What a solid, surprising little gem of a drama, you guys.
There are so few kdramas that attempt the science fiction genre, that off the top of my head, I can only think of one other drama – 2010’s Joseon X-Files (also known as Secret Investigation Record) – as a show somewhat in the same category. That in itself makes Circle a bit of a special snowflake, in my books. In addition, whether or not you’re into science fiction (I’m not super into it myself), Circle manages to be consistently interesting, compelling, & mysterious; sometimes rather exciting, and almost always emotionally engaging.
When I started this one, I wasn’t all that sure I would like this odd science fiction duck of a drama, to be honest, but now that I’ve emerged on the other side, I can sincerely say that I’m glad I made time for this one.
Usually, I expect to understand what’s going on in a show relatively early into my watch. That’s.. just not the case, with this show. With this show, even at the episode 8 mark – out of a total of 12 episodes – I found myself still not fully understanding what was going on. Not only that, by this time, I’d kind of given up on knowing and understanding what was what, and was content to simply let Show take me along for the ride.
I personally found that to be a good decision, because Show does prove that it has a story to tell and that it knows where it wants to go.
There are some things that don’t add up (I’ll talk more about those later), but overall, Show does a solid job of tying everything together, in spite of its ambitious set-up.
The other thing to know about this show, is that it’s not just a sci-fi mystery story; it also has strong melodramatic leanings. Put together, it all makes for a ride that’s both kind of wild [SPOILER] what with the whole alien thing, the lost twin thing, combined with the dramatic music swirling around from time to time, to the mysterious Chairman who doesn’t speak and who communicates via twitches of his leather-gloved hand, and who might well be the lost twin himself [END SPOILER] and also, emotionally satisfying.
STUFF I LIKED
Show keeps you on your toes
Immediately, this show definitely feels different from your usual kdrama.
There are a total of 3 timelines in this story, and Show presents all 3 each episode, consistently opening the episode with a snippet from 2007, then spending its first half in 2017, before switching over in its second half to 2037.
Show takes its sci-fi premise, mixes in a dystopian Korea in 2037, throws in murder mysteries that may or may not be alien-related, ties it all together with missing family members, and then metes out information nuggets of each arc, episode by episode.
There’s a whole lotta drama potential, and there’s also a whole lotta potential for jigsaw-puzzle type storytelling, which Show capitalizes on. Show gets intense pretty fast, and keeps things mysterious, confusing and compelling all the way through. As Show dished out its various pieces of the puzzle, I became curioser and curioser with each reveal, and I also got more and more puzzled, at what it all meant. It just made my head spin – in a good way.
Altogether, Show serves up episodes that are bizarre and freaky, but also, intriguing and compelling, and I consistently felt like Show was keeping me on the edge of my seat, while balancing me on the tips of my toes, with my brain hanging in the balance, trying to make sense of it all.
Show is thought-provoking
One of my favorite things about this show, is that on top of telling its rollercoaster of a story, it manages to be thought-provoking at the same time.
The central idea that Show plays with all series long, is the idea of memories, and what it means. Here’s a look at the various angles that Show explores the theme of memories.
E3. The big question of how ethical it is to remove someone’s memories. Does that make them different people?
E7. The question of what is right, and what is better? Both Joon Hyuk (Kim Kang Woo) and Ho Soo (Lee Ki Kwang) grapple with that, and end up fully exploring the other side, before reaching a conclusion.
Ho Soo had started out defending Human B and the right to have his memories wiped, but the more he explores his memories and the context around those memories, the more he’s convinced that it’s not right to allow people to erase their memories.
Joon Hyuk, on the other hand, has always believed that our memories make up who we are, and has been fighting to stop Human B. But, when he’s faced with the possibility that Woo Jin (Yeo Jin Goo) might have created Human B on his account, because he’d seen how free Joon Hyuk was, without his memories, he really stops to consider whether he should just live as Joon Hyuk and stop pursuing his memories and his brother.
