodrama presents characters who embody primary psychic roles organized in Manichaean conflicts between good and evil.

From these 5 tenets, I would like to regroup them into the following 3 headings. Firstly, “Space of Innocence”; secondly, “Time and Excess”; and Thirdly, “Character” (under which I will discuss Manichaean characters and the victim-hero). I have decided to place less emphasis on realism as a support for modern melodrama because I see this more as a formalist concern that was included to stave off the belittling of this filmic mode of storytelling rather than a true element of melodrama itself. However, that being said, I will touch on this under “Space of Innocence.”

Furthermore, of these 3, I would like to posit that the first tenet regarding the struggle to regain a space of innocence should be privileged above all other elements of a melodrama because the other elements seem to consistently feedback into this attempt to recoup a lost innocence. This is seen in the tension between being ‘too late’ or being ‘in the nick of time’ resulting in either pathos or action which impacts the victim-hero figure whose suffering (pathos) marks him as a moral character and therefore closer to innocence, and whose actions will consistently try to move him closer toward the recuperation of lost innocence. Moreover, Williams’ own opening of her essay posits the “retrieval and staging of innocence” as the ultimate concern of melodramatic narrative trajectory (42).

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