If you had told me a few weeks ago that I Remember You would be the show to shake me out of the epic drama slump that I found myself in following Kill Me, Heal Me, I would have scoffed. And yet, here we are. Nothing in the promotional material for I Remember You warned me that this would be such a thought-provoking, well-plotted and brilliantly-acted little drama, but it was the very best of surprises. Imagine how bright and promising kdramaland would be if there were more dramas like this.
Note: Please be warned that this review *will* have spoilers right up to the end; it’s impossible to review even the acting of certain roles without revealing character mysteries!
CAST AND CHARACTERS
I’ll start with the cast and characters; as much as I Remember You dealt with major themes and intriguing philosophical questions, the story ultimately rose and fell on its protagonist, Lee Hyun, and the people in his life.
How often have we seen the rude, sarcastic genius in kdramas? (Faaar too often.) That’s the sort of hero we’re introduced to in Lee Hyun (Seo In Guk) at the outset, but it would be an extreme oversimplification to assume that it’s all there is to him. Hyun’s cockiness is part of him (and I like that we’re never led to believe that it isn’t a flaw; there’s none of the usual cliches about the hero having a marshmallow center in reality), but he’s also someone who’s remained in emotional stasis for the last 20 years of his life – because he’s lost his father to murder at the hands of psychopath Lee Joon Young, his brother was kidnapped (believed dead) and his memories a blank. What little he remembers is disturbing, to say the least – his own communication with Lee Joon Young, his father’s journal entry where he confessed that Hyun is a monster.
I Remember You is essentially the story of Hyun’s search for answers: Why did his father think he is a monster? What link did he have to Lee Joon Young? What crucial pieces of his memory is he missing? What happened to his brother, Min? For the first half of the drama, it was also as much a search for answers as it was for assurance that he is not the monster that his father thought he was.
There was a bit of cast shuffling in the lead-up to the drama, most notably the replacement of Lee Jin Wook in the lead role by Seo In Guk. It’s a credit to Seo In Guk that I think very few people can claim much regret in this change of casting – not that Lee Jin Wook wouldn’t have done a great job as well, but it’s undeniable that Seo In Guk knocked the role of Lee Hyun out of the ballpark.
Jang Nara described in an early interview that the male lead is the pillar of this drama and he certainly carried it admirably. Comedic timing and witty delivery? Tick – some of his early bickering, fast-talking exchanges with Cha Ji An (Jang Nara) and Son Myung Woo (Min Sung Wook) were a riot. Charisma and intensity? Major tick! He has a knack of switching effortlessly from a charmingly cocky smirk to a gaze so intense you begin to wonder whether he can see through you – it’s one reason why Lee Hyun’s tense exchanges with both Cha Ji An and his enemies alike were so effective. Right down to the slightest, most subtle changes of expressions, he captured the character of Lee Hyun so well that I forgot all about the Superstar K winner Seo In Guk, the conflicted young prince of The King’s Face or the bleeding-heart Yoon Yoon Je of Reply 1997. He was just Lee Hyun, through and through.
Jang Nara is no less excellent as one of the best heroines kdramaland has seen in recent times – Cha Ji An is the female detective that all other kdrama female detectives wish they could be. I LOVE HER. She’s not flawless and she’s not miraculously able to take down criminals twice her size, because that’s not what being legitimately kickass is about. This is actually a refreshing portrayal by the writer/action director – Ji An gives as good as she gets, but she is tiny and the reality is that she’ll take a beating. (Jang Nara shines here, because she clearly throws herself into these scenes with gusto and isn’t afraid to look ugly.)
But Ji An has true strength of character – resilient, gutsy, independent, clear-headed and a real professional. She is a detective and she is good at her job; it’s as simple as that. Best of all? We have in Ji An a SMART heroine, one who can connect the dots and figure things out by herself without needing the resident genius hero to hold her hand every time. She won’t be left behind if the hero withholds information from her; she’ll get there just as quickly on her own and more than once she’s startled not just Lee Hyun, but Lee Joon Young and Min with this ability (to the detriment of her continued good health, but that’s another matter).