E7. The idea that memories equal responsibility and justice. That is very wise.
E10. The idea that our memories make us who we are, is brought up again and again. Beom Gyun (Ahn Woo Yeon) is a different person without his memories, and so is Byul (Gong Seung Yeon).
E11. The idea of memories making us who we are. The debate over whether the clone is Woo Jin: if the clone has Woo Jin’s memories and remembers and recognizes people, does that make him Woo Jin?
Yeo Jin Goo as Woo Jin
Our entire cast delivers a solid performance, but for me, Yeo Jin Goo’s character Woo Jin ends up being the heart of this story, and by Show’s end, Woo Jin was the character for whom my heart felt the most. To my eyes, Woo Jin became the heart and soul of this story, despite never wanting anything to do with this alien business to begin with.
Of course, Yeo Jin Goo’s consistently excellent delivery just made Woo Jin pop for me all the more, as a character.
Show packs an emotional punch
Even though, as I mentioned earlier, I often didn’t quite understand what was going on in our story, the emotions of our key characters helped to keep me grounded and invested. The lingering sense of depth of meaning, thanks to Show’s relentless exploration of its main theme of memories, also deepened my emotional response to this show.
It’s true that Show saves its biggest emotional punches for its last stretch, but boy, were those worth waiting for. The following scene legit brought tears to my eyes, it was just so powerful.
[SPOILER] In episode 11, the last scene of Joon Hyuk throwing away his earlier pronouncement that the clone isn’t Woo Jin, and addressing him as Woo Jin, and embracing him, while the clone shares, with deep emotion, what Woo Jin had last said to his brother, is such an emotionally powerful one. I teared up at this.
Joon Hyuk’s defenses come down when he sees that the clone is scared too, just like his brother was. And it’s viscerally moving to me, that the clone acts exactly like Woo Jin would; he’s prepared to give himself up for the safety and well-being of others. That’s exactly what Woo Jin did in 2017, and that’s what the clone made in his image is choosing to do now. Augh. Chills. [END SPOILER]
STUFF I LIKED LESS
Some of the Intended Funny doesn’t work for me
Show isn’t designed to be a funny show by any means, but we do get served some comedic beats for a bit of levity. I’m sorry to say that most of these didn’t work for me.
E2. As much as I hate to admit it, I do think Kim Kang Woo isn’t very funny. Those beats where Joon Hyuk tries to be funny and comical with Ho Soo are really not amusing to me.
E2. Or maybe it’s Show that I don’t find funny, coz the scenes of the detectives coercing Dong Soo (Oh Ui Shik) into helping them is played for laughs, but I didn’t find it funny either.
Logic stretches and plot holes
After 12 years of drama-watching, I’ve come to the conclusion that even the most tightly-written drama tends to possess weaknesses in the form of logic stretches and plot holes. I don’t hold these against Show much, since it managed to be intense, rollercoastery and emotionally engaging in spite of its shortcomings, but I thought I’d just share them for the record.
E2. Unless the alien has mind control powers, I cannot believe that a family that had met a potential alien would take her home and feed and clothe her and celebrate birthdays with her, instead of calling the authorities.
E5. The mounting horror as Woo Jin follows the trail of blood, indicating that his hyung was likely the person whose blood they were seeing, and then losing his hyung right before his eyes, is awful and hard to watch. Although, that was a lot of blood for one person to lose, which makes it curious that Beom Gyun was still conscious and able to look out the ambulance window at Woo Jin.
E8. Professor Han (Song Young Kyu) suddenly feeling bad about killing people, and going a bit crazy in 2017 feels sudden and kind of out of character.
E11. The cross USB contained no useful information at all, and therefore there was no reason for Dad (Kim Joong Ki) to ask Gran to guard it closely and not give it to anyone except himself. That was just a red herring that writer-nim threw in there to make us believe that it was an important clue. With 20/20 hindsight, that feels a bit like a cheap trick, to be honest.
