Archive | May 2020

Are You Human?: Give Shin His Life Back

The good news is, I am currently watching a drama that I love with a million hearts. The bad news is that Are you Human? (Viki title is Are You Human Too?) starring Seo Kang Joon (The Cheese in the Trap) and Gong Seung Yeon (Six Flying Dragons) is not that drama. A very watchable drama with decent acting, Are You Human? could have reached for profound, but settled for easy. It is also one of the few shows that had me constantly yelling at the screen: He is a robot! A robot!

Yes, my friends, this is a robot story involving a theme that has been overdone in sci-fi at this point: defining humanity. Exploring the question what does is mean to be human through a robot’s eyes can be effective, but in this show it was used to promote the idea that it’s ok to think of robots and human and even to replace actual humans with them. Not sure if this was the intended message by the writer, but nevertheless, it made me sick to my stomach.

The story is about a young man named Nam Shin, and in this review I’ll mainly call him Shin, who of course is the grandson of a rich company CEO. The grandpa is…how can I say psychotic nicely? I can’t. Anyway, grandpa basically holds kid Shin hostage, saying if he goes to his grieving mother (dad just committed suicide), grandpa will harm mom. Thus mother and son grow up apart. But this is not your average mom. Oh Ra Ra is a super smart robotic scientist who flees to the Czech Republic and there makes a robot to look exactly like her son. She finds out later that her project is funded by (spoilers) grandpa. Robot Shin III is programmed to be a kind, loving, young gentlemen, who in disaster mode will leap into action to save whatever human lives are at stake. Not a bad thing, but at the beginning, it’s unclear just what mom’s motive is in this. Her son is still alive, and I would have actually found it less weird for him to be dead and in her grief she finds comfort in a lookalike machine.

The real Shin grows up and appears to be a typically spoiled rich boy, but he does long for his mother and makes a plan to escape grandpa’s watch and go to Czecho to see her. This involves the manipulation of a bodyguard, Kang So Bong, who used to be a pro fighter, but had to retire due to injury. She’s a somewhat feisty character who becomes less so over time. Robot Shin runs across real Shin in the town of Karlovy Vary, and I kind of wish the story would have stayed in Czecho, because it’s a beautiful fairy tale country and I miss living in it. The bad guy, played stereotypically by Yu Oh Seong (Faith) wants to take over the company and has a hitman take out Shin. Mom and her scientist buddy arrive just in time to witness the accident and mom instinctively knows it is her real son that has been run over. Turns out Shin isn’t dead, but he’s in a coma and so mom and Shin’s watcher for grandpa Ji Young Hoon (Lee Joon Hyuk from City Hunter) come up with the obvious plan to have robot Shin pretend to be human Shin.

The story didn’t quite play out as I imagined it would, but instead of surprising me, it continually disappointed me. The acting was very good, Seo Kang Joon has a bright future ahead of him and played both Shin’s well. He also has great screen presence, something one just has or doesn’t have, and will continue to be a great lead because of that. Gong Seung Yoon started out strong, as did her girl bodyguard character, but the writing basically killed her character by the end. She would have benefited from a ton more screen time with human Shin, which would have been a romance worth watching. Everyone else did a decent job, but nothing really of note.

Let’s get into the ranting part. So human Shin is a jerk, a spoiled jerk, but he loves his mom, has been royally abused by his grandpa, and wakes up partway through the series to find that he has literally been replaced by a lifelike robot built by his mother. And she won’t destroy it for his sake. She’s far too attached. Understandably, Shin is upset, very upset and wants the robot gone and his life back. He does pretty despicable things to try to make this happen, and the thing is, most of the time I was cheering him on! His fellow humans were all acting psycho, continually telling him that the robot was a better human than he was, and having affection for a machine that just…shouldn’t be there. I like my cell phone and my vacuum cleaner, but I’m not about to fall in love with them. Come to find out that crazy grandpa has the plan to actually fully replace his grandson by the robot and having the robot run the company.

