Circle: Episode 1
Circle began with a literal bang this week, and after months of trying to find a fix for my drama slump, I’m almost hyperventilating at how good it is so far. I was nervous because I didn’t know whether the two timelines would mesh, or whether the whole dystopian future would be executed well. But, almost everything, from the fast pacing to the rich background stories to the high-quality acting, is on point. So without further ado, I give you Circle.
EPISODE 1 RECAP
Part 1: Beta Project
In the year 2007, two young children walk alone in the woods with a bike between them, moonlight guiding their way through the dark. The younger brother asks his older sibling: “How did you find me? Twin telepathy?” The older brother scoffs at the idea and tells his younger brother not to go wandering off into the mountains anymore.
The younger twin, KIM WOO-JIN, keeps telling his older brother, KIM BUM-GYUN, that this time, he’s sure: He’s convinced that aliens and UFOs are real. Bum-gyun asks for evidence, and Woo-jin is happy to oblige: Exhibit #1 is the fog, but the older brother explains it away by temperature difference. Exhibit #2 is a burnt pine cone, but this is similarly explained away by the presence of local lumberjacks who also work in the area.
Suddenly, a white light beams from the sky, seeming to chase them menacingly. They get on bike to flee, but it keeps following them. Faster and faster, Bum-gyun pedals as streetlights burst when they pass along the street. A truck almost runs into them because of the bright light, but it misses them by a hair and crashes.
The bike falls when a light from the other direction comes toward them — but it’s the headlight of a car that stops in front of them. It’s their father, KIM KYU-CHUL (Kim Joong-ki), who comes out of the vehicle, and he runs to save them from the strange bright light.
After the ball of light descends from the sky, a huge supernova-like blast occurs, blinding the family trio. When they finally open their eyes, they see that the light contains a humanoid figure. And as it materializes, it crystallizes into a naked human female form (Gong Seung-yeon).
She walks toward them, and Woo-jin says that his final evidence is “Exhibit #3: an alien.” She collapses, and he approaches her fallen form as his father and his twin call him back.
Ten years later, a college-age Kim Woo-jin (Yeo Jin-gu) walks past the crowd of protesting Handam Science and Technology University students while another classmate calls after him. He ignores the calls and makes his way to a classroom where only he and Professor PARK DONG-GUN (Han Sang-jin) are present, and he proceeds to take an exam.
As soon as he walks out, he’s confronted by his some other classmates, who heckle him for not upholding their boycott of the exam. The boycott was to show support for the protest that’s happening outside to urge the school’s president to step down for condoning brutal academic competition and fostering a harsh learning environment.
However, Woo-jin isn’t having any of it, because as a scholarship student, he needs to stay at the top of the class to maintain his free tuition. So he sarcastically quips back a thanks for an easy first place exam when the others try to make him feel bad for his choice to take it. As he leaves them, a phone call from his grandmother’s hospice reminds him that he’s late on this month’s payment.
We next see him adjusting his makeup in a mirror, since it turns out that he’s working a part-time job as a female ghost in a haunted house. He scares one child who begins to cry, and immediately feeling guilty for scaring him, Woo-jin begins making funny faces with two lollipops. But this only serves to make the elementary schooler cry harder, and so Woo-jin gives him both candies as he scientifically explains the fear of supernatural entities away.
Later, while eating his dinner of instant ramen noodles alone, he receives a text that his sunbae, Ji-hyuk, is dead. His group chat log becomes inundated with messages like “RIP Ji-hyuk” and “You will be missed.” But Woo-jin has only one thing on his mind.
The following morning, he goes to Professor Park’s lab (where Ji-hyuk had been working before his untimely death) and asks if the professor is picking a new research assistant. Woo-jin offers his candidacy, and the professor, glancing at the mementos still piling on the late Ji-hyuk’s desk, is shocked and taken aback by Woo-jin’s request. He tells him so, and Woo-jin understand, but he re-emphasizes that he wanted to be considered before any other student was in the running.
A sunbae who had been watching this entire situation unfold with outraged disbelief corners Woo-jin as he leaves the lab for being so insensitive about Ji-hyuk’s death. He pushes Woo-jin against the wall and tells him that it was mercenary academics like him who caused Ji-hyuk to commit suicide.
