Mental illness is sexy on Korean television right now. I doubt there’s a good explanation why—given the notoriously chaotic K-drama production schedules, it has to be partly coincidence that three dramas about mental illness are currently airing. They could just as easily have broadcast in different months. But I guess we got—lucky? “Heart to Heart” (tvN) and “Kill Me, Heal Me” (MBC) debuted the first week of January, and “Hyde, Jekyll, Me” (SBS) starts Jan. 21.
I both dread and anticipate these shows. Because I research and write about mental illness for one of my day jobs, I have strong opinions about shows that get things wrong. On the other hand, summer 2014’s “It’s Okay, That’s Love” surprised me. I loved how it captured the feelings of horror and confusion surrounding a difficult diagnosis. And I found myself not caring that Korean treatment approaches are different from American ones, or that the characters’ ideas differ from mine, because the show got the feelings right.
When I was answering phones at a mental illness information line for a few years, I found people have very different ideas and experiences with mental illness. No matter how much we learn from medical research, some people still feel like a diagnosis is a moral failing. Some people get rejected and stigmatized by families and colleagues. Some wonder if God made them ill, or their parents, or the fluoride in the water. Some comfort themselves with the thought that everyone’s a little bit mentally ill, while others believe they will be “healed” and look down on those “crazy people.” Some believe they’ll be stronger because of this experience. Others believe they’re permanently broken.
Because even people with mental illness don’t agree on how to look at it, writing a fictional story about it guarantees you’re going to annoy someone. At the same time, mental illness is a great topic for romance stories, because unfortunately it can greatly test our capacity to love each other. It can also be very funny—if you don’t mind the gallows sense of humor commonly found among social workers and psychiatrists.
So I’m cautiously venturing into the January glut of mental illness dramas to find out what they do well and what they do badly, starting with “Kill Me, Heal Me.”
“Kill Me, Heal Me” reunites Ji Sung and Hwang Jung-Eum, who costarred in 2013 melodrama “Secret Love.” Perhaps because they’ve worked together before, the show finally settles into its groove once the two are on the screen together. Unfortunately, they don’t properly meet for some time.
Most of the first episode focuses on the back story for Ji Sung’s character, chaebol heir Cha Do-Hyun. The opening montage suggests our hero has a tragic past straight out of a Gothic novel, with a mysterious fire and vague allusions to trauma. But my interest in him is lessened by the sequence in which he starts to experience Dissociative Identity Disorder (the condition formerly known as multiple personality disorder). We meet the first of his alters, Shin Seki, as he beats a man half to death. Supposedly he’s trying to protect a woman who is a victim of abuse. But since that’s a strategy pretty much proven to make things worse, the whole sequence leaves me sick to my stomach.
It doesn’t help that this sequence is set in New York and the abuser is one of those exaggerated, offensive Americans that populate the Korean imagination. Luckily, the show only has time for one bad American stereotype before Shin Seki shanghais Cha Do-Hyun back to Seoul. Shin Seki wants to take over the family conglomerate, and his strategy is to get Cha Do-Hyun appointed Vice-President of a subsidiary.
That’s a promising conflict, but I don’t feel much sympathy for Cha Do-Hyun at first. He’s had Dissociative Identity Disorder for several years at this point, and he’s familiar with the danger that his alter Shin Seki presents to himself and others. Yet his only concern on returning to South Korea is to hide his condition. By trying to hide it—with help only from his loyal secretary—he’s putting everyone around him in danger. Even if it means quitting the job his alter just accepted and checking into a hospital, he should come clean. This is the kind of illness that has a way of making itself known.
Not until the third episode is it clear just how bad his family situation is. His money does give him an advantage over most people with a severe mental illness, but his family is a handicap that cancels out most of those advantages. His father is comatose and his grandmother is a tyrant. She’s the kind of fierce personality who probably believes the cure for mental illness is to work harder. And she probably doesn’t even believe that Dissociative Identity Disorder exists. (It’s rare enough that even Cha Do-Hyun’s former psychiatrist doubted him at first.) After learning more about them, I can see why Cha Do-Hyun believes he’s trapped.
But before we can get to the third episode, we have to make it through episodes one and two, in which Hwang Jang-Eum screams a lot and Ji Sung looks vaguely pole-axed much of the time (frequently seen expressions, above).
It’s unclear what their motivations are. Why is Oh Ri-Jin (Hwang Jung-Eum’s character) screaming at her brother in the airport? And why does she have to scream so loudly? Why is Cha Do-Hyun passively going along with other people’s plans for him? It’s also baffling that Oh Ri-Jin’s hospital is incapable of keeping patients safe. When one of her patients goes missing, this should be the beginning of a malpractice suit that keeps lawyers busy for at least the next three years.
Luckily, the missing patient is just a plot contrivance to get our hero and heroine in the same nightclub at the same time. But Oh Ri-Jin is even more dangerous than the typical K-drama heroine, and assaults our poor hero, leading Shin Seki to appear (screenshot below, right).