Ji An isn’t the type of heroine who needs to strive to become equal to the men at work – she just is, and she makes no move to turn herself into a tomboy or hide her obvious femininity to achieve it. How much do I love that she can be well-dressed while still maintaining professionalism at work? This is a female detective that you can trust NOT to hobble around “chasing criminals” in high heels.
Ji An shines as much in her personal life as she does at work. Where most other female leads would be reduced to puddles of goo the minute they meet the hero, I loved that Ji An was always the first to slap herself (and often the hero, ha) back to reality. She’s honest to both herself and to Hyun once they iron out their initial distrust, and that’s why she becomes his most valuable ally and partner.
And if you’re tired of kdrama heroines who can’t spit it out, who hide things from the male leads and furthers misunderstandings by trying to act coy – never fear, Ji An is here. She’s refreshingly devoid of all the put-on airs heroines adopt in romantic relationships; even if she’ll embarrass herself by expressing what she feels to Hyun, she goes ahead and does it anyway. Whether it’s hard truths or awkward confrontations, I love that Ji An never hesitates to get it over and done with before it has a chance to fester.
Of course, we can’t leave out the one who was arguably the break-out star of this drama: Park Bo Gum as Lee Min/Lawyer Jung Sun Ho. Min is such a tragic character – kidnapped by Lee Joon Young and separated from his beloved older brother, it was both very sad and fairly terrifying how he became obsessed with the mistaken notion that Hyun had abandoned him… and subsequently spent the next 20 years of his life killing people who abandoned others, all the while watching over Hyun’s movements with a mixture of love and hate. Whether he was born a little left of center or whether his psychopathic nature was triggered by violence in childhood is debated even amongst the characters themselves, but he undeniably displayed some troubling and frightening tendencies that would have signalled grief for himself and Hyun regardless of Lee Joon Young’s involvement.
Props go to both the writer (for crafting such a complexly layered character as Min and making viewers sympathize with a confessed murderer while simultaneously horrified at his actions) and Park Bo Gum for his incredible acting. Min wouldn’t have been half as frightening a character if Park Bo Gum hadn’t been so convincing as a wide-eyed picture of innocence one moment… and then transforming into a murderous psychopath with an empty, soulless gaze the next with just the slightest change of expression.
EXO’s D.O is the other standout in that particular department – for someone to make such a lasting impression when he only had a brief guest role to set the foundation for the most important game-changing character of the drama is no mean feat. D.O’s Lee Joon Young was smiling, softly-spoken and seemed almost gentle and affectionate with little Hyun, yet you were always aware that something else, something suggestively dangerous lurked beneath the surface. And that smiling demeanour turned downright menacing in front of Hyun’s father and the abusive prison guards. Right up to the end of the drama, when I thought about Lee Joon Young at his most deceptively calm and persuasive, I envisioned D.O.
That’s no slight against Choi Won Young, though, because he was quite excellent at being the bumbling Professor Lee Joon Ho/Lee Joon Young, with just the right “slightly suspicious” notes to keep viewers guessing at his identity for a little while. Lee Hyun and Min’s tension-filled exchanges wouldn’t have been half as much fun if Lee Joon Young hadn’t been there to wind them up with little suggestive comments and keep them further on edge.
The early promotional material for the drama all pointed to a much heavier typical romcom bent than what we eventually got in I Remember You, which was a subtle slow-burn romance between two people whose relationship was built on mutual understanding, honesty and acceptance. I don’t think I even need to say which I preferred.
Lee Hyun and Cha Ji An’s romance was so delightful to watch because they fell in like with each other long before they really fell in love – they became best friends, confidantes and “family” first. Even without grand demonstrations of love (and neither were very demonstrative people), I was convinced that theirs is a relationship that will stand the test of time because being by each other’s side was so natural to them.
