Time and Excess
Manipulation of time within the melodrama in terms of the constant negotiation between being ‘too late’ and arriving ‘in the nick of time’ creates the tension between whether the character experiences a paroxysm of pathos or the exhilaration of action (69). And because of this negotiation, moments of high dramatic tension often take on a dual nature wherein the shortness of diegetic time gets prolonged by the formalistic elements of the scene (73), such that seconds within the diegetic world could be presented as minutes in terms of screen time.
Time in Heartless City, however, moves differently. Instead of embodying the immediacy of successful action or failed inaction as suggested by Williams’ choice of phrases “too late” and “in the nick of time,” the dramatic pleasure in the first half of the series comes from the exhilaration of action derived from Baksa Aduel being consistently and comfortably “one step ahead” such that the character appears almost omniscient, while the intense, almost hysterical, paroxysms of pathos in episode 14 & 15 comes from his impotence at being able to affect positive change in a key series of events entrenched in the distant past.
To illustrate what I mean by the character’s omniscience and mastery over potentially disastrous situations I will refer you to 3 dramatic fight sequences in the series that consistently involve Baksa Aduel’s early, unseen and unexpected arrival on scene, resulting in an element of surprise, which he then uses to triumph over his opponents single-handedly.
In this instance in the first episode, the mid-rank drug dealers, Scale, ‘Meth’ Kim and Halibut, are meeting to discuss a replacement for Baksa Aduel’s position because he had made known his ambition to ascend the ranks within the drug cartel at the start of the episode. Baksa Aduel is the first gangster to arrive on scene putting him in a position to spring a successful ambush on ‘Meth’ Kim, and be the only character to leave the scene unscathed, leaving Hyeong-min’s Special Branch task force in the dust.
In this instance, both the audience and the characters don’t even realize Baksa Aduel is on scene until he reveals himself. This fight is the first time we get a sense of his dualistic nature. As rising crime boss, his goal is to stop the influx of drugs from a competing supplier, and as undercover police officer, his goal is just to stop the inflow of any drugs. There is also a growing sense that this character’s competence and single-handed successes arise not out of proficiency or superiority, but out of necessity because of the isolation that surrounds him due to his dualistic role.
As we move further and further along into the series, the buffer zone that allows Baksa Aduel to be comfortably “one step ahead” begins to shorten. As it is, this fight is a reaction to an attempt on his romantic-interest’s life and actually forces him to form a partnership with Hyeong-min in order to secure a positive outcome.
This shortening of the temporal buffer zone that attributed a kind of comfort and ease, control and mastery of situation to the character has a direct relation to the second half of the drama where there is a collapse of time whereby the past intrudes on the present and throws the character into a paroxysm of pathos over his own impotence to change past events.
One of the lines of narrative in the series is Baksa Aduel’s deep-seated hatred of the drug trade because he own mother died of an overdose. This is coupled with a side quest to find out who killed his mother. Unfortunately, in episode 14-15, he finds out that he has been misled by his handler into believing that Safari Moon, a father figure of sorts to him, was responsible. Worse still, Safari informs him of his own culpability in his mother’s death by naively ferrying drugs between his mother and Safari for distribution in the neighbourhood in exchange for “errand money.”
The fissure in Baksa Aduel’s composure is built beautifully throughout the 2 episodes in a series of shots reminiscent of women’s dramas from the 50s and 60s that show the character out of sync with himself (the effeminizing of the male body through suffering represented through formalistic elements often associated with a female dominated genre):
Before finally culminating in an explosive paroxysm of pathos where inner torment finds outward expression when he smashes his own hand with a rock.
This is an interesting use of action in a melodrama because it is non-productive and brings the character no closer to reclaiming his lost innocence. Instead we see an excess of inner turmoil that can only result in futile and impotent outward action.
However, because of the excess of emotion, the (female?) audience is encouraged to step out of his/her identification with the character such that where we might previously have taken pleasure in identifying with the character’s unflappable nature and mastery of situation, we can now sadistically take pleasure in his pain. Which is why I look like this:
…when things like that happen. Hence why I continue to repeatedly come back to j/k-drama which spends so much time focused on the male body and encourages audiences to objectify it on several levels:
As sex objects
As suffering and effeminized male bodies due to physical trauma
And psychological trauma
To be a little bit less perverse, let me just tie this back to Williams. All these suffering male bodies seems to also hark back to what Williams says at the start of her essay in defense of melodrama, oftentimes it is not the physical that affects us so and to concentrate on the linear and the logical is a limiting and reductive misrepresentation of human reality that ought to come together with the search for a “fullness of signification.” It’s just that to me, this “fullness of signification” is a different kind of pleasure that one can find in and get from the melodrama in j/k-dramas that keeps me coming back despite their oftentimes, glaring lack of realism.
Sub-point on Romantic Excess or Lack Thereof
On a slightly softer but related note on romance in the series, Heartless City chooses to disengage almost completely from the tension between “too late” and “in the nick of time” which largely characterizes the romance plot in other K-dramas I’ve watched and termed the “will-they-won’t-they,” or in more Singaporean terms, the ai-mai-ai-mai plot line.
The negotiation of whether romantic leads will get together or not coupled with scenes of near-misses and the final consummation of the romantic (sub)plot is completely disregarded and refashioned in Heartless City.
The first time the two characters meet, happens purely by chance. As if to emphasize how passing the encounter is, there isn’t even a meeting of the eyes. Just this fleeting brushing of two lives against each other in the bustling city that is both brief and ephemeral, with all evidence of contact between the two characters quickly dissipating into the ether before either character and the audience even realize how interlinked their lives are.
This is of course juxtaposed in their extremely melodramatic second encounter where he saves her from an attempted stick-up despite having been all but gutted in a previous altercation only to almost accidentally slit her throat when she tries to help him up. Despite the melodrama though, the brevity of their encounter and the chance-nature of their meetings remain and continue to characterize the overall development of their relationship.
These accidental encounters seem, to me, more intense and more charged with meaning precisely because of their serendipitous nature that constantly leaves the audience wanting more. The absence of the contiguous progression of time to mark the development of their relationship serves to imbue each encounter with an excess of meaning whether it be romantic feeling or carnal desire because there is always the lingering sense that the transient nature of their relationship will take over and dissolve all ties between them. And this, to me, helps to keep audiences more engaged than in the typical K-drama where the characters practically share the same time/space continuum as the drama progresses because they almost invariably end up living together.
Lastly, the almost non-existent nature of their love affair and empty fuck near the start of the series belies their intimate connection in the dramatic plot over Baksa Aduel’s supposed involvement in the assassination of Soo-min’s big sister, Kyung-mil. This bait-and-switch tactic that exchanges the romance subplot for the actual dramatic plot opens up the narrative by giving the female lead far more to do in terms of interaction with the other characters, particularly Jin-sook, and creates a more rounded characterization for all the characters involved.
On that note, finally, on to character and characterization.