What next? A biker gang, of course, plus a leather jacket full of drugs, and a misunderstanding with Oh Ri-Jin’s hospital colleagues, who think she’s dating the scary-looking punk in guyliner. By the end of the second episode, I was firmly noncommittal about “Kill Me, Heal Me.”
But two moments at the end of the second episode made me curious enough to come back in week two. First, there’s the polite blankness on Cha Do-Hyun’s face when he encounters Hwang Jung-Eum at the hospital. Though he just spent hours pestering her as Shin Seki, he has no idea who she is, and it’s genuinely funny that he erroneously believes she herself is hospitalized for mental illness.
And then there’s the moment at the end of episode two, after Cha Do-Hyun has deliberately attempted to call out Shin Seki. Instead, an entirely new alter appears. The roguish gleam that suddenly comes to his eyes as Perry Park is unsettling, yet delightful (screenshot above, left). His clear transformation makes the director’s heavy-handed visual cues (changing eye color, really?) unnecessary as well as unscientific.
Sticking around for episode three paid off in further moments in which Ji Sung shows a magical, creepy ability to become someone else. And his alters most certainly do have motivations and desires. Nothing vague about them! Perry Park appears to be as ambitious as Shin Seki, though like Shin Seki, his ambitions run towards wine, women and song.
The sequence in which Perry Park takes on a group of thugs is directed and edited with a perfect sense of humor. When he’s captured and tied up, it’s inevitably Cha Do-Hyun who wakes up in his place—I definitely feel sorry for Cha Do-Hyun at this point. Episode three is the turning point for my feelings about Cha Do-Hyun. He rescues himself and Oh Ri-Jin and heads off down the road on a stolen motorcycle. After dropping her off at the hospital, he goes straight to a corporate board meeting and delivers a great speech, even as blood trickles from his sleeve and drips on the floor (screenshot below).
I’m cautiously on board now. The writer has dropped a few clues about the past, just enough to keep me interested. It appears Oh Ri-Jin and her same-age brother Oh Ri-On may be adopted. Oh Ri-On may have an unhealthy crush on his sister, and he’s definitely got a fascination with Cha Do-Hyun. Is he doing research for his next mystery novel? Or does he have a more personal reason? Certainly, we know that something horrifying happened in Cha Do-Hyun’s childhood. Since it was bad enough to precipitate a case of DID, I’m afraid to find out what it was.
In that respect, the director has nicely brought to life the dilemma of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Integrating several personalities usually requires acknowledging the childhood trauma that caused the split in the first place. But in episode four, Shin Seki says Cha Do-Hyun doesn’t have the courage to face that pain. And since I’m frankly afraid to even hear about this fictional trauma on television, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have the courage either.
Ji Sung’s Cha Do-Hyun is a profoundly lonely, sad character. After seeing two of his more outgoing alters, it’s clear that the vague look on his face is actually caution and restraint. He’s always on alert, ready to encounter someone who knows him by another name. And he limits his own engagement with the world because he is aware that his illness poses a danger to everyone around him.
At the end of episode three, Oh Ri-Jin and Cha Do-Hyun meet face to face—not for the first time, but the first time he knows she’s a psychiatrist and she knows he has DID (above). In a touching exchange, he asks if she noticed his “changes” and she asks for an introduction to this version of himself. The sadness of his expression as he introduces “myself, with this face, with this look in my eye” suggests the emotional potential of this story.
And the good humor and compassion on Oh Ri-Jin’s face suggest the potential for this relationship as well. Though Hwang Jung-Eum’s constant screaming annoyed me at first, by episode three I began to find it hilarious. She screams with full-throated intensity that suggests it’s a comic performance, a self-parody. Her colleagues at the hospital suggest as much, too, when they judge her mood by the sound of her screams.
The only show I’ve seen her in previously was “Full House Take 2,” which never pretended to be serious for a moment—a show she attacked with exuberant absurdity (and screaming). I’m not sure how well her comic talents mesh with the serious moments in “Kill Me, Heal Me,” but she’s good at both. Ji Sung, too, gets good mileage out of the comic aspects of his alters—Shin Seki’s cheesy romantic pick-up lines, Perry Park’s gangsta swagger—while delivering an emotional punch as Cha Do-Hyun.
A last reason to tune in—though you might want to skip the first episode or two—is that the director pulls off a few great visual tricks. In episode four, Cha Do-Hyun finds himself unexpectedly hearing Shin Seki’s voice, and losing himself for a moment. The scene (above) uses Ji Sung’s reflection in a pane of glass to show his disorientation as his alter surfaces for a moment (in yet another absurb outfit—what is that red thing?).
Later in episode four, a confrontation between the two personalities leaves Cha Do-Hyun as an image trapped inside a mirror, while Shin Seki walks away. Though mirror images aren’t a new way to depict identity on screen, these scenes succeed perfectly at disorienting the viewer and conveying the helplessness Cha Do-Hyun feels.
I’m not sure if “Kill Me, Heal Me” will continue to have the strengths of episodes three and four, but I’m cautiously tuning in for week three to see what’s next.
Are you watching the “mental illness wave”?