At some point during military service, Hyun Bin and Rain (Bi) must have crossed paths and dared each other to make really boring comeback projects. How else to find out if you’re a really big star, right? Maybe you succeeded in the past because you had good scripts, good direction, or good costars. Only by picking a truly mediocre show can you measure your success.
Rain made an impressive first move with the autumn’s My Lovable Girl. The romance had a simple plot, slow pacing and relatively lifeless cast, but Chinese broadcasters still paid a record-breaking sum for its licensing rights. That’s star power.
Hyun Bin was going to have to come up with something pretty good to beat that. Weaker men would have despaired during the muddled final episodes of My Lovable Girl. He could have conceded the victory right then and there.
But no! The opening week of dual personality drama Hyde, Jekyll, Me shows that Hyun Bin forged ahead. Though two episodes aren’t enough to judge a series, they do suggest Hyde, Jekyll, Me is a bold entry in the competition for Worst Comeback Project. Well played, Binnie, well played.
I hope I’m wrong. Maybe Hyde, Jekyll, Me will pick up the pace or develop a sense of humor. But I probably won’t stick around to find out.
I wonder, why do I give a second or third chance to some shows and not others? (In fact, I made it through eight or nine episodes of My Lovable Girl before realizing I cared more about the dog than the human characters.) I had reservations about the first two episodes of Kill Me, Heal Me—the other multiple personality drama that debuted this month—but I still watched week two. Why not tune in for week two of Hyde, Jekyll, Me?
The difference is that interesting shows can produce weak opening episodes because they’re aiming too high. It takes two episodes for actors to settle into complicated characters and for production staff to develop a coherent tone for a show that’s trying to do too much.
Hyde, Jekyll, Me, on the other hand, aims low, woefully low. The writer and director seem to be afraid to tell us too much too soon. Although viewers know Hyun Bin is playing a man with two sides—that’s the very meaning of the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde”—episodes one and two try to create suspense around his alter-ego. His central personality, the unlikable Director Koo, is dreading a possible appearance by his kind other half, Robin. He worries if his heart-rate or blood pressure gets too high, he’ll transform. The script seems to want us to worry along with him.
But as a viewer, I’m looking forward to seeing “the good guy.” I’m not going to start fearing him no matter how many images you show me of Hyun Bin chanting Sanskrit mantras and looking worried. Director Koo is a jerk! Show me the good guy!
Unfortunately, Robin doesn’t appear until the end of the second episode. His face lights up in a smile after he rescues the heroine (Han Ji-Min) from being crushed by a giant falling disco ball. The artful lighting highlights his dimpled cheek for the camera. Hyun Bin! He’s back!
He’s cute, but it’s too little too late.
Before his appearance, we have 115 minutes of Hyun Bin and Han Ji-Min struggling to make something of their one-dimensional characters. Hyun Bin succeeds in being disagreeable as Koo Seo-Jin, the misanthropic theme park director. Han Ji-Min succeeds in being spunky as Jang Ha-Na, the trapeze artist running a small circus she inherited from her father.
But we don’t learn anything about the characters beyond the minimum for the plot. Director Koo keeps track of his vital functions using a high-tech pair of glasses that look like something Healer would pull out for a secret mission. He wants to close the circus and get rid of Ha-Na, because he had a prophetic dream that Robin would rescue her from a giant falling disco ball.
Ha-Na is nicer than Koo but we don’t learn much about her. She can do sleight of hand tricks, and as a child, she was once rescued from drowning by a mysterious stranger. And in the first episode’s one moment of real inspiration, she travels through the air by zip line to break into the medical building where Koo has an appointment.
Here, at the end of the first episode, she interrupts a kidnapping in progress—the kidnapping of Director Koo’s psychiatrist, who has just discovered a miracle cure for multiple personalities.
Yes. You read that right. A miracle cure.
Though the interrupted kidnapping gives an excuse for Director Koo to take interest in Ha-Na, it’s an irritating contrivance that comes out of the blue. Why would anyone go to these lengths to kidnap someone from inside an office building in broad daylight? And why, other than general concern for human welfare, should viewers care? We know the psychiatrist only from seeing her give a lecture and make a phone call to Director Koo.
The script offers one reason to care: the psychiatrist tells Director Koo that she has found a treatment to cure his dissociative identity disorder.
With this claim from the doctor, the show loses a lot of dramatic potential. It reduces human psychology to a switchboard that psychiatrists can reprogram. It seems the writer wants to reassure us that Seo-Jin’s illness won’t get complicated.