This is a dark side of humanity, that we think we can create something better than a human and replace humanity with it. But it’s faulty, sinful human beings doing the making and programming, and it’s simply wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, to do this. Robots are a machine, a tool, and while they can certainly be humanlike, we walk a dangerous tightrope trying to make them as much like humans as possible. And on this show, what does that look like? Sadly, it reduces humanity to one thing: emotion. There’s a little nod to kindness, etc., being a part of humanity, but the focus is on emotion. Robot Shin is only still a robot because he doesn’t have emotions. He’s programmed to smile or give someone a hug when they need it, but that’s about it. Humans are so much more than their emotions, and why the writers didn’t choose to plumb the depths by either doing outright fantasy and having robot Shin somehow earn a fairy blessing of humanity, or by giving human Shin a beautiful redemptive love story, I don’t know. Either choice would have been so much better than what they went with. Yes, robot Shin (spoilers) does magically shed tears at the end, but this is never explained, and other than the humans continually telling him he seems human to them, no reason is given other than the fact that he sacrificed himself to save a human. But that’s no great feat, because he’s a robot programmed to do just that.

Let’s talk about the love story. Gong’s first interaction is with human Shin, who actually hit her to carry out his little escape plan. She then has a chance to vent her anger, but it ends up being on the robot Shin. It takes a little while for her find that this Shin is a robot, but bizarrely, she continues down the path of a relationship with the robot. Yes, he’s handsome, he’s kind and gentle, and so on, but he’s programmed to be that way. At times she treats him like a child, and other times like a pet. If a real, grown woman tells you she wants this kind of romance, run. Run away fast. Real woman do not want robots or pets, they want men, real men that don’t do whatever they say, and who have flaws and faults that they sometimes courageously overcome. Real women want a man they can argue with, share their lives and dreams with, and…ahem…have sex with. Now the show doesn’t go there, but they could probably program robot Shin to do the deed, but he’s not more much more than a blowup doll. Is that really what Gong should be aspiring to, a pretend relationship with a blowup doll? They did give him tears at the end, they did, but even at the end, when she first encounters human Shin, there’s a spark there that is not there when she and the robot kiss. The ending turned my stomach. Human Shin happily looking on as a woman kisses and makes promises to a machine that looks just like him. It was rather gross and not romantic in the slightest.

Give human Shin his life back. Rewrite this atrocity and give him a redemption and love story that values humanity, not programmed robots. There was another character that did love human Shin and the writers did nothing with her, except finally send her away to America where hopefully she found someone to appreciate her persistence, sweetness, loyalty, and bravery.

Are You Human? is watchable, far more than some other dramas, but the message it conveys is just so icky to me that I have trouble recommending it because of that. Even emotionally, there wasn’t really a good cathartic moment. Anger, maybe, Shin’s anger at being replaced, and then more anger because he’s met not with understanding, but with the robot is a better human that you are. I mean, what the actual blank? As for robot Shin, he’s got a bland personality, but of course he does. Humans can’t program a personality the way God creates one. The idea that we can is laughable. Also really not sure what to make of the talk in the show of a whole city with humans and these humanlike robots…sounds nightmarish to me. Sometimes I really hate science and think that at its heart it is anti-God and anti-human.

The Secret Garden: A Perfect Book for Spring

This is the second time I’ve read the wonderful book A Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It is a children’s book set in the springtime and full of love of all the growing things and new life in the world, and a perfect book to read during the spring months. The introduction (I have a Barnes and Noble Classics copy) says that Burnett’s books were as popular in her day, the late 1800s, early 1900s, as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is today. That’s pretty impressive. Her most famous works known today are The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, and both have been made into several films and plays.

The story follows a girl named Mary Lennox, a pill of a child, who’s understandably a spoiled brat as she’s been allowed to push around her servants in India while simultaneously being wholly neglected by parents who don’t seem to care two sticks about her. After an outbreak of cholera, Mary is orphaned and sent to live with her uncle, a hunchbacked recluse who lives on a large estate in England called Misselthwait Manor. Her uncle is little seen in the story, as his main occupation over the years has been to grieve the loss of his wife.

As much as Mary’s behavior is shown as being rude to other people, much is made of her ill appearance. She’s not a healthy brat, and doesn’t know what it’s like to spend the whole day outside. Knowing little of class barriers, having spent her life abroad, Mary quickly befriends one of the servants, a young girl called Martha, who comes from a family of twelve, and introduces Mary to a different way of life, one spent in good work, and often out of doors. At first, going outside isn’t much fun for Mary, it’s cold, and the spring hasn’t quite arrived yet, but slowly, she starts to toughen up and enjoy being outside. She learns of a secret garden all locked up and is determined to see it for herself. She also befriends Mary’s brother Dicken, who has a way with animals, plants, and all living things, and ends up helping and improving another child called Colin, who is even more tyrannical than herself.

