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I’m rewatching Kill Me, Heal Me, with the excuse that I’m learning some Korean. (And actually, sometimes I am.)
One of the things that surprises me is that the first couple episodes aren’t as horrible in retrospect. They just don’t make much sense on their own (and let’s face it, opening episodes do need to make sense on their own if possible). Once we know the full story, the opening sequences are still overwrought, but they no longer seem totally illogical.
For instance, the scene on the airplane doesn’t seem off-kilter now that we understand why Oh Ri-On looks at Cha Do-Hyun that way. But we didn’t learn about Oh Ri-On’s drinking party with Perry until episode 4 or 5. Once we meet Perry it makes sense that Oh Ri-On jokes around with Cha Do-Hyun on the plane as if they’re friends. But when I originally saw episode 1, I just felt like I was missing something. Because I was missing something—an entire scene.
I’m also getting a new love for Cha Do-Hyun. Of course, I liked him already. But I forgot what a scared little puppy he was at the beginning. Early in the series, the words he says most often are, “I’m sorry.” He’s wary, confused and exhausted. It’s amazing how much he changes in 20 episodes.
I thought he might be boring at first, because his alters are the ones who take action and pursue what they want. If Cha Do-Hyun’s goal in life is to avoid action and avoid what he wants, how much personality can he have? The first two episodes show him pushed around by circumstances beyond his control. He’s intriguing, but hard to understand. The only thing we can say for sure is he manages to maintain a certain dignity despite the chaos.
But episode 3 gives us Cha Do-Hyun as reluctant action hero. When he wakes up tied to a chair next to the kidnapped Oh Ri-Jin, he starts plotting escape as if it’s another day at the office. After blowing up a whole building, he still makes it to Grandmother Seo’s board meeting on time. Even if his goal in life is merely to clean up after Shin Se-Gi, clearly that’s a goal that requires skills.
The things that make Cha Do-Hyun awesome aren’t necessarily as obvious as a rolling desk chair. Cha Do-Hyun doesn’t make me sick with lust like a certain dangerous alter-ego.
But Do-Hyun’s got his own kind of sexy going on, big time. He’s gorgeous partly because he cares about Ri-Jin so much, but more than that, he’s got a lot of courage. Getting up and living his fractured life every day—that’s impressive. He shows guts in facing his memories from the past and letting Ri-Jin into his life—but it took even more strength to get through the eleven years that happen before the series starts.
A real namja, that Cha Do-Hyun.
And we don’t even know how much of Cha Do-Hyun is “real”—because the name belongs to someone else, and his personality is shattered. Where in this accidental, half-real person does all that courage come from?
The core thing in Cha Do-Hyun from the beginning is his strong sense of right and wrong. And his morality goes back to when he was a child. His sense of fairness is partly what made him develop dissociation in the first place. But most of the time it’s a strength, not a weakness. It’s what I miss most when Se-Gi visits—that sense that you can count on Cha Do-Hyun to do what’s right no matter what it costs him.
Se-Gi understands fairness, but in a child’s way. He wants things to be fair for him and Oh Ri-Jin. He can’t see anyone else’s perspective.
I’m surprised at how strongly I feel about Cha Do-Hyun’s being a good person, when we don’t see his goodness face obvious tests. (At least not obvious along the lines of Prosecutor Koo’s dilemma at the end of Pride and Prejudice, where being true to his principles may mean going to jail.) What does it mean to be a good person in the circumstances Cha Do-Hyun’s in? With mental illness controlling much of his life, is there any way for him to be a hero?
I’m in the habit of referring to the main character of a drama as the hero, because that’s how the English language works. But let’s face it, many K-drama heroes aren’t actually heroic. Heroism means putting something important on the line for a good cause. You have to take a real risk. You have to really intend to help others.
It’s easy to regard Cha Do-Hyun as a victim of his illness, especially at the beginning. Isn’t it possible he acts like “a good schoolboy” simply to avoid calling attention to himself? Is he really “good” or is he just staying out of trouble?
But he himself chooses not to be a victim. He takes responsibility for two important things: seeking treatment for his illness, and trying not to hurt others.
Getting treatment and protecting others are goals that contradict each other in Oh Ri-Jin’s case. Maybe Cha Do-Hyun is heroic when he sends Oh Ri-Jin away in episodes 3 and 4, and again in episode 7. But I’m not sure—accepting her help might also be heroic. His illness endangers people, after all.
But I definitely admire his moral courage later on, when he tells his mother that if she doesn’t leave with him for the States, he’ll tell everyone about his DID. Even though he’s less terrified of exposure than he once was, it’s still a dramatic threat. In early episodes, the thing that terrified him most was the fear someone would find out. Now he’d rather share his secret than see Oh Ri-Jin hurt again.
The most heroic thing Cha Do-Hyun does, though, may simply be his ongoing fight to get better. Even though Kill Me, Heal Me compresses a complicated process of healing into a concise, fairy tale narrative, it still shows setbacks and challenges. This comes after eleven years (twenty-one years really) of challenges. And the ending suggests how fragile life with mental illness can be—Cha Do-Hyun is happy and healthy at Ssang Ri, but will he remain that way if he returns to Seung Jin?
Doing his best every day is damn heroic. His life’s on the line, and so are those of the people around him.
And it’s a “fight” not many people understand. It’s hard to fight a mental illness when the illness makes you uncertain who you “really are.” Cha Do-Hyun and his alters don’t even know what “normal” is supposed to look like. When you don’t know what the goal is—or when you’re afraid reaching the goal will turn you into a different person, as Se-Gi is—it’s tempting to give up. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, right?
But Cha Do-Hyun keeps trying to build a sane life around himself, even if he doesn’t know what—or who—the end result will be.
That’s a hard thing to do. It requires faith that you can experience a more joyful life, even if you can’t imagine what that life would look like.
Bravo, Cha Do-Hyun, for having that blind faith and pushing forward. When I posted last week on my favorite Shin Se-Gi screen-caps, I found 27, but I can’t reduce you to such a short list. You’re twice the man Segi is, so you get twice as many quotes, twice as many screen-caps. And I left a lot of good stuff on my hard drive for another day.
Your fan forever,
Click on a soundtrack and check out the pics below.
The Portishead is melancholy and beautiful.
The Bastille is upbeat. Even though its about Laura Palmer, it applies to anyone lonely, but it’s also music for dancing and grooving. So it’s about Cha Do-Hyun’s hopeful future, too.