However, Woo-jin doesn’t just take this sort of condemnation and fires back at the sunbae: “Do you think the world is so easy? Because you’ve lived your entire life privileged, you took advantage of Ji-hyuk too, taking credit while he did all the work. Isn’t it too late to pretend to be a good guy?”
Woo-jin pushes past the sunbae, but in an attempt to rile him up and get the last word in, the sunbae asks about Woo-jin’s older brother, Bum-gyun (Ahn Woo-yeon). That makes Woo-jin stop, and his mind goes back to a flashback to his high school days where he went to the police station to see his brother in handcuffs.
Turning around, Woo-jin replies to his sunbae that his brother is still in prison, and he adds that if they do end up working together in Professor Park’s lab, he won’t be able to take advantage of him as easily as he did Ji-hyuk.
As Woo-jin is about to leave campus grounds, he passes by the memorial for Ji-hyuk and overhears the detectives talking to a student who had witnessed Ji-hyuk’s last moments. The witness tells the cops about a boy with a taser who was seen with Ji-hyuk before he died, and this makes Woo-jin remember that Bum-gyun had always reminded him to carry a taser in case of another alien attack. This prompts him to go to the rooftop, where another memory surfaces of Bum-gyun threatening a female student with the taser, accusing her of being the alien.
Back in the present, Woo-jin looks down toward the memorial from the rooftop, and he sees a figure wearing a black cap, and the figure clearly reminds him of his brother. He runs down several flights of stairs to catch the figure, but when he finally gets there, the figure is gone.
He comes home to see a pair of shoes that aren’t his own, so he glances around, and his brother comes out of the bathroom with a huge grin on his face. Woo-jin asks suspiciously how Bum-gyun got out so early, and his older brother explains that while Woo-jin may be a model student, he was a model prisoner, which earned him an early parole release.
A little suspicious, Woo-jin asks whether it was his first day out and whether he visited Handam University, but Bum-gyun replies that he rushed home straightaway. They exchange happy greetings in brotherly fashion, with good ol’ chokeholds and wrestling.
They go out to eat chicken, and Woo-jin watches his brother down the fried meat at an unbelievably rapid pace. Bum-gyun tells him about the chicken dreams he had while he had been locked up before he gets distracted by a spam text.
When Woo-jin asks where he got the phone from, Bum-gyun avoids the question and just says he procured one. It’s not a big deal because Bum-gyun seems cheerful, and they take selfies together in commemoration of his release from prison.
At night, still suspicious of his brother, Woo-jin rummages through Bum-gyun’s drawers looking for any sign of the taser, but Bum-gyun wakes up and asks him what he’s doing. Knowing that Woo-jin is worried about his obsession with the alien, Bum-gyun reassures Woo-jin that he’s gotten over it and won’t cause any more trouble.
He adds that he’s even been hired as a pastry chef at a bakery right near Handam University. Woo-jin is surprised but happy to hear the news, and they laugh and wrestle together before going to bed.
On his way to school, Woo-jin sees his brother working at the pastry shop through the window and is relieved that Bum-gyun was telling the truth. He reports to Professor Park’s lab, where he’s told to wait a moment. But when he looks at all the flowers and photos that have piled up on Ji-hyuk’s desk, he notices a familiar number on the wall. Typing it into his phone worriedly, Woo-jin realizes that it’s the same as Bum-gyun’s new phone number, and so he calls his brother up to ask whether he knows anyone at his school.
When Bum-gyun replies in the negative, Woo-jin becomes even more suspicious, but he tries not to hope for the worst as he asks his older bro when he’ll be leaving work. Bum-gyun says he’ll be off at 8:00 p.m., but Woo-jin has been staking out near the bakery and sees his older twin leaving much earlier than he said he would. Woo-jin follows him to a seedy motel and sees him locking up a particular room.
Once Bum-gyun’s gone, Woo-jin breaks the lock with a fire extinguisher and finds that his brother has been up to his regular alien-tracking activities. The entire wall is covered in clues and maps regarding on the alien’s whereabouts, and when Woo-jin looks through the drawers, he finds the taser.
