“Who are you?”: I can't answer the question after 10 episodes! You know what that does not make you!

Hello. This is a Korean in America. With the last few posts, I have gone back in time to cover K-dramas from the past. Now, I turn back my personal TARDIS or Time machine for those not familiar with Dr. Who and return back to my present.

“Who are you?” is a currently [late august 2013] ongoing paranormal detective K-drama miniseries. The protagonist of the series is Yang Si Ohn played by So Yi Hyun who was and is a carrier female police officer. This is the detective aspect of the series. After coming out of a long term comma, she is now able to see ghosts but has a limited amnesia surrounding the events of a police shooting that facilitated her comma. This is the paranormal aspect of the series. After coming out of the comma, Yang Si Ohn is assigned to take charge of the lost & found department. The series is a mix of a ghost of the week type two part episodes which originate from things that end up at the lost & found and a central plotline in which Yang Si Ohn is trying to solve the mystery surrounding the events that led to her comma.

The setup of the series reminds me of U.S. series such as “Tru calling” and “The Deadzone”. You have protagonists who somehow have supernatural powers and end up solving cases using all their abilities which include supernatural powers. As a blending of detective comics and superhero comics, theses series are as close to a superhero series as one could get without wearing a spandex costume. However, in its execution, “Who are you?” resembles a typical K-drama but wearing a police outfit. This K-dramafication or localization of the cop and legal genre is not a problem on its own. However, the problem is that the genre ends up losing the elements that make it attractive in the first place.  Not only does it lack any of the superhero aspects of the aforementioned U.S. series, it lacks much of cleverness and intelligence associated with a U.S. crime series including the fluff sub-genres. This phenomenon is not limited to the series “Who are you?”.

Compared to deluge of cop and legal series airing in the U.S., the Korean entertainment industry has never really gotten a handle on cop and legal series. It may be the fact that criminality is not very visible to normal citizens. Criminals are treated as a sub-group that should be hidden under the shadows. At the same time, the police are also not viewed in a positive light. It is a common perception that they would screw you over even more seriously than the criminals if they had the opportunity. For common folk, criminals and the police are both viewed as sub-groups to be avoided as much as possible. Living under a corrupted military dictatorship for almost 3 decades would make you think that way. In any case, traditionally, the number of cop and legal K-drama series has been small. However, around the late 90s with the introduction of U.S. shows such as CSI, this number has shown a significant increase.

At the same time, the procedural aspect of such shows as CSI never caught on in Korea. While there have been attempts, the Korean entertainment industry’s unique characteristics prevented it from getting a solid footing. Even looking back on the many U.S. legal shows, procedural shows work well with an episodic format. However, K-dramas traditionally favor a loose serial format and avoid the episodic format in general. When we, in the U.S., think about a serial format for TV shows, we imagine a central plot that control the story telling and links all the episodes into a coherent narrative. The loose serial format commonly used by K-dramas is different from this. It is a loosely aggregation of multi-episodes storylines without an actual central plot. The traditional U.S. soap opera would be an U.S. equivalent.

The K-drama variant of a cop and legal series is basically a traditional K-drama set in a different setting. Generally, K-dramas are about the characters’ relationships within their miniature-community consisting of acquaintances and family members and characters’ relationships with the larger social hierarchy. In the context of a cop and legal series, this tendency creates problems with storytelling.

First, it is difficult for the storytellers to place criminals within the perceived Korean society. They are outside normal society and do not fit into the few fixed social character roles that are used in Korean entertainment. As a result, K-dramas awkwardly fit criminals into various roles such as the directionless poor person that fell in with the wrong crowd archetype. This forces the characters to become caricatures and prevents further development.

Second, there is the lack of audience interest in the crime itself. The mainstream K-drama audience is trained to react to relationship interactions and not details or plot lines. The audience only really wants to know what the socially acceptable reaction to the crime is and do not really enjoys the nitty-gritty details of the crime and how it was solved. Considering that this is one of the main attractions of a crime show, the range of stories that could be told is restricted.

Third, the emphasis on social interaction narrows the available storylines to inner-organizational conflicts. This means corruption. While many crime shows have a corruption storyline, not all use it as a central theme. In contrast, K-drama crime series all have in-fighting and corruption as a major theme. As a result of this internal focus, K-drama crime shows do not significantly differentiate themselves from other K-drama genres.

