Overall Rating: A+ (she weeps as she types this)
Subtitles: Really strong subtitles for this one. There were a couple grammar/ spelling things there and there but overall it was incredibly fluent and the translations were meaning vs. literal translations which I always appreciate. The subbers for this even added helpful notes here and there when major speech formality shifts happened that helped frame the subtext of what was going on.
Brief Synopsis: A troubled man plagued by childhood trauma that was never addressed in a healthy way spends his time playing games with the people he meets to amuse himself until he meets a woman who he feels genuinely connected to. Her brother, a cop who is investigating a murder, will do anything to keep the two of them from getting close. Watch it on Viki here.
**Full show spoilers below the image. If you do not wish to be spoiled, do not proceed**
Ending Type: About as tragic as endings get, to be honest? I think they tease you pretty hard with this little grain of hope towards the end that maybe things will work out, but by the last couple episodes it is clear that there is no real way for the story to end well. At the very least our two lovers die holding on to each other and telling each other they love each other, so there’s that. But definitely there is no closure here, and no one gets to walk away happy. This is a real, honest to goodness tragedy. It’s amazingly well done and compelling but if you need closure or any sense of happiness in your endings this is absolutely not for you.
Characters: This story was straight up about the characters and their relationships and the way those complex webs of relationship shaped and informed who they were as human beings and how they reacted to any given situation. Yes, there was generally a plot to the first 2/3ish of the show dealing with a murder case and how several characters were involved, and I guess the overall plot was about Moo Young and Jin Kang’s past and the truth about who they were, but that was mostly subtext to a story that was propelled forward entirely by the people who populated the world and their connections to each other.
I will be real with you all, I thought I’d watched a lot of K Dramas (30+ at this point) but I feel I’ve discovered a whole new genre recently, with Beautiful World first and then this. In both the overall tone is very much a melodrama and the characters are gritty and complex and overwhelmingly REAL. As with most dramas the story was driven by the leads, who I will discuss in more detail below, but it also involved a rich secondary cast of characters that were all brilliantly written and expertly acted and the whole experience was so immersive. From Tak, Jin Gook’s best friend and possibly future (maybe even current??? unclear) girlfriend, to Jin Gook’s colleague/enemy in the police force to Seung Ah, the sweet and naive rich artist, to Seung Ah’s controlling rich boyfriend, to the psychiatrist who opens the story but doesn’t really appear as meaningful until much later, to Moo Young’s deeply traumatized friend who at one point legit tries to murder our beloved main character but still manages to elicit sympathy from both characters in the story and the audience, to the woman who thinks she can beat Moo Young at his own game– a whole, rich cast of characters whose stories intermingle, usually in the most tragic of ways. All such good (good as in satisfying and interesting and compelling, here, as most are morally gray at best) characters.
At the helm of this broad and rich cast of characters is Kim Moo Young (Seo In Guk), the titular character in the English translation (as he is the one without a smile in his eyes). Wow is this a complex and fascinating character, made more so by the fact that this is clearly his story and he is in no way a hero character. I am not going to say that all leads in K Dramas are good or heroic characters, but in general the trajectory of K Drama male leads is from complicated or jerky or selfish to a decent human being by the end of the story, because naturally you want to be able to root for them. Moo Young is not so simple. When we first meet him he’s a very disconnected, fairly selfish dude who we learn pretty quickly enjoys playing games with the people around him and becomes involved in a relationship with a rich artist girl that appears sweet but always feels off. On the one hand you see him doing nice things occasionally, sometimes things that even get him into trouble, but there’s an air about him and the very expertly acted facial expressions In Guk uses to signal that there is something potentially sinister going on. In the early episodes he seems like a really troubled jerk, the kind of guy who is used to being distrusted and spat on and who has learned to view this kind of treatment as a challenge and to mess with the people he feels disrespected by appropriately. In some ways you can see the world from his perspective and understand this impulse, but the consequences of these games get out of control really quickly and it sure is not OK. By the middle of the story it’s clear that he enabled one murder which not only clearly resulted in the death of a person but also meant that he’d created a situation in which his very troubled friend became responsible for taking someone’s life. In addition to that, the game he was playing with Seung Ah and her boyfriend resulted in both of them dying, and he openly admits he would not have done anything different if he could go back in time and do it again–for him their deaths were a worthwhile consequence in the power struggle he decided to engage in with someone who he chose to dislike. On top of that he’s evasive and dishonest and often rude, sometimes downright cruel, to Jin Kang despite their growing relationship. Yet somehow, despite all of this, he is compelling. Perhaps even likable. It may be because he’s framed as the protagonist, and it may be because In Guk is a gifted actor who is able to expertly portray both Moo Young’s outer affect as well as his inner thoughts via micro expressions. By the time we move into the latter third of the show and Moo Young really takes over as the driving emotional force, discovering his own past and doing some pretty drastic things up to (and including) murder as a result, you cannot help but want there to be some way, any way that this story can end well for him. By then he’s been exposed down to his raw, naked emotional core, he’s been run through the gambit, gained things he never believed possible and then lost everything that he cared about, everything that kept in going, in blow after blow after blow. When he pulls out the gun and shoots the company CEO I was neither surprised by it nor particularly upset–I was resigned to it, having accepted the depth of his pain and his clear and total belief that there was nothing left for him. Still, to the bitter, bitter end I wanted, and needed, there to be a way for him to have the kind of future he at one point believed he could have. I needed him to be able to be with Jin Kang, to have the briefest respite from his lifetime of pain, to continue seeing the psychiatrist and to let go of all the pain and guilt and anger and rage that was weighing him down and just… learn how to move on. This character, the way he was written, the way he was acted–he made me feel things. A lot of things I didn’t want to feel. A lot of emotional agony. A lot of heavy things. But I also felt all the other things as well, the quiet moments of joy, the comfort and relief he felt when things were OK with Jin Kang, his overwhelming love for her. It was a real emotional journey and it was a beautiful, if often painful, thing to behold.