E11. If Woo Jin’s clone is always built with his memories, and is linked to the supercomputer while in a coma, only to remember that he’d just been in an accident upon waking, then why would there have been a photo of a clone smiling in front of the Chairman’s painting while wearing a suit? That doesn’t add up.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
I’d heard that Circle’s ending leaves things open, so I’d braced myself for a multitude of unanswered questions, as I approached the end of this finale. Perhaps because of this, I find myself solidly satisfied and happy with where Show leaves us.
I found the stage-by-stage reveal of the Big Plan of our Ragtag Six clever and nicely surprising, but it was the emotional beats this hour that really hit me in the heart.
The flashback to 2017 Woo Jin breaks my heart, because he’s so very sacrificial and caring. He never wanted a part of this alien/memory business, but when push comes to shove, he chooses to put his very life on the line, to protect the ones that he loves, which ultimately leads to his death. Augh. Sob.
At the same time, there’s the heartbreak of the brother for whom Woo Jin made that sacrifice. Joon Hyuk/Beom Gyun must be so stricken to realize that his dear twin had basically sacrificed himself in order to ensure that he would be able to have surgery. How does one bear the weight of that knowledge, really?
My favorite moment this entire episode – possibly this entire show? – is when Joon Hyuk sits down and talks with Woo Jin’s clone outside the church, and basically acknowledges and embraces him as Woo Jin.
Although this isn’t actually Woo Jin, this clone – this person – is Woo Jin’s legacy. He’s all that’s left of Woo Jin; a priceless, precious way through whom Joo Hyuk can keep his memories of his brother alive. Better yet, he can keep on interacting with his brother, almost as if Woo Jin had never left, because this Woo Jin acts and thinks and speaks just like the original, and with all of the original’s memories intact too.
What deep comfort, for the gaping wound that Joo Hyuk’s been living with for the last 20 years. In protecting Woo Jin’s clone, Joo Hyuk is protecting what’s left of Woo Jin, just like Woo Jin had chosen to protect Beom Gyun all those years ago. What a sweetly poignant full circle.
I found the rooftop face-off with Minister Park (Han Sang Jin) suitably tense and nerve-wracking, and most of all, I found it endlessly fitting, that ultimately, Minister Park met his end by the greed of his own hand.
Finally, as we see our other characters go back to their rightful places – Chief Hong (Seo Hyun Chul) back to drawing comics, Joon Hyuk/Beom Gyun back to baking and teasing Min Young (Jung In Sun), and Mayor Yoon (Nam Myung Ryul) back to being Mayor – Ho Soo fronts a press conference to announce the end of Human B and the care chip system.
“Please accept the memories that come to you. If you have forgotten something you ought not have forgotten, remember it. And if you have forgotten a wrong you committed, take responsibility for it. And if you have forgotten sadness… if you have forgotten sadness…. I wish for you to feel sadness. Because that is what it means to be human. Finally, no matter what, please remember what happened to us in the year 2037.”
And so, Show ends its story with the same questions that it’s been prompting us to ask, all series long: Would life really be better without our memories? Aren’t memories the very things that make us what we are? What are we, really, without our memories?
As these questions hang in the air, we see that there’s another alien visitation in our drama world, and as Byul’s eyes and face suddenly flash their alien form, Show’s credits start to roll.
We aren’t told what happens next; it’s possible that Byul then returns to her motherland; it’s also possible that this simply marks the arrival of a fellow alien. So many narrative possibilities! It’s no wonder this show’s fans are hopeful for a second season. Whatever the case, I’d like to believe that Byul eventually gets her memories restored, because if Show’s conclusion is that our memories make us who we are, then I’d really like Byul to have the chance to have back the memories that help to make her who she is, too.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Daringly different; manages to be emotionally engaging & thought-provoking, despite some plot holes and logic stretches. A solid watch.
FINAL GRADE: B++