Once upon a time, I used to categorize Jung Kyung Ho in my head as Dramaland’s go-to beta male, especially after seeing him in 2009’s Smile, You, where he was the sweetest beta male love interest to Lee Min Jung’s feisty broke chaebol. (Twas a sweet and cute story, pity about the whopping 16-episode extension, which then resulted in lots ‘n lots of pointless and frustrating filler. Boo.)
Back then, I liked Jung Kyung Ho well enough, but mostly in a casual, almost cursory sort of way. Compare that to today, when I would quite literally check out a show purely because Jung Kyung Ho is in it, y’know, because he is just so wonderful and brilliant and so good at what he does. *hearts in eyes* What an amazing evolution, eh?
So did I check out this show purely because Jung Kyung Ho is in it? Why, yes I did. Did I know what I was in for? No, can’t say I knew much at all, going in. Did I eventually understand everything about this show, and its somewhat fantastical premise? I’m gonna hafta say, No, I do not.
But did I enjoy it all the way through anyway? Oh yessiree. I sure did. <3
STUFF TO KEEP IN MIND
So I literally knew next to nothing, getting into this show. I knew that Jung Kyung Ho was in it; that this also stars Park Sung Woong; that this was an adaptation of a successful UK series; that people were saying that this was good. And that was it.
So I’m here to help with just a couple of things to keep in mind, to maximize your enjoyment of this one.
1. Show’s got a warm and fuzzy reputation for its budding relationships, but this one’s by OCN after all. So, y’know, there’s a fair bit of serial murders, blood and associated violence in it. In fact, the first half of episode 1 is kind of intense like that. Always good to be prepared.
2. There’s what I’ll call a fantasy bent to this show, with Jung Kyung Ho’s character Tae Joo seeming to be connected to two realities at once. Show is pretty great at the special effects connected to this, but, is ever vague in terms of what it all means. I realized fairly quickly that the best way for me to enjoy this show, was to sit back and enjoy the ride, without trying too hard to figure it all out.
STUFF I ENJOYED
1. Overall handling and execution
Overall, I found that there many things I enjoyed about the handling and execution in this show. Here’s a quick list:
It feels nicely balanced
Perhaps the most important thing of all, for me, was the feeling that Show knew that the characters and their relationships were our main focus, and kept that in mind all the way through.
With dramas that feature crime, it’s always a challenge to keep that balance between making the cases robust and interesting enough, while at the same time giving the character and relationship journeys enough time in the spotlight. I’m really pleased with how Life On Mars managed to keep this balance, and keep it quite beautifully, all the way through too.
Even though there are cases, those cases never take over our narrative. The cases are just interesting enough, and just long enough, to pique my interest. And the presence of the cases is just strong enough, for me, to feel like it balances nicely with our key characters and their relationship development.
[SPOILER ALERT] Case in point, the story of the murder in episode 4, which I found particularly sad and sobering. First, the mom admitting to murder to protect her daughter, then the child rape that comes to light, then the poisoning by bleach, which the village chief’s daughter had used to poison her husband, and then her mother. My goodness. It sent chills down my spine, just thinking of this character, who basically kills her husband, her father, and then attempts to kill her mother, in cold blood – for the sake of insurance money, which she squanders on the jerk who sold her the insurance. It’s awful – and also, very gripping – stuff.
I liked that even though there is a great deal of focus on the case at hand, through it all, we continue to see the key character relationships continue to evolve and grow. Through the process of working together on the case and butting heads with each other, and getting exasperated with each other, we see a slight but discernible shift in the amount of respect Tae Joo and Dong Chul (Park Sung Woong) have for each other. It’s excellent stuff, and I rejoice all over again, at how Show does such a great job of not letting the cases take over the narrative. [END SPOILER]
It feels warm and kind of familiar
I seem to have a perpetual soft spot for all things nostalgic when it comes to dramas. You guys know I loved the Answer Me series (especially Answer Me 1988), and this show’s touch and sense of humor kind of reminds me of the Answer Me franchise.
The retro setting; the focus on a sense of community; the lo-tech way of getting things done; the rough-talking belying the marshmallow heart; the sometimes rude – but harmless – sense of humor; all of these elements put together made me think that this show kinda-sorta feels like the Answer Me crew got together and decided to try their hand at retro crime, with a measure of possible time travel thrown in for funsies. Which I mean in the best possible way.