That’s when Bum-gyun comes in, looking guilty, but when Woo-jin asks him directly if he’s the one who killed Ji-hyuk, he denies it vehemently and says that it’s the aliens who took him.
Bum-gyun apologizes for lying to him but insists that he’s found proof for the existence of aliens, while Woo-jin just looks like tired of this old rhetoric. The older brother brings up their broken family: ”You know the alien took Dad. Don’t deny reality.” However, Woo-jin tells his brother to come back to the real world and face the truth: Their father left them.
The scene goes to a flashback where Woo-jin and Bum-gyun watch as their father leaves them behind… while in his car, the alien woman sits in his passenger seat. Back in the present, Bum-gyun promises that this time, it’s for real—he’s found the alien hideout, and it’s on the second floor of the building above his pastry shop (which is why he started working there). Woo-jin, half-knowing that it’s a wild goose chase, says that this is the last time, and if it’s not the alien’s hideout, Bum-gyun will go back to the psychiatric institution.
When they arrive at the second floor alien hideout, it only looks like an abandoned office space. Seeing this, Bum-gyun becomes frantic, looking around everywhere for the alien that isn’t there. Woo-jin grabs him in a desperate bear hug, pleading with him to please stay by his side and not add to his burdens.
But Bum-gyun doesn’t want to let it go, and in a low moment, he confesses he doesn’t want to let it go because that would mean he really was crazy for all these years. But then he’s back on his high and springs out to pursue the alien woman, convinced that they’re only minutes behind her.
As he walks in the rain, Bum-gyun seems fixated on something and shakes his brother off as he tries to pull him back. Woo-jin looks in the direction that Bum-gyun is staring at, and sees Her.
On the other side of the crosswalk, the woman who appeared to them from the ball of light walks under a pink umbrella. Bum-gyun points at her, reminiscent of how Woo-jin did ten years ago, and says, “Exhibit #3: an alien.”
Part 2: Brave New World
It’s 2037, and on Ordinary Earth, dusty yellow smog and pollution is everywhere. The air is so bad that the citizens can’t breathe without masks. Trash litters the streets, and the condition of living looks squalid to the point of being uninhabitable by most standards.
A drone controlled by a man in a red flannel shirt, LEE DONG-SOO (Oh Eui-shik), lands and delivers a USB file. After viewing the racy contents of the USB, the man in the checkered suit next to him compliments Dong-soo on his hacking skills. It looks like this is a shady business deal where the checkered man asked Dong-soo to intercept the USB’s contents which contained evidence of his extramarital affair before it got to his wife.
A team of cops headed by Chief HONG JIN-HONG (Seo Hyun-chul) arrive on scene and begin pursuing Dong-soo. He’s at a dead end, but a man wearing a monster mask and a black hoodie comes to save him.
The masked man takes the entire team of cops down in an incredible action sequence as Dong-soo watches. When they’re all knocked down, Dong-soo comes out of his hiding spot to introduce himself, and realizes when the man takes off his mask that it’s someone that he knows: Detective KIM JOON-HYUK (Kim Kang-woo).
Joon-hyuk drags Dong-soo away, saying that they need to talk, and after they leave the scene, Chief Hong arrives, telling his guys to stop pretending and get up quickly. Grumbling, they take off the protective padding where Joon-hyuk hit them and say that if they have to act this scene one more time with Dong-soo, they’ll be ready to shoot a Hollywood film. It looks like this was a setup to help Joon-hyuk gain Dong-soo’s trust by “saving” him from the cops.
Off in an isolated area, Joon-hyuk wheedles Dong-soo by flattering and coercing him at the same time so that he’ll hack into the Smart Earth’s system. However, Dong-soo says that he doesn’t have the ability to do so, but he gives Joon-hyuk a tip that there is a legend of a hacker, codename Bluebird, who is rumored to either be a super genius human or an AI machine. He may be able to get Joon-hyuk in.
When Joon-hyuk gets back to station, Chief Hong asks how it went, and he confidently says that Dong-soo will do as he’s told (even though that’s not exactly what Dong-soo said). Chief Hong mutters under his breath about how if this plan doesn’t work out, he could get fired, and Joon-hyuk teases that it’s a good thing the chief has a side job. The younger man playfully threatens to reveal the older man’s secret identity, and Chief Hong is quick to appease him by telling him that of course they’ll go along with his plan.
