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The loss of the hero in MBC’s Time

MBC’s recent melodrama Time is an interesting drama to examine as it met with one of the worst situations for a live-shoot drama: losing their main actor mid-show. Kim Jung-hyun, who starred opposite Seohyun, was forced to bow out of the show due to health reasons (which seemed serious, necessitating that the show work around his departure). The show must go on, as they say, and I was curious to see how the writers would deal with this scenario. On-the-fly rewrites and plot juggling can make for some serious drama disasters — or open doors to some interesting plot changes. Spoilers ahead!

Written by Choi Ho-chul (whose works include Mask and Secret), Time is about power versus poverty, truth versus lies, and all the stuff that hides beneath the shiny surface of the chaebol existence. Kim Jung-hyun was the chaebol heir Cheon Soo-ho, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of a girl who was called to his hotel room one night. The girl turned out to be the younger sister of Seohyun’s character Seol Ji-hyun, who works as a greeter at the department store which is part of Soo-ho’s family empire. When the murder is covered up as a suicide by the company’s lawyer, she sets out to find and expose the truth. In an extra layer of betrayal, the lawyer was also Ji-hyun’s ex-boyfriend. And since this is a melodrama, who better to help her on this quest than the man who thinks he’s responsible for it all?

Kim Jung-hyun wowed me with his breakout performance in School 2017, and I was looking forward to seeing what he would do with a melodrama role. For me, a great actor in a melo can take the most over-dramatic plot line and bring it down to earth. Man with an inoperable brain tumor falls in love with the girl whose sister’s death he is responsible for? Policeman falls in love with a girl whose parents were murdered by his serial killer father? I can believe all of that and more when the roles are in the hands of talented actors. In other words, solid actors are needed to ground these kinds of stories; they are essential to telling them in a way that’s relatable to the everyday person who hasn’t experienced anything close to these extremes (and thank goodness for that).

Kim Jung-hyun’s performance did not disappoint — and he had no shortage of material to work with. Melodramas enjoy asking huge “What if…?” questions, and then spending the story making them real for their characters. What if you discovered you had an inoperable brain tumor and only a few months to live? What if there was a chance you were responsible for a murder, but you had no memory of the event and couldn’t prove either your guilt or innocence? What if you wanted to help the grieving sister that was left behind, only to find yourself falling in love with her? What if you were torn between helping her uncover the truth, and exposing yourself as the probable murderer? Considering the smorgasboard of extreme emotions here, Kim Jung-hyun gave a fantastically subtle performance as someone who’s used to living “with the lid on,” even through all of this mental and emotional torment.

Time would have been a perfectly effective drama without the terminal brain tumor — it would have played out a little differently, but it wasn’t essential. I’m not a fan of this trope by any means (less because it’s gimmicky, and more because I find it emotionally disturbing), so I had to investigate what terminal illness does for this story, and why it has to be there. In terms of the plot, it obviously adds a sense of urgency, and gives us our theme and title. Soo-ho has a lot of questions to answer and battles to fight, but the clock is working against him.

Soo-ho’s impending death also adds to his character development. This is the more interesting usage of the trope, and I wish they had had a little more time to unpack this side of it. While watching the clock ticking on a murder cover-up is exciting, witnessing the hero of a story coming to terms with his death adds an emotional and psychological depth that not many other plot elements can. So, while our hero is involved in the cover-up and all the secrets and lies that ensue, he’s also part of a deeper battle: learning how to die.

We witness not only Soo-ho’s moments of physical anguish, but also his internal struggle between letting go and holding on. He has no one to tell about his illness, no one to grieve with, and watching him agonize alone is pretty unbearable at times. While on one hand his impending death sets him free from family politics and vying for ownership of his father’s company, on the other hand, he’s grasping to hold onto life. The story moves quite gracefully from Soo-ho rushing to solve the mystery of the girl’s death, to his more internal focus on what he needs to express, say, and do, before he dies. His final days are quite lovely and simple. He has learned how to express gratitude, show kindness and generosity, and finally, he reveals his love for Ji-hyun.