Hyun and Ji An were each other’s support systems and they needed no words to understand each other; more often than not, their most meaningful exchanges were conducted through eye contact and words left unsaid, with merely a soft, understanding smile to mark the passing of such communication. One example is when Hyun reached out to clasp Ji An’s hand as they walked, a subtle sign that his mind is no longer “in chaos” and he’s thus finally ready to take the next step in their relationship. And Ji An, after a brief look of surprise, smiled back at him – they didn’t need words to explain what just happened, merely a look and a smile to express that they both knew where they’re at.
Perhaps it’s the fact that so many of Hyun and Ji An’s moments express deep affection (which is, frankly, far more long-lasting) rather than passionate love that makes it so much more swoonworthy – even more so when you consider how out-of-touch Hyun is with his emotions. As much as I loved the final kiss, my favourite moment is when Hyun explained to Ji An, in his nerdy way, that what she means to him cannot be calculated in numbers – hence, “15 + alpha.”
Hyun is someone who has never shown strong displays of emotion or affection towards anyone, with the exception of his brother Min. Not to his father, and certainly his attachment to his adoptive mother did not appear that deep. So for Hyun to go from initial dislike towards Ji An to admitting first (albeit by accident) that he “cherished” her and then the fact that she’s invaluable to him… it speaks for itself, doesn’t it? While these admissions are not necessarily romantic when taken out of context, it means so much coming from Hyun.
That is not to say that Hyun and Ji An didn’t have electrifying chemistry that had the potential to turn passionate – those intense, burning gazes that Seo In Guk directed at Jang Nara during serious moments, particularly when Ji An told Hyun that he was not a monster? Whew.
Ji An, in her turn, was refreshingly honest in her feelings towards Hyun and knew exactly when to give him space and when to confront him. This is not a female lead who’ll waffle over her feelings and let her crush on the male lead get in the way, nor will she get screechy, pushy and jealous because she can’t wait for answers that he’s not yet ready to give. If she is pissed at him, she’ll let him know – and Hyun, in exchange, is just as straightforward and honest in his replies. That type of upfront bluntness bodes well for Hyun and Ji An’s future relationship and is damned satisfying in providing solid answers for viewers.
Much has been said about the bromance between Lee Hyun and Min, so I feel that it would almost be repetitive to offer comments on it. Suffice to say that Seo In Guk and Park Bo Gum really sold the tragic bromance – it tugged at every viewer’s heartstrings. “Is a happy ending possible?” Min asked, and I wanted so much to tell him YES even if my heart ached to know that the best case scenario had him alive and in jail, paying for his crimes (as he should).
Of course, we can’t forget Lee Hyun’s tumultuous and antagonistic relationship with Lee Joon Young; their meeting and Hyun’s apparent understanding of Joon Young as someone “different” rather than a monster was what set into motion the disaster that followed. Once again it’s a credit to the writer and the actors’ performances that one almost pities Joon Young for his obsession with Hyun and Min, his twisted and completely unrealistic desire to live happily with the two brothers as a family.
And an honourable mention goes to the detective team: Cha Ji An, Lee Hyun, Son sunbae, Team Leader Kang, Seung Joo and Eun Bok. Crime/investigative dramas really rest heavily on team chemistry and this group sold such natural camaraderie that they never needed the heavy “team building” setup scenes that many other dramas include. The PD/writer didn’t need to hit us over the head with buddy-like interactions to show that this team cared about each other and worked well together.
OVERARCHING THEMES & QUESTIONS
It’s not hard to see why this drama was originally titled “Hello, Monster.” The question posed right at the outset was: Are monsters determined by nature, or are they made?
And despite some execution and editing problems in the final episode (courtesy of Korea’s horrendous live-shoot system, which meant that the cast were still shooting on the day the finale aired), I think the writer did a satisfying job of answering that question. Not in a completely conclusive, wrapped-in-a-bow manner – realistically so, because so often life’s biggest questions just do not have a simple, conclusive “right answer.” But we were nevertheless offered one potential answer via Lee Hyun’s final and perhaps most important returning memory: what Lee Joon Young said to him on the day of his father’s murder, that he has a choice of what to become – the same as Lee Joon Young, or someone opposite. There isn’t just one door; there’s always a “front door” and a “back door.” Which path would he choose to take?
