The new melo-thriller Who Are You kicked off today on tvN, and it was surprisingly effective at being chilling. I was expecting a human drama with ghostly and romantic elements in equal order, but tonally the drama is quite deft at building up suspense in creepy moments; there’s little actual violence or gore, but the nervous tension is all in the anticipation.
This is only a one-off first episode review, as we’re unsure yet how the new load of dramas will shake out. For now, I enjoyed the show despite some flaws, found it well-crafted and atmospheric, and am curious to see where the story goes from here.
SONG OF THE DAY
Mary Story – “It’s You” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We open in July 2007, late at night aboard a large ship. A man makes his way down a shadowy ship corridor with gun drawn—a cop? Too clean-cut to be a gangster.
…of which there are plenty in the ship’s cargo area. Our cop, LEE HYUNG-JOON (Kim Jae-wook), watches them unpack a shipment, only to have his walkie-talkie squawk and give away his hiding spot. Hyung-joon makes a break for it.
The gangsters chase him through the corridors, while he holds them at bay with his gun, shooting once into the air. Should you really be shooting inside a ship?
Outside, Hyung-joon’s partner YANG SHI-ON (So Yi-hyun) hears the gunshot and starts running toward the ship. She arrives on deck in time to see Hyung-joon in a standoff, his gun raised to an unseen foe. He’s teary-eyed upon recognizing the person—are we dealing with a betrayal here?
Bang! Hyung-joon falls.
Shi-on gasps in horror, but almost immediately is spotted by the gangsters and forced to run. She darts inside the ship, where a blow to the head sends her reeling to the floor.
Shi-on fades from consciousness slowly, recent scenes flashing by in her mind: Waiting outside the ship earlier this night. Hyung-joon kissing her. Leaving with a smile.
Six years later.
Shi-on lies comatose in the hospital, here since that night on the ship. It’s her thirtieth birthday, a nurse notes with pity. She drops a tray and reaches under the bed to retrieve her tools—only to have someone else grab them first.
The nurse looks up to see a ghastly face, upside-down and unblinking. She screams.
(It’s Shi-on reaching down from her bed, looking ghoulish and terrifying.)
The doctors are puzzled at her unexplained awakening, particularly when a battery of tests reveals that all of her vitals are in perfect health. Why? How?
Shi-on has no memory of the night she was injured, which she explains to the officers who press for details of that incident on the ship. After all, she was on stakeout duty with one other detective, and that man ended up dead.
Furthermore, she doesn’t even recognize a photo of Hyung-joon, asking whether that’s the guy who died. Hm. There’s no mention of her not knowing who she is, so I’m assuming it’s partial amnesia we’re talking about.
The cops shoot looks of frustration at each other, but Shi-on is frustrated too, saying that it’s driving her crazy. She addresses the wall of higher-ups watching behind the one-way glass and entreats them to help her if they know anything that might aid her condition.
And then, we jump ahead three more months.
Shi-on is in session with her psychiatrist, who checks in on her condition. She admits she’s sometimes confused and not up to meeting people, which he assures her is normal. Asked whether she has other concerns, Shi-on says haltingly, “I… see them. People. They definitely look like people, but they definitely are not people…”
She describes them as blank-eyed and silent, and most significantly, “I think only I can see them.” The doctor looks concerned, but asks whether she sees any right now. Shi-on takes a look around and answers in the negative.
But now the other doctor (taking notes behind them) smirks mockingly, and his pen-clicking gets louder and more irritating, so Shi-on turns on him and starts to complain. Her doctor looks puzzled… and then Dr. Clicky Pen turns to reveal a gaping head wound. Gack! He’s a ghost!
Dr. Clicky walks over to the window, smiles at her, and falls out. Shi-on gasps, then musters the nerve to peer outside the window. There’s nobody below.
Now she realizes what she’s seen and relaxes. Sort of. On one hand, no dead guy. On the other hand… erratic head visions.
On to our hero, CHA GUN-WOO (Taecyeon), who’s prepping for a day on the job as a cop. Gun-woo role-plays both ends of an imaginary conversation where his team leader compliments him and promises to promote him to special forces, which makes me tempted to guess it’s his first day on the job. Maybe his first job ever.