Kim Jung-hyun’s performance as the suffering Soo-ho was visceral and compelling, but once the news broke about his real-life illness and departure from the show, it opened up a whole new dimension. Beyond the impact that Kim Jung-hyun’s leaving would have on the plot, his illness also added a meta layer to his performance that was difficult to decode. Were the pallor and dark circles all from makeup? Looking back, it isn’t entirely clear if he was he really about to collapse or was he just acting. Is this a genius performance, method acting to the extreme, or just a twenty-eight year old actor who has pushed himself to the edge? The line between reality and fiction was uncomfortably blurred for a few episodes, and while it was compelling, it was a good thing when Soo-ho was laid to rest, so Kim Jung-hyun could find some of his own rest, too.

But what happens to a drama that’s lost its hero mid-show? It’s pretty unprecedented. While dramas (and melodramas in particular) are often known to kill off their hero and then save him in an epilogue — or more rarely actually sacrifice their hero for keeps — this usually happens in the final episode. In Time, however, we lose our hero at the end of episode 12. That leaves an entire quarter of the show to wrap up without him in it.

What did Time originally have in mind for its hero? We may never know. It could have headed towards a happy-in-the-now happy ending, like Padam, Padam and Scent of a Woman, where the hero/heroine are left happy and peaceful, but still terminally ill. Or, they could have pulled a nice rabbit out of the hat and cured Soo-ho. It’s dramaland, after all, and there were some clues in the drama that made me think they might have planned to go this way. There was the mention of experimental treatment and an overseas doctor who is waiting to take him in. While I’m not privy to any inside intelligence on how the script changed due to Kim Jung-hyun’s departure, it’s interesting to think about where the plot shifts might have been.

Whichever ending Soo-ho was originally intended to get, real life intruded. The drama became an all too real look at what happens when the hero runs out of time before the story is resolved. It was already a major theme of the drama, so in a way, the writers were faced with exact problem they had created for their fictional character. I’m not sure if this is mere coincidence or some crazy kind of storytelling karma. Either way, Time did a great job of taking a potential disaster and turning it into a way to complete the drama’s themes, and bring the story to a satisfying close.

Kim Jung-hyun/Soo-ho’s absence was clearly felt in the remaining quarter of the show. Instead of trying to gloss it over and try to hide it — or even worse, shove in a new actor and pretend it’s him, they capitalized on it. Characters that were stuck in apathy or fear were shaken into action by Soo-ho’s sudden death. And Ji-hyun, armed with the knowledge of his love, found the last bit of strength she needed to bring the truth to light. Thus, Soo-ho’s untimely death became the catalyst that pushed the plot towards its resolution. The hero might not have been on screen, but his presence was always felt. The story had lost its hero, but the show went on. Art does indeed imitate life.

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Ooh! Great post @missvictrix! And you make such a solid point about Time being an unusual case - thank you for examining it & presenting your views.

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Interesting post! I was not watching this show but I was very curious how they handled things with the actor leaving as he did. It sounds like a very graceful adjustment on the writer's part.

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I don't want to detract from what is an extremely well-written piece but the writers did not make the best of his death. It fell into a sub-standard melo mess - to the point where I wondered if it was always that badly written and we just didn't notice because Kim Jung-hyun's performance was so good.

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Speaking of art imitating life, is Let's Eat 3 next?

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Well, that one was a little different. They still finished the story they just rushed it ... which made how much they stretched out the story in the middle really obvious. I was actually really interested in our hero getting into the curated food delivery business; I thought it was actually the most logical thing he ever did. It really called out the situation of someone who's got an office job of some type but has a passion for some hobby or art and could be successful (and happier) there but just never realized they had an option to try something different. It probably resonated with a lot of the younger viewers in Korea, especially.