What that boils down to is that Lee Joon Young had perhaps reached an answer long ago in his debate with Lee Hyun on whether there are some souls who are simply born evil, like Min, and cannot be changed – everyone has a choice whether to feed the part of themselves that is just a little bit monstrous. Even if Lee Joon Young is right and Min was born slightly crooked, he still should have been given a choice of whether to take the front door or back door. That is what Lee Joon Young’s final “gift” to Min was: a choice. And the implication of Min choosing to live as Lee Min and presumably ultimately take responsibility for his crimes is that, given a choice and under the positive influence of his brother, one can choose not to be a monster.
Even then, we’re reminded that there’s no black and white answer in life; Lee Joon Young’s decision to take Min away for Hyun’s sake might not have been entirely wrong, either. After all, the ability to make a choice is only one factor in this “crucial development period” – environment and surrounding people are also key. Could Hyun have grown up normally if he had to shoulder the responsibility of raising a potentially skewed child such as Min from a young age? As Lee Joon Young had questioned, could Hyun have handled Min?
Hyun seems to think so, but I have my doubts; part of the reason the tragedy occurred was because little Hyun (naturally) felt wronged at being locked up and treated like a monster by his father in place of Min. No one likes to be unjustly accused due to someone else’s actions. Even if Hyun had not revealed this secret to Lee Joon Young out of indignation back then, how long could his mental state have survived intact if he had to continue to cover for Min? Being freed of his responsibility for his little brother and his subsequent memory loss (which allowed him to start fresh with a blank slate) probably played a large part in Hyun growing up “normal.”
Just as important to the drama is the theme of remembrance – “I Remember You.” As Hyun commented perceptively in the early episodes, the things that he had forgotten were perhaps the most important of all: Min, Cha Ji An, why he was treated as a monster by his father, and Lee Joon Young’s words. For Hyun, remembering was tantamount to rediscovering the things that should matter most to him and finding answers that allowed him to move on.
For Lee Joon Young and Min, remembrance seemed to equal a legitimization of their importance. Hyun was the central figure in their lives and it obviously mattered to them a great deal that Hyun should remember them. To Lee Joon Young, Hyun was perhaps the first person to look at him with interest and curiosity rather than disgust. To Min, the most galling thing was that Hyun did not seem to remember him – it meant he was the only one who both loved his brother and was in pain over his apparent abandonment.
Despite these fairly serious themes, this is a show that knew how to balance them with romance and plenty of humour. The writer had a real talent for bringing out some cracking dark humour – who would have thought watching several genius psychopaths (and psychopathic murderers) sitting around having awkward dinners and tea parties while discussing crimes would be so damn entertaining? So much was conveyed between the lines, cleverly masked by word-play and deceptively-mundane comments. It’s a massive display of skill, both by the writer as well as the actors.
LIFE ISN’T PERFECT: THE ENDING, THE FLAWS
And now we come to the flaws, because sadly, not even this drama is perfect.
There has been some debate over whether the open ending was completely satisfactory – specifically the final 15 minutes, where we saw the romance wrapped up after the Dreaded Kdrama Time Jump while Lee Joon Young and Min’s plot threads were left surprisingly open. Admittedly, I had mixed feelings myself upon finishing the finale episode; I was mostly happy with it, but there were a few niggling concerns. Was the time jump necessary? Once I thought it through, however, I realized that it was necessary. The ending made perfect sense, but it was marred by the directing and editing of the final stretch. And while unfortunate, this is simply the reality of the terrible live-shoot schedules; Jang Nara even had a car accident while rushing to film for the final episode on the day the finale was to air.
