After a summer without K-dramas, I caught up in a binge this week. And against my better judgment—does the world need another serial-killer-romantic-comedy?—I watched I Remember You (aka Hello Monster).
Turns out I was wrong. The world totally needed this serial-killer-romantic-comedy. I Remember You is a giant step up from the last serial-killer-romantic-comedy (just a few months ago), the lightweight Girl Who Sees Smells with Shin Se-Kyung and Yoochun. In I Remember You, Jang Na-Ra plays a police detective heroine who never makes me yell, “No! Don’t open that door!”, and leading man Seo In-Gook alters his facial expressions on a regular basis. (Sorry, Yoochun.)
Even better, this series has a consistent style and themes. It has something to say. And because it’s a K-drama, it doesn’t get bogged down in its message—its primary mission is to tell a good story. The message is a cool bonus.
Not many K-dramas succeed in having a coherent style, and even fewer have coherent themes. In most shows, two opposing themes fight it out in the confined space of sixteen episodes—a K-drama cage fight, like the recently-concluded High Society. That show sometimes criticized socio-economic hierarchy but sometimes glamorized it, sometimes gave us clear “good guys” but sometimes had its “good guys” do terrible things. At the end, what was moral and what was immoral? The director and writer answered the question with a big old shrug of the shoulders.
A coherent theme is even harder to achieve than a coherent plot. And take note: a coherent theme doesn’t always coincide with plot logic. The 2014 Pride and Prejudice didn’t always make sense plot-wise, but it stuck to its guns regarding the everyday nature of evil. And a show with a perfectly constructed plot might not have a clear theme. (Admittedly, I can’t think of an example of a show like this, because what K-drama has a perfectly constructed plot?)
I’m still trying to figure out if I Remember You‘s narrative makes sense. Frankly, that vengeance-seeking murderer who showed up in episode 12 was implausibly convenient for the plot advancement. But unless the final two episodes August 10 and 11 take a radical departure, I won’t remember the infrequent plot holes. Instead I’ll remember I Remember You’s weird brand of creepiness, and how it’s touching as well as horrifying.
But how can you combine horror with heart-warming? How does the writer (Kwon Ki-Young, better known for light fare like Protect the Boss and All About My Romance) get away with this?
The commentary over at DramaBeans has pointed out some successful aspects of the show: the nuanced characters, the humor, the plausible emotions between our opposite personality hero and heroine. But there’s one more feature of this show that I want to write about: I Remember You works because it does one thing very, very well: it establishes an atmosphere of the uncanny—a particular kind of creepiness.
(From here on out, I’ll include a few spoilers, though nothing earth-shattering.)
The uncanny is the strange territory between the mysterious and the commonplace—the sense of unease we get when something is unsettling but also somehow familiar. Freud tried to define it in his frequently-quoted 1919 essay, “The Uncanny.” Writing in German, he called it the unheimlich, the opposite of the word heimlich. Heimlich has two meanings. Freud wrote “on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight.”
Its opposite, the unheimlich, thus means both “unfamiliar” and “un-secret.” It’s new and strange, but it also feels like something that was always there, just out of sight. Deja vu and identical twins are everyday examples of the uncanny—phenomena where our eyes seem to deceive us.
In stories, an example is Frankenstein’s monster, who is scary because he’s neither human, nor non-human. Frankenstein is neither and both. He’s beyond our ken, but at the same time, he could be made from the bodies of people we know.
I Remember You takes place in an uncanny world. We see the uncanny in Min’s weird childhood drawings of two-headed children, and in the two-headed portrait hanging at the first murder site (above). We see it in the idea that Lee Joon-Young is a “monster,” a person without humanity who nevertheless looks and acts very human, desperate for human contact (below). The uncanny is there, too, in Lee Hyeon’s uncertainty about whether Min is dead or alive, and Cha Ji An’s uncertainty about whether her father is dead or alive.
The writer emphasizes this not-knowing. One scene is particularly weird. We see the death of the senior attorney through Lee Hyeon’s eyes: he’s talking to the former prosecutor but he’s knocked unconscious and wakes up to find the prosecutor missing.
“No one saw him again,” Lee Hyeon says in a voiceover. He doesn’t seem shocked, though, and he doesn’t run to the police station to report a crime.
It’s weird that Lee Hyeon is so philosophical about it, and weird that when he does later find the attorney’s corpse, he wasn’t actually looking for it. I Remember You is a procedural show organized around solving murders, so how can this death fade into the background? Because something uncanny happens that doesn’t fit into the realistic framework of police work: the attorney died without leaving behind a body or a crime scene—an uncanny death.
Similarly, it’s weird that Lee Joon-Young can engineer such complex crimes so effortlessly. When the “ghost girl” recounts the murder of his family, it sounds almost like the corpses appeared magically. How else does one boy kill thirteen people and destroy all evidence of the crime?
This uncanniness might even be there in the relationship between Lee Hyeon and Cha Ji An. How have they made it this far in the series without a real kiss? The pace of the romance is emotionally plausible, but unusually slow for a K-drama. Their relationship belongs in the no-man’s-land of the uncanny—sometimes they’re best friends and at other moments they’re still mysterious to each other. We think we’re watching a romance, but are we really?