Yoo Jin Kang (Jung So Min) was presented in many synopses as the main character but she was definitely a secondary lead on this, I believe both in terms of screen time and personal story. She was still an incredible character and an absolute delight. The foil to Moo Young in every way, Jin Kang knows how to interact with people, has control over her own emotions, does the right thing in pretty much every situation, and also knows how to experience joy in both the little things and the big things. While she has her own mysterious past and knows she was an orphan and doesn’t know why Jin Gook’s family took her in, while she sometimes dreams of the family she never knew, she is also happy and secure in her own life and her own place as Jin Gook’s sister. When she first meets Moo Young he’s rude to her, then later he performs two small acts of kindness that stick with her. It’s clear she feels connected to him, intrigued by him, probably attracted to him, but she spends a lot of their early relationship yelling at him for the way he treats her and others. Pretty early on her story becomes collapsed into his–Jin Kang does not have much of her own plot beyond her friendship with Seung Ah, her growing relationship with Moo Young, and her relationship with her brother Jin Gook. But frankly she doesn’t need much else, because there sure is a lot happening between the lot of them up to the point where Seung Ah ends up dead and she eventually decides to accept that she is falling for Moo Young, despite everything. So much of the story focuses on the way Moo Young’s feelings for her change something fundamental about him, but there is a lot going on on her side of the equation as well. For the most part this is a roller-coaster of joy and pain– she is madly, utterly, and completely in love. When things are going well with Moo Young she is a ray of sunshine and an utter joy to behold. When Moo Young is upset or hurting (and not taking it out on her) she is an anchor, and a comfort. When Moo Young is lashing out at her or failing to communicate, she is an emotional wreck. In the final two episodes, when he believes she is his biological sister and leaves her and then discovers the truth only after he’s become a murder, her emotional range comes out in full swing. When Jin Kang has a total breakdown, completely consumed by emotional agony–holy wow. So Min really, really captured it and it was hard to watch. Physically and emotionally painful to consume. In her final moment, telling Moo Young that she wants to live and she wants to live with him because she can’t live without him–one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen.
Yoo Jin Gook (Park Sung Woong) was maybe the most interesting (OK second most, Moo Young takes the cake easily) character on the roster because of how freaking hard it was to tell what kind of person he was for a good half of this show. In the opening he’s kind of this fumbling older cop who likes to tease his sister and doesn’t have much of a life but is happy enough. He seems genuine and sweet and it makes it really freaky when he starts to obsess over the murder case and specifically Moo Young’s involvement. His slow and careful unraveling up until the point where he stabs Moo Young was sinister as heck to watch, and if he had turned out to be the true “villain” of the series as it were I would have bought it. But he wasn’t, because people are complicated and that was the theme of this show. People are complicated and fear is the scariest thing of all because it leads people to some really fucked up things. Following that incident we get the flip side, seeing Jin Gook slowly pick of the pieces that have been unraveling, accept his guilt, take responsibility for his mistakes, and by the end actually starting to care about Moo Young. Somehow, by the final couple episodes, Jin Gook has returned to this emotional, stable anchor that characters like Moo Young and Jin Kang cling to and that circular character arc was SO. FASCINATING. The final shot of Jin Gook kneeling in front of Jin Kang and Moo Young’s dead bodies and screaming in agony was so. incredibly. powerful. What a ride.
Relationships: There are three main, interconnected relationships and I’ll talk about two briefly and then the other one… not so briefly. (Is anyone even still reading wow).
First, and easiest, is the Jin Kang/ Jin Gook relationship. These two are really just brother and sister, with the much older brother also playing a fatherly role having raised his sister on his own. They tease each other a lot, are completely comfortable with one another, and care deeply for each other. It’s a sweet relationship that takes a painful turn when Jin Kang is starting to fall for Moo Young and Jin Gook is absolutely not OK with it–it’s clear from their reactions to each other during this part of the show that they aren’t used to disagreeing and are hurt by each other’s failure to accept what the other wants. Overall they had a powerful and realistic bond and I enjoyed their relationship, even in its contentious moments, but I am still and will probably always be baffled by how easily she got over the fact that he stabbed Moo Young? Like yes in the moment she was upset and righteously asking him what was wrong with him, but then they kind of just? Moved past it? I have brothers also that I love and care for and if either of them stabbed my husband you can bet we wouldn’t be perfectly cool after the initial “how could you??” blow up.
