My Holo Love (Series review)
Netflix recently dropped its fourth original series, My Holo Love. Much like Love Alarm, it’s a tale of love in our technology-driven society — a place where that love gets complicated by the very technologies meant to add convenience and ease to our everyday lives.
But, because this is dramaland, My Holo Love isn’t without many of the more traditional drama elements we’re used to seeing, too. The result of this is an interesting balance between rom-com tropes, and the drama’s futuristic edge.
We can’t talk about Netflix original dramas without discussing syndication. Netflix’s previous original dramas have been released in “seasons” — where the common 16-episode format was split in two, and separated by months in between (and, in the case of Kingdom, over a year).
This lack of continuity has been the scourge of drama-watchers who are used to the bi-weekly 16-episode run that’s long been standard for South Korean broadcasters. That being said, My Holo Love is a refreshing change — it’s 12 episodes in total, and has been released in its entirety. (Dare we hope they’ve heard the outcry and are changing their ways?) Both the full release and the shorter episode count work in the drama’s favor.
Many dramas in recent years have looked at robot/AI love entanglements, and they’ve ranged from the good (I’m Not a Robot) to the not-as-good (My Absolute Boyfriend). I don’t usually enjoy these kind of stories, but My Holo Love had a great cast, a cool hologram element that appealed to my inner Trekkie – and most importantly, the screenwriter of the fresh and fabulous Liar Game. But, for all of its sci-fi or futuristic elements, My Holo Love turned out to be a very human and healing sort of story.
Our heroine is HAN SO-YEON (Go Sung-hee), a lonely office worker who shrinks from having interactions and relationships with those around her due to her prosopagnosia, or face blindness. While we’ve seen this condition represented in dramaland loads of times, and perhaps wonder why it was necessary here (aren’t holograms weird enough? Can’t you be lonely without also having a condition that makes it worse?) — but actually, it was woven into the story quite well.
So-yeon’s face blindness is the reason for how she lives her life, but it’s also the reason behind her thinking. Because she’s been on the fringe for so long, she starts to believe that she doesn’t deserve a whole, full life — or love. But when So-yeon puts on the special “holo glass” glasses, she meets an AI called HOLO (Yoon Hyun-min) who changes everything.
My Holo Love took an interesting stance on AI. They didn’t shrink from showing its power, intelligence, and how it can so easily surpass human expectations — but it was also shown primarily as a force for good. The fact that a computer can control the devices around you and find a way to communicate with you (whether it’s through a hologram, your cell phone, or even your toaster) is a little scary — but Holo? He’s comforting, appreciative, understanding — and even a little bit magical.
The first phase of the drama, so to speak, covers the meeting of So-yeon and Holo, and her growing dependence on him. In just a few episodes, the drama deftly conveys how her world is changed by having someone by her side to look out for her and keep her company. Even the fears and insecurities she lives with as a consequence of her face blindness are softened by Holo’s presence, since he’s able to tell her who everyone is. He counts sheep till she falls asleep; he helps her cook, finish overtime projects at work, and even becomes her drinking buddy. It doesn’t take long for So-yeon to become totally reliant on the AI.
But there’s more to it than that, of course. So-yeon soon starts to feel an attraction to Holo — and weird though it is, you can’t blame her. He’s the perfect companion… except for the fact that he’s a hologram.
The drama plays nicely with the contrast of a “perfect” AI being, and the “imperfect” but oh-so-physical humans that are around So-yeon. I really liked the understated way the drama understood and portrayed the need for physical presence, touch, and realness. Because even though Holo is perfect, he’s untouchable.
Parallel to the story of So-yeon and Holo we have the story of Holo’s creator. At first we’re led to believe it’s GO YOO-JIN (Choi Yeo-jin). She’s the face of GIO Labs, and the one talking to investors, combatting competitors and frenemies — and protecting the real mastermind behind Holo, GO NAN-DO (also played by Yoon Hyun-min). From their bickering, to their fondness and care of each other, the two are siblings in every way (except in actual biology).
