(5/26: Scroll down for results.)
When the 2015 Baeksang nominations came out a few weeks ago, I looked for Ji Sung’s name first. And I was excited to see him nominated for best actor. I won’t try to hide the fact that I’m a fan of the Kill Me, Heal Me star. But the nominations also made me a little sad, because the other four nominees for best television actor are also excellent.
In particular, I feel bad that Ji Sung is competing with Jo In-Sung’s performance as Jang Jae-Yeol in It’s Okay, That’s Love. Jo In-Sung was excellent as the writer with schizophrenia. It’s ironic—an embarrassment of neurotic riches—that two smart dramas about mental illness are rivals. (Their authors are competing for best screenplay as well. Can we have a tie?)
Of the two dramas, Kill Me, Heal Me’s story about dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities) made tougher demands on its star. If Ji Sung wins, he clearly will have earned it.
But Jo In-Sung definitely deserved his nomination. And the other best actor nominees are Kim Rae-Won and Jo Jae-Hyun from Punch and Lee Sung-Min of Misaeng. Too much talent! The Baeksangs are one of Korea’s few awards that survey all the networks—kind of a Golden Globes equivalent—so an original, quirky cable drama like Misaeng has a chance for industry-wide recognition—but it has to face stiff competition.
It’s almost unfair to compare Ji Sung and the other four actors. Only Ji Sung had the opportunity to play seven personalities (five of them appearing regularly) on one show. Ideally, Ji Sung’s hell-for-leather performance will secure him the daesang, the grand prize, allowing the four remaining actors to compete for best actor.
How, then, do we judge best-actor-who-only-had-to-play-one-personality? What makes good K-drama acting? (As opposed to good film acting, which is arguably different.)
Here I’ll set out the reasons Jo In-Sung may deserve recognition, even if it means acknowledging two mental illness dramas in one year. I invite readers to comment, and share thoughts on the nominees from Punch and Misaeng.
It’s Okay, That’s Love asked very different questions than Kill Me, Heal Me, but just as much as Kill Me, Heal Me, it required smart, daring acting. Ji Sung’s character in Kill Me, Heal Me at least knows that he has a mental disorder. But Jo In-Sung’s character in It’s Okay, That’s Love, Jang Jae-Yeol, is missing important insights into his own mind. Handled badly, his character could simply look like an idiot.
In Kill Me, Heal Me, the central question revolves around what does it mean to “have” a personality? How do we know who we are? Are we our names? Our memories? Our behaviors? That’s a tricky question, but It’s Okay, That’s Love addresses an even trickier one: How do we know we’re not crazy?
Most of us are pretty confident in our own sanity. We think we would notice if we weren’t sane. We use phrases like “losing his mind” to describe mental illness, and we assume that losing a mind is like losing car keys—something obvious.
But in reality, the toughest mental illnesses are often accompanied by an overwhelming lack of insight—a blindness to the mind’s real condition.
Doctors call this challenge “lack of insight” or “anosognosia.” Psychiatrists say roughly half of people living with schizophrenia experience lack of insight. They literally don’t notice that their hallucinations are illogical. They’re unaware that their fixed delusions diverge from reality. They remain fundamentally convinced of their own sanity no matter what the evidence says.
And not because they’re “in denial,” but because the brain has turned off some of its logic circuits. It can be hard for family and friends to believe, but a person with schizophrenia isn’t trying to be a jerk by refusing medication.
When It’s Okay, That’s Love starts, writer Jang Jae-Yeol has lived with anosognosia for years. He’s unaware that parts of his reality are hallucinations. He’s convinced that his weird insomnia is a normal part of life. And he dismisses the possibility that there might be anything “wrong” with him so convincingly that his psychiatrist girlfriend figures he’s okay for the time being.
Jae-Yeol’s “high-functioning,” as doctors would say. Few people have reason to suspect anything’s wrong. “Writer” is a great job for him, by the way—he can pass off his problems as eccentricities. His intelligence leads people to assume he has more insight into himself than he does.
Wouldn’t Jae-Yeol’s lack of insight make this character easy to play? Jo In-Sung doesn’t have to do anything “special”—no switching dialects or dressing up like a schoolgirl here. Isn’t a person with anosognosia just like everyone else?