Jin Gook and Moo Young had a fascinating adversarial relationship. As the story was set up Jin Gook seemed like this really kind, good natured guy–even when it came to confronting Im Yoo Ri about being a murderer he was compassionate and encouraged her to learn from her mistake and strive to be a better person. He was, to almost every other human being he countered, an older brother type figure, often passive, always polite, generally kind, fairly wise. But not to Moo Young–from the beginning he is suspicious, uncomfortable, and often downright cruel. Moo Young seems to enjoy his attentions at first, but the pair move downhill up until Jin Gook stabs him. After that Moo Young discovers that Jin Gook is responsible for killing his father and confronts him–twice–once with a gun. By then Jin Gook has settled down, accepted he went off the deep end, and is resigned to his fate. By the time Moo Young commits murder the only person he seems to trust to speak to is Jin Gook, which is the kind of thing you’d never have expected from either of them even several episodes earlier. But by the time it happens in the finale, and when they part ways with a hug, it feels right. These two understand each other in a deep way–they’ve both been totally raw and exposed in front of one another and it’s created a bond of sorts (a kind of twisted one, but it’s there nonetheless).
The central relationship is, of course, the romance between Moo Young and Jin Kang. I have like…. a lot of thoughts and feelings about this but this is already easily my longest review so I will attempt to be brief. No promises.
So, first, this was not a normal K Drama romance set up. In the first episode Moo Young meets both Seung Ah and Jin Kang. The extent of his interaction with Jin Kang is to be rude to her and then serve her a beer later. We get way more time with Moo Young and Seung Ah, who end the episode with a kiss. And honestly they were super cute the first two episodes–it made me extremely confused and unsure how in the world we were going to end up with a Moo Young and Jin Kang relationship at all. But at that point I was still expecting this to follow a formula of some kind and I guess I forgot it was a remake of a Japanese Drama and not a typical K Drama experience. In any event, Jin Kang and Moo Young do build slowly over the first few episodes, bonding over their burn scars and the fact they they’re orphans. Jin Kang seems unsure of Moo Young but witnesses a few moments of kindness and seems drawn to him. Moo Young is definitely interested in Jin Kang but is like, terrible at expressing it. As things get darker and more twisted in Moo Young’s world it becomes clear that Jin Kang is this kind of beacon for him, that maybe he needs her more than he wants her. And she knows she should walk away but can’t seem to make herself do it, even before it gets serious.
This is very much one of those stories where an emotionally distant and morally gray guy meets a woman who has her shit together and she is the only person in the world he cares about and he explicitly and implicitly begs her to help make him a better person.
Disclaimer: this is an unhealthy and dangerous story to tell, as in reality this is just… not how the world works. Emotionally unhealthy people don’t meet good people and magically get better. Bad boys don’t meet good girls and turn good. THIS IS NOT TO SAY that people cannot evolve, or change, or grow. But there is a dangerous trope about people “fixing” other people in relationships that in the real world leads almost exclusively to unhealthy and occasionally dangerous relationships.
HOWEVER. In fiction, it’s an incredibly powerful and compelling dynamic. The extreme joy these two get from each other, the way they’re so drawn to each other, the way they share with each other things they’ve never shared with anyone else, the way they clearly and totally and completely love each other–whew it’s moving stuff. They sure do make you hurt when they’re hurting and you sure do want them to be together and to find a way to be happy.
I have to say when Moo Young believed Jin Kang was his sister and tried to break up with her, the way she told him she knew he was bullshitting, the way she refused to give in–it was powerful. The total emotional breakdowns they both experienced when separated–damn. I felt things I very much did not want to feel. I was deeply sad at the end when Jin Kang never learned the truth about what was going on with Moo Young–why he’d tried to leave her and why he’d committed murder. I was also really sad when they died, but there was something beautiful about them dying together, in each other’s arms, telling each other they loved each other.
To be fair I think that, on a meta level, that was actually important to the story– Jin Kang was never going to come out of this love affair alive, and Moo Young was never going to find redemption. The story made that very clear by any variety of warnings throughout, but the power of it was how badly it made you want to ignore the warnings and made you hope there might be a happy ending anyway.
High Points: Just… the whole thing.
Low Points: I guess the emotional pain you experience while watching this?
Final comments: I think I’ve written enough about this, haha. In all honesty I was impressed with the way it addressed the ideas of trauma and guilt in nuanced ways. I loved how real and not always likable the characters were. I loved how compelling it all was even if so much of it was clearly twisted and problematic. I was a big, big fan of this (binged it in 3 days) and recommend if you are into melodramas and can handle more intense, heavy subject matter. If you need happy endings or heroic characters, this is not for you.