There will be spoilers for the manhwa series Intense.
Trigger Warning: There may be references to rape, possible pedophilia, ableism (use of r-slur), suicide, faking a disability, prostitution, dubious consent (dubcon), codependency, animal abuse, animal death, child abuse, child neglect, child abandonment, homophobia, domestic violence, mafia/gang activity, drugs, blood, and violence, as it appears in the manhwa.
Jiwoon Kang is nothing more than collateral. After his father, in debt to a large criminal organization, kills himself, the boss Yoonshik takes Jiwoon on as collateral. The boss trains him up so Jiwoon can someday work off the debt. In the meantime, Jiwoon learns to kill and becomes Yoonshik's, right-hand man. In an open secret, Jiwoon also plays the cooperative, though the unenthusiastic role of Yoonshik's lover. When Yoonshik is sent to prison, Jiwoon is hidden in the redlight district, where he protects the working girls. There, he meets Soohan Lee.
Soohan Lee is mute. He just happened upon the redlight district years ago and, ever since, has taken up residence there, doing odd jobs for a little bit of cash and a roof over his head. His life is rather mundane, even in the bustling streets, that is until he meets Jiwoon. After getting beaten up while defending a working girl from a customer, Jiwoon comes upon Soohan bloodied up on the ground. Despite their odd circumstances, Jiwoon is compelled to kiss Soohan, which he does. This sends them down a dangerous path fraught with jealousy, violence, crime, and more.
But in the end, will it be worth the struggle?
This is one of my favorite manhwa of all time, and it was one of the first manhwa I ever owned a physical copy of, and maybe that I even read back before I knew what manhwa was. With all that being said, I have to admit that the art style isn't my favorite. It's very rough and sketchy, but I think it fits the narrative's dark, solemn, and gritty content. It reminds me of traditional American-style comics, which I'm also not a fan of. Still, the story makes up for the art, whether you enjoy the artwork or not.
While the art isn't one of my favorites, where this really shines is in the narrative. It is painfully dark and solemn, with two broken people finding happiness with each other. That seems to be a common trope I instantly fall in love with (see My Way with You as an example). Just as the name suggests, this is intense in several ways. The feelings Jiwoon has for Soohan and vice versa, the intensity with which Yoonshik obsesses over Jiwoon, and the intensity of neglect and pain they've experienced throughout their short lives. Amid all this intensity are two lost souls, quiet shadows that most people pay no mind to. Then, just as the intensity is building, they disappear into the night and out into domestic normalcy, which in its bliss builds its own intensity. It's a swift turn of events that will leave you breathless.
While the narrative is excellent, and they find happiness with each other, my favorite part is actually after they start building a life together. Most of these works where it's the two broken people trope usually end with them living happily ever after together. Intense goes for a much more realistic depiction of their lives. These two people aren't suddenly healed from their trauma just because they have each other. They both still struggle with their fears and are sometimes toxic to each other. That realism grounds their love in reality, and I love it. There's no guarantee that they will be happy together, but they have hope, which makes the ending all the more satisfying.
Now, this isn't perfect by any means. I have given it a ton of praise, but admittedly, I am a bit biased since this was one of the first manhwa I ever read and probably one of the earliest BL for me, too. The strongest element for me, the domestic life together after escaping the gang, wasn't very long. I would have liked to have seen more moments of them trying to figure out life together. A few small, humorous scenes between Jiwoon and Soohan showed glimmers of a possibly brighter future. I would have enjoyed more of those fluffy moments just to give their relationship more depth beyond the physical attraction.
This is dark, toxic, and painful, but it all comes together in a beautiful brew of hope. I wouldn't recommend this to everyone, as the themes are explicit and rather grotesque at times, with the display of suicide, abuse, and the like. However, if you can stomach such things, this is great. It's existential, for sure, and it will have you thinking of it long after it has ended. It will also have you craving more, but it is worth it, I promise.
Have you read Intense? If so, what do you think? Do you agree with my assessment? Do you not? Let me know, and comment below!