Next to them, DETECTIVE OH (Kwon Hyuk-soo) is reading a web comic that he finds fascinating, although he does admit that the ratings are poor. Chief Hong glimpses at the screen and seems pleased, which is when Joon-hyuk reveals just to Detective Oh that the chief is the author of this semi-autobiographical comic. They go out for drinks because Detective Oh is still flabbergasted that the handsome young detective in his favorite comic series is his older superior at work.
At the bar, they talk about the first two major chapters of the comic, with Chief Hong explaining that the first chapter was about the cold case at Handam University (referring to Ji-hyuk’s death). Though the case was ruled as a suicide, he explains that he suspected it was actually a homicide. In the real-life case behind the second chapter, he actually caught the kidnapper Gong Min-woo of a young girl named Kim Min-ji, but he got away scot-free because of his rich and powerful connections.
When Detective Oh asks about the next chapter to be released online, an advertisement hologram announcing the 5000th day of a crime-free Smart Earth pops up. They all groan at the announcement before Detective Oh asks about the third cold case again, and Chief Hong tells him that the third one is based on the case of missing twins. From his pocket, he brings out a crumpled flyer of Woo-jin and Bum-gyun. (Dun dun dun. Did the alien snatch them?)
The following day, Detective Oh receives a call from Smart Earth from a woman who insists that she’s seven years old and that she has been kidnapped. Thinking that it’s a prank call (because no crimes are supposed to occur on Smart Earth), Detective Oh hangs up. But Joon-hyuk and Chief Hong’s senses tingle, and they listen to the recording of the call. In the recording, she introduced herself as Kim Min-ji, and when they run the coordinates, they realize that she’s the same girl from Chief Hong’s second chapter of his web comic and that she’s currently at the house of her kidnapper, Gong Min-woo.
Chief Hong and Joon-hyuk rush to the airport to go to Smart Earth, but when they try to barrel through the gates, showing them their police badges, the guards stop them for not having a warrant. A Smart Earth government official named LEE HO-SOO (Lee Ki-kwang) appears when it looks like Chief Hong and Joon-hyuk may be too much for the guards to handle.
Ho-soo takes them to a separate room to discuss the situation, and Joon-hyuk tells him that a kidnapping has occurred on Smart Earth. Ho-soo politely but firmly replies that that isn’t possible because of its Human B Safety Therapy System. So, Joon-hyuk plays the recording of Kim Min-ji, but Ho-soo brushes it aside as the prank of a hacker.
Ho-soo leads them out, but on the way, Joon-hyuk becomes agitated by his complete lack of understanding regarding the need of urgency in case Kim Min-ji really was kidnapped. When Joon-hyuk grabs the Smart Earth man by the collar, the emotional regulation control chip implanted behind his ear starts flashing red, and Ho-soo begins hyperventilating until Joon-hyuk backs off. The chip turns green again, and Ho-soo relaxes back to normal before telling Joon-hyuk to leave. But just as he’s smiling at Joon-hyuk while telling him to kindly piss off, he receives a Code-0 message on his phone, indicating an emergency situation.
He rapidly turns his back and begins to walk away when Joon-hyuk receives a similar message regarding a death on Smart Earth. Joon-hyuk and Chief Hong, who are being escorted by Smart Earth goons back to the exit, devise a plan so that Joon-hyuk can get to Smart Earth to discover what’s really going on. Ho-soo receives more information on the Code-0 emergency, and he learns that a murder has happened on Smart Earth, but his higher-ups don’t want anyone to find out.
Joon-hyuk escapes the guards, and seeing Ho-soo walking down a corridor, he backs him forcefully into an empty room and locks the door behind them. Joon-hyuk begins to grill Ho-soo on the case, demanding to know how much Smart Earth has hidden this entire time, and Ho-soo lies about lying by claiming that Smart Earth has never deceived anyone.
But, Joon-hyuk calls him out on this baldfaced lie by shoving his face into a clip of Kim Min-ji, a Smart Earth citizen, as she repeatedly stabs Gong Min-woo, her kidnapper and fellow Smart Earth citizen.