But dissociative identity disorder is unavoidably complicated, because personality is complicated. Can any of us point to the precise place in our brain where personality resides? The more a mental illness affects our sense of identity, the harder it becomes to treat with simple methods. Doctors can stop an epileptic seizure with one single, powerful injection. But there’s no injection or pill that goes straight to the heart of personality.
The discovery of a cure that only one doctor knows transforms the narrative into a police procedural rather than a drama about personalities under stress.
The magic cure might make sense if this were the original Robert Louis Stevenson short story about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson’s story was science fiction, in which drinking a secret potion caused the transformation. In science fiction, maybe a magic one-time treatment could change everything. Later versions of the Jekyll and Hyde myth stick to the science fiction genre. The 2007 BBC series with James Nesbitt, for instance, revolves around a fanciful human cloning plotline.
But just before the psychiatrist tells Director Koo about the cure, she delivers a dry lecture about dissociative identity disorder. The lecture suggests Hyde, Jekyll, Me wants us to think of this story as a realistic case of mental disorder.
You can’t have it both ways.
Koo Seo-Jin’s obsession with his heart-rate and the “miracle cure” suggest there’s a clear-cut mechanism that turns his personalities on and off. But Seo-Jin’s interest in hypnosis and psychiatry belong to the real world, where the mind isn’t mechanistic.
The script appears committed to the more simplistic model, while the nods to modern psychiatry are a fake-out, a pretense at setting this story in the twenty-first century. When Ha-Na visits hypnotherapist Dr. Yoon (Sung Joon, surprisingly playing a character who isn’t a musician or artist) in search of her memories of the kidnapper’s face, the doctor puts her into a trance using nothing more than a jazz album and a game of cat’s cradle. She quickly recalls almost everything. The writer wants us to believe the mind is this easy to handle.
At many points, the show grows nostalgic for obsolete pleasures—the circus itself, for instance. It draws on nineteenth-century formulas, not just with the reference to Jekyll and Hyde, but also with the angry escaped gorilla and the giant falling disco ball, which echoes the falling chandelier in Phantom of the Opera. (And you thought you’d never see the phrase “giant falling disco ball” three times in one post! Ah, K-dramas, I love you.)
Even the sleight of hand that Ha-Na performs for Seo-Jin and the game of cat’s cradle she plays with Dr. Yoon hark back to children’s pastimes before the digital age. Those are interesting moments, as if the show is reaching for a theme deeper than “Hyun Bin’s back!”
But mostly the show is only interesting in how little sense it makes. For instance, I can only cringe during Hyde, Jekyll, Me‘s outrageous CGI gorilla scene. More than thirty years have passed since Dian Fossey’s ground-breaking research proved that gorillas are gentle herbivores, not violent and dangerous. Didn’t Sigourney Weaver clear up these myths in the 1988 Gorillas in the Mist? What about celebrity gorillas like cat-loving National Geographic cover model Koko? And Binti Jua, who made international headlines by taking care of the three-year-old boy who fell into her zoo enclosure?
Maybe the great apes don’t have good publicists in South Korea. But the inexplicably irate gorilla indicates how unambitious this show is. If you’re going to rely on a cliché menace, it should at least be a cliché menace that isn’t forty years out of date. Why not have an escaped tiger? Tigers are actually dangerous. But a gorilla, really? It’s like claiming a giant St. Bernard puppy is menacing the theme park. Are we supposed to take this threat seriously?
I love when K-dramas embrace the implausible and make me believe. Bring on the impossible coincidences, the unlikely scenarios! I’ll happily suspend disbelief.
But you have to give me something to work with. I need characters with a little personality and a plot that occasionally nods to real human (and gorilla) emotions. Hyde, Jekyll, Me is based on a web-toon, and perhaps its weaknesses come directly from the source material. But in keeping with the simplistic plot, the director here seems to have instructed everyone to avoid nuance in their performances. Hyun Bin is blandly mean-spirited, Han Ji-Min is blandly well-meaning and Sung Joon is blandly friendly. These stars deserve better.
Online discussions of Hyde, Jekyll, Me often fall into comparing and contrasting it to Kill Me, Heal Me. Fans of Hyde, Jekyll, Me maintain that it’s unfair to compare the two because they have different styles. But we don’t have to make a comparison to conclude that Hyde, Jekyll, Me doesn’t expect much from its actors or its audience. This is the mental illness K-drama for people who don’t like mental illness K-dramas.
Watch out, Rain! This one’s a contender!
Full cast info at Asian Wiki.