It’s actually his team leader’s first day, so I suppose his eagerness to impress is understandable. It’s also kinda cute, but mostly secondhand-embarrassing—especially when the self-congratulations get witnessed by a fellow cop. On the upside, Gun-woo is brazen enough to ride out the embarrassment.
It’s this office that Shi-on walks into, taking her place at a desk like she owns it, paying no heed to the the chatty cop who mistakes her for the local crazy woman known for rooting around in the trash. Gun-woo orders her escorted out of the building, and belatedly sees that she’s an officer. Not just any officer, but the new boss he was imagining would shower him with promotions and praise. Ha.
Gun-woo shows her to the bowels of the lost and found center, down in the dark basement and filled wall-to-wall with unclaimed items. He takes a moment to call a sunbae and hiss a complaint about being saddled with the crazy coma lady, then explains the workings of the center: They hold onto the items for a year and a half, after which they’re relinquished to auction.
Shi-on takes a look at random items on the shelf—and out rolls a pen just like Dr. Clicky’s. Gulp. It draws her attention to the nametag on a nearby gym uniform: Dan Oh-reum.
I would say Gun-woo’s attitude is halfway between nervous subordinate and insolent upstart—well, maybe closer to the insolent end. She’s no dummy and calls him out on it over drinks, figuring he was expecting a friendly male boss to play the mentor role; she understands his disappointment in getting saddled with the crazy coma lady.
He gets her permission to speak frankly, then states plainly that he doesn’t like this at all. Shi-on takes it in stride but reminds him pointedly of an old adage: If you cooperate, fate will guide you, but if you don’t cooperate, fate will force you. “Think carefully how you want to accept your fate.” Heh.
Shi-on washes her hands in the bathroom, and as an ajumma enters, the same thought process flits through her mind and ours: Is she a ghost? Is she real? Will she speak?
Then the lights cut out. Eek. This drama is creepier than I’d expected, which is good, but also terrible. I’m such a wuss.
As the lights flicker back on, a woman starts gasping and moaning in a bathroom stall. Shi-on approaches cautiously and calls out, but opens the door to reveal an empty stall. Phew, that’s a relief. Or is it?
The lights cut out again, and a girl walks out of that previously empty stall. ACK. Unseen by Shi-on, double ack.
The lights flick on. Shi-on relaxes. A schoolgirl with a bloody head wound stands behind her.
Shi-on gasps and backs away, but the girl approaches and grabs her arm, which turns bloody at the touch. Screaming, Shi-on fights back and shakes off the girl’s grasp.
Gun-woo bursts into the bathroom and finds her shaking alone. She directs him to check the stall for the injured girl, and he complies with gun drawn, only to find the bathroom empty. Shi-on’s arm is now fine.
Gun-woo dismisses her concerns as the rambling of a potential crackpot and urges her to shake it off and get it together. He’s not even being an ass about it, which is why it sucks so much to be her right now.
Although I’d argue that he’s a little assy behind her back, complaining to his detective sunbae that she’s totally wacko. The senior cop takes a more understanding view—she’s been asleep for six years so naturally there’ll be some adjustment required.
Ha, it turns out Gun-woo isn’t allowed to carry a gun, and Detective Choi scolds him for it. Shi-on walks in on the conversation and demands he turn it over. He grudgingly does… and she finds that it’s a lighter. Pwahaha. So the pretty boy puts on airs befitting his badass dreams, only he’s really just a petty lost-and-found officer.
On to the police auction, officiated by Shi-on. In the midst of rattling off an item description, she realizes the name on a jacket is Dan Oh-reum—the same name on the dead schoolgirl’s uniform. Who now stares at her from the audience.
The sight rattles her badly and Gun-woo has to call her back to herself, at which point Dead Girl disappears.
She makes it through without further issues, but Oh-reum reappears on her walk home, confronting her at every turn. Shi-on runs home in a panic… but who says doors keep ghosts out?
