Chasing the Undercurrent (2022) Heartless City (2013)
Chasing the Undercurrent: A Non-Spoiler Review
In the backdrop of this part melodrama, part police procedural a determined and well-regarded young detective, Chang Zheng (Johnny Huang) has been on the trail of the notorious Zhao family cartel (founded on mining) more or less since the start of his career. That family’s grip on the city of his birth for three decades is deeply entrenched and woe to those who dig too deep for secrets. Three years earlier his father, also a cop, in his pursuit of evidence against the local juggernaut, dies under dubious circumstances. Consequently Chang Zheng has made it his life’s mission to see justice done and extricate the city from the corrupting influence of the Zhao machinery on all levers of power. Going against the family not only demands a spine of steel but also an unwavering moral compass that can withstand the onslaught of threats and temptations to look the other way.
The head and founder of the crime syndicate is Zhao Xiaosheng, the patriarch who is supported by his three sons — his oldest, Zhao Pengzhang, his third, Zhao Pengxiang and his fourth, Zhao Pengchao (Tony Yang) a lawyer recently returned from Australia. The outlier second son, Zhao Pengcheng a local prosecutor refuses to be part of the family business and ends up dead for his fervent opposition to their dealings. There are echoes of The Brothers Karamazov as none of the brothers share the same mother and are at loggerheads (with the exception of the second) because each is looking to take control of Zhao Enterprises Inc.
The most impressive of the lot would be Tony Yang’s Zhao Pengchao who plays the long game even while he’s in Australia. With an abundance of smarts and patience he seems to be the most obvious successor as time and time again he outwits his own brothers and the police who are sniffing around at his doorstep. His stated goal is to reform the company, give it a face lift and then transfer all their assets to Australia at the first sign of trouble. On his return he quickly demonstrates who’s boss. He has all the family personnel in the palm of his hand and thwarts his brothers’ schemes. Tony Yang too gives a sterling performance here and his experience is evident.
Aside from Cheng Zheng, there are others in Changwu who aren’t on board with the status quo. Those who belong to that group tread cautiously as one misstep could cost them their lives. The city’s richest family is ruthless and it’s pure banality at this point to note that some people would do anything for real money, even betray their closest friends and loved ones.
Deep in the weeds of moralising, indoctrination and melodrama, there are certainly nuggets of an interesting story to be found. Unfortunately they are not to be found in the police procedural side of things — which is in all honesty laboured, preachy and the least exciting part of the show. There’s not a lot that happens in that regard — just chatter, editorialising and waiting for things to happen. There are far too many instances in which the narrative takes time out to sermonise over bad behaviour and even the consequences of bad parenting. Some moralising is always to be expected but when it handicaps the movement of the story the flaws in the scripting are all too clear.
This drama is for me an exemplar of all the worst excesses of Asian dramas — C dramas are the worst culprits because they seem to have the resources to self-sabotage a project. Hence, the result are shows that outstay their welcome. Apparently no one has ever heard of the aphorism about short and sweet when these scripts are penned. The storytelling is almost entirely about telling and the execution is likewise heavy handed in its use of dialogue and the repetition of facts in the interest of stretching out the material. This is undoubtedly detrimental to the pacing while the show wallows self-indulgently in taking time out to lecture its viewers about the importance of being law abiding citizens.
It is discombobulating at first as to what this show is really about because the trailer is rather misleading. The drama is promoted as a slick crime/police procedural where the cops and organised crime come to blows. There’s certainly an element of that woven all throughout but there’s nothing particularly slick about how that almighty contest plays out. The show treads too carefully to my mind in delineating the lines between the good guys and baddies to be a sophisticated crime show. Johnny Huang’s character Chang Zheng is the archetypal “good boy” who is a role model rather than a character with much depth or breadth. There are a few surprises in store for him that gives him pause but ultimately he never veers from the straight and narrow. It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a demanding role that one expects of a male lead in his position. The story would have been far more dramatic (and intriguing) if Chang Zheng had been undercover for most of the drama having to face real temptations while having complex personal interactions with Zhao Pengchao who is so obviously posited as his opposite.
At the end of the day the show is a blatant piece of propaganda and a recruitment campaign. Its detrimental effects on storytelling are obvious. This goes a long way to explaining why the obviously the good cops are generally anodyne and the criminals from within and without law enforcement are much more fully fleshed out. It’s not so surprising then that the dysfunctionality of the Zhao family and the cat-mouse games that they play off against the cops are the highlights of this story. The straight cops are reduced largely to window dressing to remind the audience that they are the guardians of all that is “good and true”. This is why in part the police seem so slow to act, reactive, so ineffective for so long because they have to be in concert with The Message when all the chief offenders are rounded up at the end.
Heartless City (2013) — First Impressions
This is one that I’ve had on my watchlist for the longest time. Since I discovered Jang Kyung-ho in Missing 9 and Falling for Innocence as a matter of fact. I’ve been told on a number of occasions that this is his best drama although I’m inclined towards giving that title to Life on Mars. I bought a Viki pass recently and my excitement on discovering this in its catalogue was high.
My initial impression from watching 3 episodes is that I probably came to this 9 years too late. The visuals look rather dated and Jang Kyung-ho looks too suave to be a drug crime boss. All jesting aside, it doesn’t look like it’s weathered the test of time all that well but the premise holds a great deal of promise. Moreover, each episode seems to be better than the last. I expect to persevere until I can’t. The thing that’s most fun so far is playing Name the Actor with faces I know and love so well seeing them with different hairstyles and body shapes. I squealed just a tiny bit when I saw Jung Moon-sung (Jae-hak from Hospital Playlist) and then also realised that Yoon Hyun-min was in it too as Jang Kyung-ho’s offsiders. Choi Moo-sung also makes an appearance here as a gangster called Safari. And yes, everybody looks really young.
Jang Kyung-ho plays Jung Shi-hyun aka Doctor’s Sun who after 8 years of being in the lower ranks of a drug syndicate sets off a coup against his immediate supervisor to avoid being eliminated from the dangerous game he’s playing entirely. He garners support for himself and then scrambles to stay on top. Unfortunately he’s offended the wrong people and they’re setting him up to be the fall guy for the head of the organization. On his trail is Detective Ji Hyeong-min who is after his predecessor “Scale” for all his criminal activities accumulated over the years.
It’s the drug business and life is cheap. Everyone’s vying to be the top dog and stay ahead of the game. It’s a familiar story with the usual assortment of corrupt cops, desperadoes and innocent bystanders who end up being collateral damage.