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nice! superbly written! I haven't watched the show, but you make a very compelling case for not only the main lead's brilliant acting, but also the Show's good turn on the typical gimmick tropes and how it did well in spite of the sudden departure of its main man.
thanks for sharing. @missvictrix !

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He was the best thing about that show. Yep.

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1) I appreciate that the actor (and his company) and the drama people have agreed to let the actor out of the contract (if there was one) so that he can get some well deserved and required rest. It is important to address the working conditions of actors who are known to work non-stop during the filming of dramas.
2) From a drama lover point of view, I agree. Losing the hero with a quarter of the drama still to go is very interesting and probably unprecedented. It adds a whole new level of reality where they can now focus on the rest of the cast and see how they deal with the loss and their own lives.

I actually haven't seen the drama yet, but it's on my list for sure! He impressed me in School and then in Waikiki and long before all this as the brother in Jealousy incarnate. Can't wait to watch Time! (just need to find some free time for it)

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Thank you @missvictrix. He is a great actor and it was worrisome to hear there were health issues. I am glad to hear the show survived as I would hate for there to be any personal fallout for Kim jung-hyun.

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Kim Jung Hyun is a brilliant actor who pulled a real person out of a trite trope. His detail and charisma is unmatched for his age. The interview scene was particularly brilliant. What surprises is me most is I watched him in Waikiki and he did not stand out there or indicate this level of performance at the time, which was only a couple months beforehand. So I am inclined to believe there was something really driving him to leave an impact with this character, so much so he fell in and couldn't get out. My heart is heavy for him and I can't imagine how dreadful it must have been to leave something he was so obviously giving his 200% to.

I saw from interviews with Seohyun after the drama that the writer intended to explore more romance once the couple actually married and lived together. Ultimately he was still going to die and Jihyun would finish the story alone. I can't tell if it would have hurt more if it had happened later than sooner. As it is, I still feel a deep sense of pain for the characters when I think of this drama. It was a heavy watch and lingers.

To also highlight another quite incredible aspect of this drama - it's a triumphant female revenge story. The heroine and Seohyun both finished the drama alone literally and narratively, which would have been a mission even for a seasoned actress let alone an idol in her debut role. She held it together commendably and there was even a ratings rise. I read she likewise suffered depression during and after the drama, from immersing in the character, the pain of the situation with her co-star, and the weight of making sure the production did not collapse as they were live-filming the same day it aired and changing the script minutes before filming.

I wish more people had given this drama a chance. The character development for both leads and even the supporting characters was breathtaking. The (incomplete) love story was fleshed and heartbreaking. The visuals and music were cinematic, and I was always invested and on the edge of my seat. I think it did such a graceful job of salvaging itself from disaster and truly exemplified the message of the drama.

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I would like to point out that his withdrawal really saw Seohyun step up to the plate, in the beginning she was overshadowed by him but already the glimpses were coming out like in her pretty realistic crying scenes, but once he was gone the drama was in a state of uncertainty whether Seohyun could carry the same energy as Jung Hyun, but I was pleasantly surprised that she was able to maintain her own and while she may not be top level her performance in Time was eons better than any she put out before(Moon Lovers I’m looking at you)

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Thank you so much for this thoughtful post! It so happens that I have just finished watching this show. Kim Jung-Hyun was extraordinary, and I am sure that all those little gestures and tics that made his character so real and compelling came from his acting, and not his real life condition.
Story wise, Soo-ho's heartbreaking demise surely catalyzed the final act, but I would have wished for a certain reevaluation of the initial setup (the sister's death and the true role everyone had played in it), which I did not feel till the end of the drama. I felt the drama had veered towards the moralizing theatrics instead of pushing the remaining main characters for self-introspection and finding the courage to recognize and expose the truth.

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I can’t help, but a lot of subtitle stuff about this drama reminds me so much Uncontrollably Fond. The drama that people here universally hated, but I actually enjoyed a lot, due to less than perfect characters.

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Oh such a nice article, thank you. Now I am tempted to watch this show.