The key lay in the time distribution; the parts were all there to create an ending with impact, but the execution could definitely have been better. The hospital scenes with Hyun and Min, in particular, could have been and should have been longer and clearer – it seems apparent that the writer intended to show that Hyun had spent the one year time jump with Min, carrying out his promise to change Min through his influence. Had some of the (frankly unnecessary) scenes with Team Leader Kang and Son sunbae been replaced with a fast-forwarded compilation of Hyun in different outfits (to signal the passage of time) visiting Min and communicating with him, it would have been sufficient to express this in a much clearer manner – there’d be a lot less confusion over what Hyun had been doing over the past year, that’s for sure. At least Min’s “ending” appears clear-cut enough – it was subtly implied that Min, by choosing to live as Hyun’s brother, will also eventually pay for his crimes.
As far as the time jump went, I believe it was necessary that he had to disappear with Min until he felt his brother was better and ready to make his choice. For starters, Hyun and Min felt keenly the loss of their last 20 years spent apart – Hyun wanted to spend time with Min and change him, and that wasn’t going to happen over a few weeks. He was also well aware that Ji An, as a detective, would have felt obligated to track down Min as soon as possible had she known that Min was alive. Even having promised to give Hyun and Min time, watching a self-confessed murderer such as Min taking his time to rehabilitate would probably have put her own sense of responsibility under strain – thus the best that he could come up with was to alert her that he was going to be gone for a while and disappear for a year to put his past to rest.
On the upside, the Hyun and Ji An romance was beautifully wrapped up. With his past settled and his brother taken care of, his mind no longer “in chaos” (as Hyun had expressed previously), Hyun was finally ready to confirm his love for Ji An by sealing the deal with a kiss. It was only right that he was the one to signal this new beginning, given that he was too shocked and not exactly ready previously to return her kiss in Episode 10. It’s equally fitting that Min described Hyun’s return to Ji An and moving on with his own life as “returning home.”
In a sense, this ending showed Hyun going back full circle to where it all began – with Lee Joon Young. Hyun had pointed this out himself in the lead-up to his final confrontation with Lee Joon Young; his time had “frozen” when Lee Joon Young killed his father and took his brother, and he had lost his memories along with his family. His clock had stopped ticking until those mysterious emails kick-started the return of his memories and subsequent return to Korea in search of answers.
From there, he was slowly moving back into position for his “story” to start again, coming full circle by renewing his acquaintance with Cha Ji An, finding his brother again and having his crucial talk with Lee Joon Young. The drama was ultimately about Hyun finding answers to his questions and filling the gaps in his memory so that his “time” can unfreeze, so that his life can once again move forward – and that is what this ending gave us.
As for Lee Joon Young, the characters had repeatedly stressed that not all bad guys can be caught due to lack of evidence – the drama stays very grounded in reality in this regard. The detectives will continue searching, but until they find hard evidence on Lee Joon Young having committed murder (or some other crime), they can’t even bring him in. After all, a murderer who was so clever that he had evaded the law for 20+ years and had successfully adopted a new identity to the point where he was working as a forensic examiner with the police – would it be believable for him to have his identity revealed and be caught within 16 episodes?
But I think it’s fairly clear (and is thus satisfying enough) that Lee Joon Young’s carefully crafted world is slowly crumbling around him. Not only has he been forced to face the fact that he’s been wrong about everything and everyone, but the aftereffects of his actions are clearly beginning to catch up to him – his decision to separate Hyun and Min “for their own good” evidently caused more harm than good and at least one of “his kids” clearly didn’t want to be saved. The implication is that he will eventually either be caught by Hyun and Ji An or meet a nasty end, because he can only outrun his own crimes for so long. Right at the end, we saw Eun Bok agree to give evidence as a witness – that’s one major step in them having something solid to use against Lee Joon Young should they manage to catch him. And I believe they will.
It’s a shame that the sheer quality of I Remember You was not reflected in the ratings; the drama is a rare gem that was tightly written from start to finish, well-directed and brilliantly acted, and it would have been nice to see the cast and crew rewarded for their efforts through commercial success. Alas. Still, as a viewer I received no end of enjoyment during the drama’s run: Hyun and Cha Ji An, Min, the team of detectives and even Lee Joon Young will be sorely missed.