It’s very well-done – AND it feels like it is organically its own thing
The directing and cinematography is pretty excellent in my opinion, with snazzy angles in 2018, moody lighting in 1988, and magicky special effects for when one timeline touches the other. On a more subtle note, the lighting is carefully differentiated, with 2018 using more bluish-tinged lighting, while everything in 1988 has a more sepia type of hue.
Over and above how polished and well thought-out everything looks, I’m even more impressed with how well this writer took a concept from the UK, and then blended it so well with events in Korean history, such that key events in Korean history, [MINOR SPOILER] like the environmental clean-up in episode 12 [END SPOILER], could turn out to be key to the entire mystery. I haven’t seen the original UK series, but I don’t need to have seen the source material to be able to tell that this was a really well-done adaptation. Ten thumbs up for that, Show.
2. Jung Kyung Ho as Han Tae Joo
I know I already alluded to this in my opening paragraphs, but let me just say it again: Jung Kyung Ho is fantastic in this.
Tae Joo is a pretty reticent character from start to finish, even throughout his journey of development, and it’s testament to Jung Kyung Ho’s ability to communicate so well through his gaze and his micro-expressions, that I consistently felt in tune with Tae Joo’s emotional and mental landscape. Without Tae Joo having to say very much at all, I often felt like he was communicating not just broad strokes of feeling, but faceted, nuanced shades of emotion, often shifting in slight but distinct degrees in a matter of moments, as Tae Joo’s mental gears clicked various things into place. It’s nothing short of masterful, and I found him such a pleasure to watch. <3
One of the scenes that really sticks in my mind, in terms of showcasing Jung Kyung Ho’s amazing acting chops, is in episode 6.
Episode 6 is a complete rollercoaster of emotions for Tae Joo. From his shock and grief at finding out that his dad (Jun Suk Ho) was wimpy and slimey, to Tae Joo coming around to what an awesome dad he was at the heart of it all, to Tae Joo’s horror as the memory clicks into place – and he realizes that his dad was involved in the nail polish murder he witnessed as a kid.
Jung Kyung Ho’s expression in that moment is so perfect, yet so hard to describe. It’s horror, disbelief, denial and realization all mashed into one overwhelming wave, as it washes over his features in one long second. His facial muscles barely move in that moment, but the stages of emotion invading him are so clear; it looks as if his eyes are going to pop out of their sockets from him trying to hold it all in. All I could think in response was, MY WORD he is good. *more hearts in eyes*
3. Go Ah Sung as Ms. Yoon
I seriously loved Ms. Yoon and the treatment of her character – and I feel like Go Ah Sung did a wonderful job bringing Ms. Yoon to life.
At first glance, Ms. Yoon is the quiet mouse of a token female in the midst of a male-dominated team, and she is thoughtlessly given all the department’s mundane administrative girlfriday type things to do. I love that she never complains about it, and does everything that is asked of her in her quietly efficient way. Yet, at the same time, she manages to demonstrate that she is so much more than what her colleagues first assume her to be.
I love that Ms. Yoon keeps on thinking about case details and analyzing things on her own; that shows how sincerely curious she is about the cases, and how genuinely hopeful she is, that she would be able to uncover some detail that might come in helpful for the team. I love how smart and thoughtful she is, and I love the way she keeps thinking out of the box as well. Whenever she’s given a chance to do real police work, she always jumps at it with joy, even if it’s risky. She takes such pleasure in her work, and I love it. So much.
She’s wayyy more valuable than the other detectives realize, and I loved the trajectory of Ms. Yoon blossoming, and taking on more real police work, and demonstrating what a sweet badass she could be.
I love that Ms. Yoon’s arc is basically about taking a woman who’s boxed in by societal norms, and giving her the opportunities to shine, that in turn put the spotlight on her talent and smarts, and give her the wings to fly. It’s way more satisfying to watch this woman be empowered in spite of her circumstances, than it is to watch most kdrama female leads, and I loves it.
My favorite Ms. Yoon moments are the times that she goes undercover, because that is when she keeps flipping the lid off others’ expectations of her, by being a complete star.
I loved the time in episode 3 when she turned the tables on the guy who took her hostage, and then kicked his butt. That was awesome.
But my most favorite Ms. Yoon moment just might be the time in episode 5, when she goes undercover to help apprehend the creepy pharmacist. I love that she threw herself in there and basically made it possible to nab the guy, who would’ve gotten away if not for her courage and selflessness. Afterwards, I love that her explanation to him about why his actions were considered a crime, is not a technical one, but one that takes into account the wellbeing of the victims.