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Nobody really remembers Kim Jung-hyun as Mori in Rebel, but that was my favorite role of his. The way he portrayed the contradictions of the character was really impressive. I really hope Jung-hyun was able to recover well from his condition.

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Finally, someone who mentioned uri MORI from Rebel, Thief Who Stole the People. 😍 He pulled off a memorable performance even though he was a relatively minor character next to the likes of Chae Soo Bin and Yoon Kyung Sang, not to mention a whole cast of veteran actors.

I also really liked his turn as a lovable time-traveller in the 2-episode drama Bing Goo. I hope he recovers soon, and maybe graces us in another sageuk!

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I am in the middle of a slow protracted watch of Rebel - mostly because it's long and large parts of it that are boring. And that character has been bugging me since he came on screen. Because he's so familiar and has such quiet gravitas and I've been trying to work out where I know him from (I know, I could have just looked it up on MDL!). As soon as I read this I went "Yes, of course!" He really does have a genuine screen presence.

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Rebel is best watched binged, with skipping the boring parts :)
I really want to watch Kim Jung-hyun in School 2017 and Time. He seems to have grown from his Rebel role to a leading man.

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It took me a two months to watch four episodes, then another two weeks to watch eight because I got a bit interested in what was happening. And then we got up to the whole gross "you're like a little sister to me but I guess now you're legal we can bang" plotline and it lost me again. Now I'm stuck about episode 16 because every time he and Chae Soo-bin have a love scene I have to stop to throw up. (I mean he used to literally see his little sister when he looked at her).

At this rate I will finish it - sometime around mid-2019.

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Yes! Mori got redemption in the end, and that's when I realized how much I actually enjoyed his acting and character. Yoon Kyun-sang completely killed his role as Gil-dong, and yet Mori was still memorable!

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Au contraire, @sukstan. See below. ;-)

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I searched it up, but I don't think there have been any reports on his condition since the news that he's leaving Time. I sure he's just laying low and resting, but I hope it's not serious.

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I haven't seen Time, but I do remember him in Rebel. Rebel remains one of my favorite dramas. :)

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Yes, it's also one of my favorites as well!

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Very nice, well-written article Thank you. I had started watching the drama but simply could not finish it once he left. Even now I want to cry at the sadness. Perhaps later I'll re-watch the whole thing but it's just too emotional right now.
Does anyone know how he is doing? Have there been any reports on his condition? We all hope he will come back healthy.

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I really hope that bowing out didn't hurt his career. Fact is, Time was not particularly well-written overall and he pretty well made the first 3/4 what it was. I'd hate to think this affected his career, assuming he wants to continue it.

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Now that you mention it, I do remember not being that impressed with the first few episodes.

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You put me in to stream of tears again. Thank you

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Looklike I am the minority who watch the drama ~ and everyone who didnt watch seem much knowing better the drama 😂

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Policeman falls in love with a girl whose parents were murdered by his serial killer father?

That’s definitely Come Here & Hug Me. Jang Kiyong was fantastic, just like how Kim Junghyun was in Time. Besides both being MBC dramas, I’m pretty sure some of their background music were by the same artist too. Coz they sounded quite similar.

Back to the drama, Time. It was indeed a rare occurrence where the male lead had to leave mid-show that I was kinda thankful that his character was diagnosed with cancer. So the departure didn’t feel that sudden after all..

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It makes one wonder about the coincidence ..

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u mean which coincidence?

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I loved him in Jealousy. He stood out in every scene. The friends I was watching and discussing the show with all felt he was someone to watch. Then came Rebel and his intensity was SO palpable. I kept hoping his role would be 'more'. I did not like School 2017 at all...just me. I hate HS dramas with 20+ year olds first of all, and nothing compares to 2013. Could not get into Waikiki at all. Just me again. I managed to struggle through my required 4 or 5 episodes in both but just could not keep going. I did not like Time as a drama...too makjang for me, but I loved his performance and was so worried and sad for him. I hope he is doing well, recovering. I wonder if this is a recent problem or one he has been covering up for a long time? If acting pushed him over the edge, then it is worrisome for any future projects. The stories of actors who immerse themselves into method acting are rife with mental health issues and personality difficulties. In his culture it will be a difficult life for him with so much scrutiny and bullying that is part and parcel of that world.