The amalgamation of these tendencies is series that lacks a genre specific identity. “Who are you?” is a series that fall into this category. While some may argue that “Who are you?” is more of a supernatural romance, it is a crime series as its base. The series uses the supernatural aspect as a device to solve crimes and does not explore it any further than as a device. The series never goes into what the rules to the powers are. The series never explore the meaning or implications of the powers. Even the romance aspect is not brought forward until the middle of the series. Thus, “Who are you?” should be characterized as a cop/crime series with supernatural elements that lacks its genre specific identity.

Now, let’s get into the specifics regarding what “Who are you?” lacks. There is not enough detecting going on. The center-piece of crime series is the Journey through the evidence. In “Who are you?”, the ghost do most of the heavy lifting. The protagonist just ends up following where the ghosts lead her and solves the case. Even when she has to do some detecting on her own, it is dealt in such an amateuristic fashion that is laughable. It does not help her and the show that the solution of the mystery is rather blatant.

This leads to the casting of the protagonist, Yang Si Ohn. While I love So Yi Hyun in series such as “Assorted Gems”, she is missed cast in this role. Not a single second do I believe she can be a police officer. Simply in terms of physics, she looks like she would collapse when there is a gust of wind.  In addition, she does not display any significant intelligence as she is always using her “I am a weak and innocent girl who is moody” all the time. As a consequence, she, as a character, does not get any respect from those surrounding her. This is especially true in the case of her subordinate Cha Gun Woo. 

While the character of the male protagonist, Cha Gun Woo played by Ok Taecyeon is intended to be only brash, it feels like he is sexually harassing her whenever the two are together even though he is only really an entitled masculinist commonly bred in Korean society. It feels like it because Yang Si Ohn is such a weak feminine character in comparison.  So Yi Hyun is simply ill-suited from roles out of her romantic damsel comfort zone.

Since I mentioned the large roles of ghosts in this series, let’s cover the depiction of ghosts in this series. When series uses ghosts, there various ways they could be displayed going for the comedic or scary. The series “Who are you?” goes for the dull and underdeveloped. Other than some pale makeup, the ghosts are depicted to be no different from normal humans. They act the same as living people although they cannot speak. There are no limitations to their range of movement. The series also shows the ghosts physically interacting with objects and people even when they are not actually interacting. Overall, there is no consistency or rules that govern the behavior of the ghosts.

The ghost aspect is so underdeveloped that the series actually has a full character just to provide exposition about ghosts. It is the fortune-teller character. She somehow seems to know all about ghosts and see them without any reason. This is odd since she is not a real fortune-teller. The series never goes over this setup. Furthermore, this character is kept around throughout the whole series and given a silly romance subplot although her role was no longer needed to the plot after the initial lines of exposition. Speaking about useless characters, the other police officers in the lost & found department have no role what so ever but are given subplots and air time.

When the 2nd act of the central plot kicks in, the series introduce Yang Si Ohn’s ex as a ghost. While I have problems with the other point, Cha Gun Woo, of the so called romantic triangle, this ex is more uninteresting. As a ghost, he cannot speak and always has this moody longing expression on his face.  The only time he gets to speak is in flash back and even then he feels dead. At least, Cha Gun Woo was lively. My problem with his role as part of the triangle is that he has no chemistry with So Yi Hyun and the romantic emotions come out of nowhere. This is a common problem with K-dramas. People in the Korean entertainment industry seem to think that if you stick any eligible combination of the opposite gender together, romance will naturally occur. As a result, romances are force upon the series without proper development. Going back to Yang Si Ohn and her dead ex, while both have a similar blank longing expression, there chemistry is as dead as he is.

“Who are you?” is a tvN cable TV program. tvN cable TV program tend to have a de-saturated grainy visual style compared to the network programs. In combination with the lighting style, the lack luster cinematography, and the bland ghost makeup, this de-saturated grainy visual style work to provide an interesting visual experience. What every you have to say about its counterpart in subject matter, “The Master's Sun” is visually interesting in all the ways that matter. The visual style of “Who are you?” just end up making So Yi Hyun look even paler than normal.

For a 16 episode miniseries, the series has decent pacing from seeing the first 10 episodes. The acting is not too terrible except for the ghost ex. He is the worst actor in the series which makes the decision to make him a ghost a good thing. So Yi Hyun is lovely as usual and trying to do a good job but is miss-casted. The series uses her as the anchor to drive the plot but she does not have enough charisma to be a leading lady. It does not help that she has no chemistry with Ok Taecyeon since she works better when she bound off of a better actor. Overall,  it is difficult to recommend this series. While it may improve during its last 6 episodes, “The Master's Sun” may be a better bet with your TV viewing time. 

Score:  C+

Show Streaming link: Good Drama Net


Post a Comment