Girl’s got heart, and blooms so wonderfully when given a chance to fly. Guh, I love her. <3
Special shout-out: the burgeoning loveline between Tae Joo and Ms. Yoon
Unlike most kdramas, there is no front-and-center loveline in Life On Mars. Instead, the loveline between Tae Joo and Ms. Yoon is a subtle thing, humming quietly in the background. I found that despite this loveline being so understated, I enjoyed it very much.
[VAGUE SPOILERS] In particular, I loved that Tae Joo treats Ms. Yoon with respect. Even while the rest of the team thinks of her simply as a convenient assistant, Tae Joo accords her with the courtesy of an equal; a police officer and colleague, rather than a beck-and-call girl. It’s in the small things that he does; the way he chooses to address her as Officer Yoon instead of the Ms. Yoon that everyone else favors; the way he doesn’t ask her to make him coffee; the way he offers her coffee that he’s made instead; the way he notices when she’s developing a hypothesis about a case; the way he asks questions, then pays attention and listens, when she explains her train of thought; the way he puts value on her ideas, instead of dismissing them. It’s no wonder that Ms. Yoon melts and blossoms in the face of it all. And it’s no wonder too, that when the occasion calls for it, she pushes herself out of her comfort zone, in order to save Tae Joo.
On the other side of the fence, Ms. Yoon is the one who listens to Tae Joo when he’s talking crazy – and she doesn’t dismiss him as crazy either. Instead, she listens and tries to understand, while sincerely offering her thoughts in response, even though she doesn’t fully understand where he’s coming from. It’s no wonder that Tae Joo grows a soft spot for her too. [END SPOILERS]
It’s all very understated, and yet, so very sweet, that I couldn’t help but enjoy every shared scene these two had together.
4. The reluctant bromance between Tae Joo and Dong Chul
The burgeoning (very) reluctant bromance between Tae Joo and Dong Chul (Park Sung Woong) is truly one of my favorite things to watch, in this show.
First of all, Tae Joo and Dong Chul are as different as chalk and cheese. While Tae Joo is reticent, analytical, and scientific, with a strong preference for doing things by the book, Dong Chul is loud, kind of crass, streetwise and proud of it, with a tendency to treat rules and guidelines as mere.. suggestions. Second of all, to make things even more, er, exciting, Tae Joo and Dong Chul are equally obstinate and bull-headed. Ha.
I truly enjoyed watching these two traverse all the stages of this reluctant bromance, from outright dislike, to grudging respect, to trust, to solidarity, and eventually, a grudgingly affectionate brotherhood.
I couldn’t pick a favorite scene of these two, because I enjoyed every stage of their journey towards bromance, so here’s a bunch of highlights of their blossoming brotherhood instead.
E3. The way Tae Joo and Dong Chul face off in the hospital ward is exactly the turning point these two needed. They’re like 2 alpha dogs needing to fight it out, just to each gain respect for the other, in the process.
E5. The way Dong Chul princess-carries Tae Joo out to save him when he’s passed out from breathing in carbon monoxide, and then how he brings over food from his mother-in-law’s birthday celebration to Tae Joo’s house, is so full of Aw. The bromance is reluctantly blooming between Dong Chul and Tae Joo. Also, these two are definitely giving each other respect in the course of their investigations, and I love that.
E7. Dong Chul taking a bullet for Tae Joo, and Tae Joo feeling sorry and grateful when he thinks Dong Chul died in the process – until Dong Chul wakes up grumbling. Aw, and, ha.
E8. Dong Chul mothering Tae Joo when he gets all scratched up during the fight with the thugs, is so cute. The other members of the team observing the moment, and looking decidedly weirded out, is so funny. Tee hee.
E9. Dong Chul crashing with Tae Joo because he got kicked out by his wife. It’s quite endearing how this friendship is growing, albeit reluctantly. I do love that Dong Chul looks out for Tae Joo, and even seeks out Oh Jung Man (Kim Tae Han) the day after Tae Joo is drugged.
I loved the bit where Dong Chul is so delighted when Tae Joo decides to go rogue, and joins him with relish. He even admires Tae Joo’s detailed thinking, in terms of how to torture the suspect. And then when Tae Joo deduces how to pin Oh Jung Man down with evidence that he committed the murder, Dong Chul eyes him with a mother-hen kind of pride. It’s super cute.
It’s also really sweet that Dong Chul would drive Tae Joo home, even though he doesn’t need to crash at Tae Joo’s place that night. And leaving him a nekkid magazine too, for when things get difficult to bear, pfft.