Over the course of the drama we get Nan-do’s story and learn about the genesis of the AI that became Holo — it goes all the way back to his childhood, as does the story. Nan-do’s tragic history with his mother turns out to be the catalyst for much that will happen decades later. Some of this was really great (like the side story of Nan-do’s mother as a super-smart computer programmer and single mother back in the early 1980s), while some of it (the fact that So-yeon was also involved in their backstory), even though well-played, is a mechanism that’s far too overused.
For all the “essential” romance story tropes that were utilized by My Holo Love, most of them were used in interesting ways, and often to open up questions about the boundaries and nature of love. We see this with So-yeon as she “falls in love” with Holo, but we also see it when she meets Nan-do.
Not only are they practically identical, but at their core they’re very much the same — and they have a deep understanding of So-yeon, which is the thing she’s been craving the most: to be known and understood. Can that yearning be filled by a computer? Or does it have to be a living and breathing person? I love the drama’s understated way of exploring and answering these questions.
The distinction (or indistinction) between Holo and Nan-do is one of the strongest elements the drama plays with. Several times, Nan-do is forced to role-play Holo. Not only is Yoon Hyun-min brilliant in switching between these two characters, but the drama has a ton of fun playing with this, and the audience is teased just as much as So-yeon is.
So-yeon is frequently caught in this riddle of being in the presence of a man that adores her but can’t bring himself to express it — but all the while thinking she’s with a hologram that will disappear if she reaches out to touch him. Notable for me in all of these swaps and role-playing scenes is the fact that the first time So-yeon starts having romantic feelings for Holo, she’s actually with Nan-do (role-playing Holo), and having a deep conversation with him.
Still, it’s a strange and kind of trippy love triangle for a bit there — especially when Nan-do decides to give Holo to So-yeon, and change the code so that he belongs to her and no one else. It’s almost uncomfortable: the thought of sole ownership of an emotionally-capable AI that loves you as much as you love it.
It might sound like the drama sets up a Holo versus Nan-do dynamic, but that’s definitely not the case, and that’s one of the ways this love triangle element was refreshed in the drama. While they both adore So-yeon, they adore her separately, or on two different planes, so to speak.
So-yeon might lose focus on the fact that Holo is a computer, but Holo does not. His learning to love her and experience emotions is recognized as a feat of science and machine learning, but it’s not the same as the love that Nan-do feels. One love is almost ethereal (the computer that is never-changing and flawless); the other is as raw and human as it gets, full of insecurities, scars from the past, and emotions that are often hard to control. Both loves turn out to be equally meaningful, though they play out in different ways by the end of the drama.
I enjoyed My Holo Love much more than I expected to, and there were so many things that the drama did well. The production was gorgeous, of course, and the expression of the AI intelligence and digital environment was well-conceived, though a bit abstract and conceptual in parts (but I might argue it was appropriately so).
One thing I found the drama expressed particularly well was the feeling of “dead space” when Holo is put away (the glasses taken off), or hacked/deactivated (server down). There were several scenes where the difference between having Holo cheerfully chatting, and the having him disappear as if never there, was quite palpable. It takes a lot to be able to express the change in a story’s climate and tempo on screen. More than just show a character present and then missing, My Holo Love was really able to tap into the tonal change that Holo’s presence brought, whether you call that warmth, brightness, or aura.
For all the standard tropes and plot elements used in the drama, My Holo Love brought a fresh angle to things, and asked some interesting questions. I love a story with a futuristic/sci-fi element, and while My Holo Love definitely delivered that, it was also (and even more so) a very human story. It looked more at human emotions than it did the emotional capabilities of artificial intelligence. It looked at how people can help each other heal, and the importance of emotional connection and touch. It even debunked the lies that we tell ourselves about not deserving another person’s love. As So-yeon told Nan-do in a pivotal moment, “You have the right to be loved.”
All that being said, at the center of this very human story lies an AI by the name of Holo. He will teach you to dance, labor for your happiness above all else, and knows nothing about selfishness, jealousy, greed, and other destructive human emotions. Deep in his source code, his heart, or both, is the desire to put the good of others above his own, and that’s quite a legacy for a hologram to leave behind.