One of the alternate titles for I Remember You is Hello, Monster, a title that evokes Naoki Urasawa’s manga Monster (and the faithful anime version). Monster is one of the best uncanny stories of the late twentieth century. (I’m not making this up: Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Junot Diaz has praised the series and award-winning horror director Guillermo del Toro has optioned it for a possible HBO series.)
It’s the tale of Johan, a mysterious serial killer linked to countless grisly, unsolved crimes in post-Cold War Germany. Yet Johan, like Min and Lee Joon-Young, has a beautiful, gentle face that belies his brutality. He also has seemingly magical powers to cause chaos and then disappear like a ghost. And he also has a childhood of abandonment and fear.
Urasawa’s narrative follows several people looking across Eastern Europe for Johan. The central character, Dr. Tenma, once saved Johan’s life, not knowing he was a killer. Another key character is Johan’s twin sister, who has no memories of her childhood. As she remembers, she fears her brother—and misses him. Johan is spooky because we see him through the memories of this compassionate doctor and twin sister—through the eyes of love.
Serial killer stories usually bore me. Too often their goal is simply to shock. Even one of the first serial killer blockbusters, Silence of the Lambs, sinks into campy horror (“I’m having an old friend for dinner”). And when these stories are well-told and serious, I like them even less. I survived reading one James Ellroy novel, but only because there was no other reading material to be found one very hot summer day in the pre-Internet era. I wish I hadn’t read it. I still feel ill when I think about that novel a decade later.
But I Remember You, like Monster, draws me in by focusing on a killer’s childhood and family. It makes me care whether Lee Hyeon and Cha Ji-An can uncover the truth. And in turn, I find myself caring about the killers themselves.
And it presents killers with flower boy faces. I have trouble believing someone who looks as young and innocent as Park Bo-Geum (who plays Attorney Jeong) can be evil, even though he’s shown the lawyer’s cold, slimy side from the beginning. That goes double for Do Kyung-Soo (D.O.), who plays the young Lee Joon-Young. He doesn’t look like the same young man who played Kang-Woo in That’s Okay, It’s Love a year ago, but he still looks heartbreakingly vulnerable. I want to protect him, not run away from him. And as an adult, Lee Joon-Young is played by the sweet, sad-eyed Choi Min-Young, a veteran at playing loyal, good-natured supporting characters (most recently, Cha Do-Hyun’s invaluable right-hand man Secretary Ahn on Kill Me, Heal Me).
I know these guys are guilty. And yet I still find it hard to believe.
I Remember You doesn’t set out to absolve anyone. When we learn that Lee Joon-Young was a child of rape despised by his family, it doesn’t make that house full of thirteen corpses any less horrifying. But it does put its characters and audience in a creepy place where we aren’t sure what to do with what we’ve learned. How much sympathy are we allowed to feel for someone who has committed terrible crimes?
But the coolest thing about I Remember You is that it brings to mind even bigger questions. The separation and misunderstanding of Min and Lee Hyeon calls to mind the great skeleton in the closet of all K-dramas: the North.
When Naoki Urasawa started writing Monster in 1994, he set it in the tumult of German reunification. As much as anything, his serial killer Johan was a product of Germany’s dark divided history. And because I Remember You reminds me of Monster, it got me thinking about Korea’s North and South, all those families divided decades ago—like in Cold War Berlin—and never reunited.
North Korea itself is an uncanny place, lying right there on the border, but utterly sealed off from the South. If Korean history were a K-drama, the North would be the oddball brother kidnapped by a serial killer and raised to believe his hyung doesn’t care. He would be strangely beautiful but maybe also just plain strange.
And if Korean history were a K-drama, the South would be the brother with mysterious memory gaps, the brother who misses his dongsaeng, but trusts the official story that his brother is gone forever. Don’t bother looking for him. Learn English, get a job in the States, turn your back on the past. (Wait, does this mean Lee Joon-Young is the Soviet Union? Clearly, this metaphor is limited.)
K-dramas rarely acknowledge the North, except when it makes a good plot device like in Iris or Spy. It’s easy to watch Korean television and forget that just 55 km from Seoul lies the world’s most heavily militarized border. But I doubt Koreans forget the border, or the heavy US military presence in Seoul and the DMZ.
A story like I Remember You resonates weirdly with Korea’s national story, as if even a writer of comedies subconsciously wonders what happened to those long-lost brothers and sisters. Are they doing well? Do they believe what they’re told? When will we see them again, and will they resent us?
Thinking about these themes, I Remember You seems deadly serious, but thankfully it’s also funny. Cha Ji-An makes me laugh, as well as cheer for her.
I didn’t think I could get this wrapped up in a show about a serial killer—much less a show about serial killers, plural. And I definitely didn’t think a show about serial killers could include this much humor and romance, much less get me thinking about Korea’s tragic history. Not bad, I Remember You. ♥
Has anyone else seen Urasawa’s Monster and see creepy parallels or parallel creepiness?