A serious discussion is taking place amongst the highest level of Smart Earth government officials, with Mayor YOON HAK-JOO at the head of the table. They want to minimize the bad publicity and realize that they need to shut Joon-hyuk up in order for that to happen.
While waiting to holographically meet with Mayor Yoon, Joon-hyuk keeps baiting Ho-soo by taunting him on the artificial nature of his fake smile and his generic white suit. When he puts a special set of glasses on, he’s faced with Mayor Yoon, who directly tells him that Smart Earth is prepared to give him what he wants if he promises not to spread any rumors regarding the murder.
Joon-hyuk replies that he wants to head the investigation of Kim Min-ji’s case and that he wants the freedom to travel around Smart Earth without having the emotional chip implanted in his brain. When Mayor Yoon says that it’s not possible because the chip is a requirement for anyone to enter Smart Earth, Joon-hyuk says that rules and patterns have already been broken (via the anomaly of the murder), and he threatens to publicly get a warrant to pursue the case if Yoon doesn’t comply.
When Joon-hyuk gets back to Chief Hong, the older cop is replaying the clip of the murder, and he confesses to the younger man that he’s relieved that Kim Min-ji is not the one being murdered. He tells Joon-hyuk to pursue two cases on his visit to Smart Earth: Kim Min-ji’s case, and the missing twins’ as well.
Joon-hyuk has to leave via an airplane to escape the pollution cloud, and we see that Smart Earth is a utopian island where children play in clean parks and dogs roam freely, completely different from Ordinary Earth’s current situation. As he arrives on Smart Earth, Joon-hyuk takes out a photograph of young Woo-jin and Bum-gyun smiling next to the expressionless alien woman, and he recalls Chief Hong’s last words that the answers are on Smart Earth: “Find your brother.”
Oooh, so he IS one of the twins. So that’s why he wants to be on Smart Earth so badly, or does it have something to do with the female extraterrestrial? The mystery is already pulling at my whodunnit senses, and I absolutely love the heightened thrill brought on by the sci-fi component. This is like a combination of District 9, Elysium, and E.T. all rolled into one!
In the last scenes, I loved Joon-hyuk’s cheekiness with Ho-soo and the way he not-so-subtly pointed out the differences between the Smart Earth and the Ordinary Earth districts, emphasizing the artificialness of the so-called “safe” district. I can’t tell if he’s the serious Woo-jin or the obsessed Bum-gyun because his playful yet determined personality doesn’t seem to fit with either. In any case, I want the twins to reunite because the sibling camaraderie in both the childhood and youth timelines was precious to watch. And while Part 2 was fascinating with all it’s world-building elements that showed us this possibility of a dystopian future, it was the present timeline that really captured my interest.
I want to start a virtual slow clap for Yeo Jin-gu! His acting is so riveting that I don’t have the proper words to describe the depth of my enjoyment every time he came on screen. Normally, I’m a pretty neutral viewer when it comes to emotions, but a small corner of my heart tugged when he was scolded out of the professor’s lab after asking for the RA position only a day after his sunbae’s death. His dynamic expressions showed—even without dialogue—how he understood the inappropriateness of his query given the situation, but those same expressions also conveyed his own desperation and the weight of all his burdens.
The actor playing his twin brother, Ahn Woo-yeon, also impressed me with the degree of manic power in his gaze when he saw that the alien’s hideout had been emptied. I’d seen him before in Five Kids and Strong Woman Do Bong-soon, where he played characters that were likable, if a little bland. But his role here is completely different, and I would totally have believed that he was an actual schizophrenic patient if it hadn’t been for the first few scenes that introduced the alien.
Regarding the actual subject matter of the drama itself, I’m so used to equating “rich” with “powerful” in both dramas and real life, but this strange dystopian society really takes that concept and turns it on its head. By requiring that all citizens of Smart Earth must have an implanted chip that controls their behaviors and even their emotions, the wealthy have voluntarily surrendered control of their minds to essentially become ignorant puppets in exchange for “guaranteed” safety.
Whereas, despite their horrendous living conditions, the poor citizens of Ordinary Earth still possess one of the most important aspects of being human: their ability to feel and and think independently. So which group is truly more free, those who can go anywhere physically or those who can go anywhere with their imaginations?
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