Oh-reum looks more sad than scary, approaching with tear-filled eyes, but it’s still terrifying. Shi-on yells at her to leave her alone and huddles to herself, but when she looks up at the frosted window, words slowly appear to spell out a plea: “Please help me.”
The next morning, Shi-on searches for Oh-reum’s name in the police database and finds that the investigation closed as a suicide. She was supposedly unable to deal with rejection from her boyfriend.
Gun-woo is a bit of a smartass when Shi-on puts him on investigation duty, not inclined to take on the job. So Shi-on dangles the carrot: His dream is to join the violent crimes department, right? Well, she’ll be writing up his performance reports…
Gun-woo convinces himself he’s doing this out of pity for his addled boss, not for the performance review, nuh-uh, and heads to Oh-reum’s school. Meanwhile, Shi-on visits Oh-reum’s grieving mother to ask questions, and learns that the girl couldn’t speak a word.
When Mom steps aside, Oh-reum reappears to lead Shi-on into her old bedroom, which is lined with drawings—Oh-reum was an artist. The clue sends Shi-on to an art academy, where she sees Oh-reum standing on the roof as though to confirm the point.
Oh-reum leads her up the stairs, through the hall, and crashing into a boy student. Shi-on apologizes while he collects his things, then takes a call from Gun-woo, who reports nothing remarkable from his trip to the school. Oh-reum did have a boyfriend, though, named Kyung-min…
And Shi-on notices that the boy she knocked over is named Kyung-min. Ah, led by the ghost.
Kyung-min flatly denies knowing anything or dating Oh-reum, saying he’d never date a mute idiot bitch—how humiliating. He knows nothing about her suicide and calls himself a victim of vicious rumors, thanks to that moron girl. Ah, young love.
Gun-woo meets Shi-on on her way out of the art academy, telling her I told you so at her dead end. But the crowd erupts in screams, and they look up to see someone on the rooftop, ready to jump—not-boyfriend Kyung-min.
He holds a jeweled Hello Kitty pin and steps closer to the ledge, his face tearstained. Our two cops make it to the roof in time to call out to him, and Gun-woo takes the lead by goading Kyung-min to jump already, saying he doesn’t have the guts. Aie, I really hope you know what you’re doing, Wannabe Cop Boy.
Gun-woo prepares handcuffs behind his back, one side locked around his wrist, and acts nonchalant while Shi-on pleads with the kid not to jump.
Kyung-min takes a step off the ledge, and Gun-woo lurches forward in a flash.
The next thing we know, Gun-woo is hanging off the side of the building, one arm grabbing the kid’s wrist, their hands cuffed together.
Kyung-min passes out from shock mid-dangle, so it’s off to the hospital they go. He’s fine, so now the cops wonder what the correlation is. Gun-woo advises her to find a way to make the kid speak, drawing upon his “extensive detective experience” (which is to say, none?) to suggest a profiler to get into his head. Gun-woo’s smug posturing is starting to crack me up, ’cause he talks like he’s the font of all knowledge when I’m thinking he learned all his tips from watching reruns of C.S.I.
That does give Shi-on a tip, though, and she drops in on her own shrink to ask about the mental state of a teenager who’s attempted suicide.
When Kyung-min wakes up, he eventually starts to explain about Oh-reum, whom he met in art class. They were happy dating, but Oh-reum found it difficult to have a relationship with someone who wasn’t disabled. So he decided to help her and referred her to a psychiatrist, and that’s when she started to change.
Frustrated, he sought out her doctor and saw her in session—being molested by her doctor. Gun-woo asks why he didn’t report it, just as Shi-on’s doctor explains that the kid was likely threatened into silence by someone close to him, someone exerting powerful authority. And Kyung-min admits, “That doctor was my uncle.”
(I’ve gotta admit, I really do find Gun-woo’s fleeting eye-roll rather satisfying. I think it might’ve even been subconscious, but I totally feel it: C’mon. Uncle, shmuncle.)