E12. It was very gratifying to see Dong Chul take Tae Joo for his word and search for some random house with a cross on it, for literal hours, based on Tae Joo’s word alone.
E13. It’s heart-grabby stuff, that Dong Chul would turn to Tae Joo without hesitation, believing that Tae Joo would trust him and help him, when all the evidence is working against him and he’s being pinned for murder. Aw. And when Tae Joo leaves him at home for the day, I do love the way Dong Chul grabs onto Tae Joo’s leg and whines at him to come home soon coz he gets lonely. So cute.
5. The team
Related to – and somewhat similar – to Tae Joo’s relationship trajectory with Dong Chul, is Tae Joo’s relationship with (and also, impact on) the team.
While Dong Chul and Ms. Yoon have more pronounced individual connections with Tae Joo, Detective Lee (Lee Yong Ki) and Maknae Nam Sik (Noh Jong Hyun) do not. However, their gradual acceptance of Tae Joo was no less gratifying to watch, and Tae Joo’s eventual care for and loyalty to the team was completely moving and heart-grabby as well.
I grew to really enjoy watching the team members interact with one another, and eventually grow even more united, after absorbing Tae Joo into their midst.
Here are a couple of my favorite team-related moments in the show.
E2. I like that through butting heads on this case, Tae Joo is slowly gaining the respect and acceptance of the rest of the team, and vice versa.
E10. The way that Dong Chul leaps to his team’s defense, even in the face of something as serious as the death of a suspect while under interrogation, is pretty moving. He’s basically putting his own neck on the line, even though he had nothing to do with the death of the suspect. It’s no wonder the team is so loyal to him.
E13. When Dong Chul gets backed into the worst corner, with evidence pointing towards him as being the one who murdered Chief Kim (Kim Young Pil), it’s heartwarming to see the team come together to investigate despite being technically scattered by their re-assignments. They just want to help Dong Chul, and it’s sweet.
E14. I love the scene where the team gathers in Tae Joo’s house and eat food cooked by Ms. Yoon, under cover of night and torch light. It’s so heartwarming to see them be so loyal and supportive of Dong Chul and of each other, and take the time to feed one another and just be together, in the midst of all this confusion and stress. <3
E14. Everything about Dong Chul’s case culminates in a screaming crux by the end of the episode, with Tae Joo being bombarded by all kinds of information, with so many voices asking him to do different things, and he has to choose. And just like Ms. Yoon wisely advised, Tae Joo follows his heart, and runs towards his team – the people that he’s learned to trust. Ahh!!
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve felt more stumped nor conflicted before, by a drama finale.
I think your final reaction to the show would really depend on how you interpret the different realities that Tae Joo experiences in our story.
If you believe that 1988 is all a coma dream, and that his brief return to 2018 is reality, then he’s basically leaped off a building in reality, and either died or went into a coma, in order to choose his friends in 1988. Which sounds completely depressing, because then he’s died or seriously hurt himself, for the sake of people who are technically his imaginary friends. That’s just too, too sad.
If you believe that 1988 is a coma dream, and that his brief return to 2018 is also a coma dream (since he said that he couldn’t feel a thing, when his hand was cut up and bloody), then he’s just moved coma dreams. It’s still sad that in reality he’s still in a coma, but it’s comforting to think that while in his coma he’s found a way to be happy. And that still leaves things open, in that it’s still possible for Tae Joo to eventually wake up out of his coma and find a way to be happy in real life.
I guess the crux of it all, is whether Tae Joo is in a coma in reality – or if he died from the initial accident – and whether his brief return to 2018 was a return to reality or not. Whichever way you slice it, there’s a bittersweet quality about this finale, even though we leave Tae Joo smiling and happy.
Personally, I thought of Tae Joo as being in a coma dream throughout my watch, and given that he said he couldn’t feel a thing during his brief return to 2018, I decided to believe that his late-show 2018 stint was him possibly slipping into a deeper coma. And perhaps that’s why while he was in 2018, he stopped hearing all those voices from the hospital. Which means that when I left Tae Joo at the end of my watch, I have it in my head that he’s physically still in a coma, with a possible new future ahead of him if/when he wakes up. In the meantime, I’m taking comfort in the fact that he’s happy in his 1988 reality, hanging out with his 1988 friends.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Heart-bendy and purposefully vague, but really well done, and so wonderfully acted too. Absolutely worth the emotional investment.
FINAL GRADE: A-