Yes, and no. In early episodes, all Jo In-Sung has to do is convince us that Jang Jae-Yeol’s hallucinations are real. And he has the director and writer to help him with that.
But in the final third of the series, Jo In-Sung captures perfectly the look of a man who is smart about everything except his blind spots. The actor doesn’t do anything special to convince us of his lack of insight. But he’s submerged deeply enough into the role that few viewers are tempted to say he’s deliberately lying or “in denial.” It’s hard for people who haven’t experienced lack of insight to understand how it feels. But Jo In-Sung presents it like someone who knows it from the inside.
He shows Jae-Yeol’s ignorance with total nonchalance, as if it’s natural. In the psychiatric hospital, Jae-Yeol remains convinced everyone else is wrong and his vision of reality is correct. He learns to tell the lies his doctors want to hear, so he can leave the hospital. He uses all his charm and stubbornness to protect his hallucinations (below).
Jae-Yeol is, in short, a typical person with schizophrenia.
He is not, however, an example of what many people imagine as schizophrenia. We tend to think “craziness” is obvious. But nothing is obvious about Jae-Yeol.
When we first meet him, Jae-Yeol is a man who obviously wears many masks. At his birthday party in episode one, he’s irritatingly smug and theatrical—a guy acting the part of a cool celebrity. In the first two episodes, Jo In-Sung channels his oft-cited tendency to ham it up into this complicated character. Jang Jae-Yeol is essentially a person who lives his life like an actor. His whole public personality is a cover-up.
As the series progresses, Jae-Yeol sheds a little more of his disguise in each episode. Despite his blind spots, he does have a good understanding of his own emotions. He practiced smiling into the mirror as a teenager. He deliberately tried to form himself into a person who didn’t feel the despair and fear left by childhood trauma.
When he talks about his efforts, Jae-Yeol conveys the same profound loneliness that we see in Kill Me, Heal Me‘s Cha Do-Hyun. I almost find Jae-Yeol a more heart-breaking character because of how restrained and low-key his despair is—how utterly familiar it is from the real world of mental illness.
Long-time K-drama fans sometimes dismiss Jo In-Sung because he does have that history of overacting. But he’s come a long way since 2005’s What Happened in Bali. In It’s Okay, That’s Love, the character Jae-Yeol often puts on an act, but Jo In-Sung doesn’t. His acting here is careful and without exaggeration. When we see Jae-Yeol in the end, having grown more comfortable with the world and himself, it seems that this person was always there, under those onion layers, waiting to be discovered.
In a year like this, with the best actor nominations all going to smart, meaningful performances, it’s sad that anyone should have to choose. I’m rooting for Ji Sung—because c’mon, look at the guy (below)—but I wish everyone could get something.
Similarly, in the best screenplay category, I wish prizes could go to everyone. Nominees include Noh Hee-Kyung for It’s Okay, That’s Love, Paek Kyung-Soo for Punch and Jin Soo-Won for Kill Me, Heal Me. Noh Hee-Kyung and Jin Soo-Won’s scripts address more complicated subject matter, but I suspect they’re less polished than Paek Kyung-Soo’s script for Punch, which earned rave reviews. (Yoo-Na’s Street and Heard it Through the Grapevine are the other best screenplay nominees.)
At least we can be thankful the nominations this year are based on merit, not ratings. And we can be thankful we aren’t the judges making the tough decisions!
The Baeksang 2015 ceremony is scheduled for May 26. ♥
Who do think most deserves best actor? Should it go to Kim Rae-Won, Jo Jae-Hyun or Lee Sung-Min?
What about best screenplay? And are there great shows that were overlooked in this year’s nominations?
And the results:
Best TV Drama: Heard it Through the Grapevine
Best TV Director: Kim Won-Seok for Misaeng
Best Leading Actor in TV: Lee Sung-Min for Misaeng
Best Leading Actress in TV: Song Yun-Ah for Mama
Best TV Script: Park Kyung-Soo for Punch
Daesang (Grand Prize) for TV: Na Young-Seok (PD of 2 Days 1 Night, 3 Meals a Day, etc.)
All great choices—and none of them shows I connected with personally. Another reminder that my taste is as out of fashion in Asia as it is on every other continent! Is this how Barcelona fans feel when Real Madrid wins?