Gun-woo calls Shi-on to report his findings, but she declines the call. Uh, I have a very uneasy feeling about this doctor…
Oh thank goodness, Gun-woo has brains enough to then text her the name of the criminal. Which happens to be the same name gracing our friendly shrink’s nameplate. Ack, I knew I should be suspicious the moment they cast Vampire Prosecutor!
Both Shi-on and Dr. Rapist pretend nothing’s going on while knowing exactly what’s going on. Rapey locks the door, and she nervously asks why. He returns, “Why do you think?”
Annnnnd end episode.
Despite being touted as a story about ghosts, and knowing that ghosts are the realm of horror stories, I didn’t actually expect Who Are You to play with a strong horror element. I definitely didn’t think it would be as funny as the other Who Are You, but I was surprised at the taut, suspenseful vibe. It’s not a bad thing. It reminds me of Hon, actually, though not as heavy on the paranormal.
So tonally, I’m digging the show. There are interesting camera angles and the directing takes an active hand in telling our story, withholding clues or building tense moments, but isn’t so in-your-face as to be distracting. The show is well-shot and I’m looking forward to the reintroduction of the dead third of our love triangle, because I suspect that will tug hearts and wring tears. I worry, in fact, that I might feel for Kim Jae-wook’s character a bit too much and be terribly sorry to see him move on to the hereafter. Why’d he have to diiiiiie?
It’s an interesting choice to make our heroine lose her memories, and while I’m sure the writer knows better than I the reasons for taking that path, I do still wonder whether it was necessary. I like amnesia stories, especially when they’re part of the premise, and I can see how that adds to the conflict when Kim Jae-wook—fine fine, his name is Hyung-joon—comes back and the love of his life is all, Oh, another ghost. Ho-hum. It’s just that amnesia is sooooo all over dramaland right now that you’d almost expect it to be a contagious disease. I have amnesia fatigue.
That said, it’s a nice way to work the I-see-dead-people angle, because it makes our heroine an unreliable narrator. I don’t think her ghost-visions are meant to be doubted by us, but they’ll definitely be a source of doubt to her—once you’ve suffered blunt force trauma to the head and lost your memories, isn’t it the more logical answer to assume it’s injury-related? Plus, it keeps the world around her skeptical, as we see in Gun-woo’s reactions: Sigh, more nonsense from the crazy lady.
Despite not being a huge fan of our two main leads (though I do love Kim Jae-wook), I find them perfectly serviceable here. So Yi-hyun has cornered the market on the wide-eyed look of shock, and it’s not even very annoying. I suspect I will like her much more playing a main character than as a pesky second lead, so there’s also that in her favor.
And Taecyeon—you know, he’s fine. Endearingly cute, even. I have liked him in the past despite disliking his acting (too self-aware and smug), but I think he was cast well here. The adorable cocky smartass works for him, especially when he’s undercutting his own potential smarmimess by embarrassing himself at every turn. It’s the Jo Jung-seok Syndrome. It also works for his relationship with his boss precisely because she is his boss—he’s convinced he’s smarter and sharper and, well, saner than she is, but he’s also a bit of a heo-dang. Plus he’s younger and more junior. The dynamic works for them. And importantly, I suspect it’s the exact opposite of her romance with the dead fiancé, which offers a nice contrast between her past life and her future one.
To voice concerns, I will say that everything about the main case (of the week?) was predictable and not particularly clever. I know that this show will be much more about the relationship developments than the cases, but I expect that the lost-and-found cases and ghost requests will be the mechanism to keep the plot machine moving, and therefore they really ought to be compelling on their own. Like in Dating Agency Cyrano—the episodes with interesting cases were much more fun to watch, even if they were just devices to get our main characters reacting and emoting. Context is, as ever, important.
That’s why we are holding off on making commitments to continuing this show with recaps, particularly with so many new dramas on the horizon. But we’ll watch and observe for now.
- Posters and character stills for Who Are You
- Upcoming drama previews: Master, Doctor, Who Are You, Her Legend
- Character stills for ghost melodrama Who Are You
- Kim Jae-wook takes Who Are You as comeback drama
- So Yi-hyun and Taecyeon cast in tvN ghost melo