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Thank you for your write-up on TIME, @missvictrix. I hadn't initially planned to watch it as I was still recovering from COME HERE AND HUG ME, but after reading GirlFriday's article announcing Kim Jung-hyun's early departure from the drama, I decided to tune in. He had caught my eye as Gil-dong's antagonist in REBEL: THIEF WHO STOLE THE PEOPLE by making the most of a minor role in that excellent sageuk. KJH was a real scene stealer.

The only other shows I'd seen him in when I started watching TIME were JEALOUSY INCARNATE and the drama special BINGGOO. I was curious to see how he'd do in a serious lead role, and was impressed with his performance. I just hope that he's well on the road to recovery.

TIME did a good job of shifting gears to accommodate the protagonist's departure. He was going to exit the stage before the end of the show anyway, but the rest of the cast pitched in to take up the premature slack. There was sufficient lead-time for rewrites and filming -- which was not the case with Yoon Doo-joon's precipitous departure from LET'S EAT 3 for military service. I had hoped that that show would have found a way to wrap up the rest of the character arcs more satisfactorily, but it was not to be.

It is fitting that Kim Jung-hyun's departure parallels his character's loss of time. In episode 10, Ji-hyun removes a pan of madeleines from the oven, which immediately reminded me of Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time aka Remembrance of Things Past), the autobiographical novel prompted by the author's involuntary recall of a childhood memory when he tasted a rusk [which appeared in the novel as a madeleine]. In Search of Lost Time figured significantly towards the end of LOVE LETTER, the touching 1995 Japanese movie that is referenced in SHOULD WE KISS FIRST?. Beware of Spoilers
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SHOULD WE KISS FIRST? is about a middle-aged man who discovers he has pancreatic cancer and wants to provide for a woman whose daughter died from eating candy for which he designed the advertising campaign. Her life went down the tubes, her marriage broke up, and she attempted suicide out of grief not only over her dead child, but because of the heartless way in which her lawsuits were crushed until she was up to her eyes in debt. A similar theme emerged in TIME, but in this case, the chaebol heir is 27, and has an inoperable glioblastoma that will kill him within six months. The theme of lost time figured heavily in both shows, with the Ultimate Deadline pushing both men to assist the parties they had wronged while they are still able to act. I'm a sucker for redemptive arcs, and TIME delivered the goods.

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Thank you for this post its nice to see a written piece on this drama since a lot of people didn't watch this. I loved this drama to pieces when it aired and was devastated when Kim Jung Hyun left since he pretty much carried the drama but i liked how they dealt with their dilemma in a way which didnt drop the quality of the show. This show was an absolute cry-fest but i loved every minute of it.

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Extremely well-written, thank you.

I wonder how much of his illness was brought on by getting too much into his character here. It must be difficult for actors playing these sorts of roles. Even as just a person watching, I often avoid dramas like this because it can pull me into a depression.

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Honestly, I couldn't get past the first 10 minutes of episode 2 and I just decided not to watch it. Even though I love melodrama (I'm starting to doubt that now). Maybe it's because I already know too much? About KJH leaving and when the hero would die and such. But I'm extremely happy to hear that his acting did not disappoint.

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Waw.. thanks a lot. I was unable to force myself to watch this show after his fallout news.

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An interesting read. Even I who haven't watched this show found the blurring lines between the hero's terminal illness and the leading actor's health problem quite uncomfortable to contemplate. How much of KJH's performance in that show is acting and how much of it is him pushing past his limit? I wonder if knowing the behind-the-scene story now would deter people from planning to watch this drama.

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Kim Jung-hyun was brilliant in this drama !!

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