The Secret Garden is delightful, full of real magic, God’s magic and His ways of making things grow. The children themselves aren’t necessarily Christian or anything, but their appreciation and delight in nature and the world is uplifting. The determination of Mary and then later Colin, to be truly healthy and out in the world doing things and seeing things is refreshing, especially in days like these when many are afraid to set foot outside. Colin is a prime example of just how damaging it is for anyone to always imagine themselves an invalid. It is a tale of sorrow, recovery, and health, and showcases that always, always, there is something worth living for, even if you only start with a rose bush or a robin. It is telling, too, that the more Mary improves in her person, so does she perceive that other’s improve in her opinion. There is much truth that our dispositions and attitudes affect everything about us, and the more positive we are, the more positively we view the world and people around us and find joy in them.

The world in springtime is wonderful to behold, and I always think it’s the time of year when we can hear every rock, tree, flower, and stream singing God’s praises the loudest.

Updates: Next week I’ll be reviewing the K-drama Are You Human Too? starring Seo Kang Joon (Cheese in the Trap). Not sure about a romance with a robot, that’s rather weird, but it’s an exciting series so far. Two books on my reading list have titles that go together, so I’ll probably read them back to back: Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley (her The Good Thief is an awesome colonial yarn of a tale), and The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Life, death, and numbers. Should be fun. My next classics reads are going to be The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexander Dumas, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper (it’s great, as is the movie, though they really aren’t very alike), and Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Ever since watching the wonderful movie of Far from the Madding Crowd starring Carey Mulligan, I’ve had a hankering to read all of his works.

Humans are Pointless: Tell Me What You Saw Review

Humanism is bunk. Not only that, it’s un-inspirational, nihilistic, and depressing. Over and over I ask myself, why do I like murder mysteries? Why do I enjoy stories in which murderers are hunted down and brought to justice? For starters, good and evil do exist, and it is the work of good to bring evil into submission. This is justice. What is not justice is the hunting down of evildoers for the sake of human, and only human law. This in itself is pointless and leads to gross miscarriages of justice, like Javert from Les Miserables hunting down Jean Val Jean, who should be treated with mercy and compassion and allowed to do the good that he wants to do. This is also why people in America are suddenly finding their Constitutional rights terribly violated. Humans who believe in humanism often also believe they themselves are superior to their fellow humans, and their goal is to put everyone else under submission to them.

But I digress. Back to murder mysteries. A good mystery, chase, and/or cat and mouse game is fun to read and or watch. One hopes in anticipation that the detective(s) can outthink the bad guy, or sometimes vice versa. Korean dramas that try to do crime or police procedurals are on shaky ground. I don’t know a lot about the cops in South Korea, but their shows constantly portray them as being severely inept and corrupt. In American cop shows and crime dramas, although those elements are there, they are understated. The point for American TV is often to boost audience confidence in the system. Corruption would be more of a twist ending thing, and rarely are the federal officers or cops shown as being truly inept. The show Tell Me What You Saw, has an interesting balance of smart Korean detectives who are simultaneously inept, and who, although they do want to bring the murderers to justice, don’t seem to truly understand, well, how to keep the public safe.

The story revolves around three main detectives, Oh Hyun Jae, played by the ever versatile Jang Hyuk, is the main one. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for Jang, as he was in the first Korean movie I ever saw, the funny Please Teach Me English. He’s know for his hilarious laugh, often over-the-top characters, and his athletic ability. Jang was a good choice to play Detective Oh, as the man is definitely larger than life, albeit so severely psychologically damaged that he’s bolted down any and all emotions. Unfortunately, this means that Jang wears a blank expression more than half the time, though he does use his eyes to emote well on occasion.

Tell Me What You Saw revolves roughly around three plot gimmicks, that are used unevenly and are often dropped. Detective Oh is damaged psychologically and physically. When Policewoman Cha Soo Young (Soo Young from Squad 38), our second detective, who is transferring to the Metropolitan detective unit, meets him, he is in a wheelchair and sunglasses. Sometimes characters with disabilities add a lot to these kinds of shows, but it initially seemed the writers were piling it on, as we’d already met Cha who communicates fluently in sign language due to having deaf parents. I wasn’t sure where they were going with all of that, but was intrigued to find out. It’s sad to peg any disability as a gimmick in stories, but that’s just so often what they end up being. In this show, sign language is used well for parts of the story, but wasn’t an integral part of the show.

The second gimmick, and most prominent one, at least for the first half of the show, is photographic memory. This almost superhuman ability work well on screen if used reasonably, and I actually thought the writers underused it considering it’s the reason for the name of the show. Again, it’s just not something integral to the show, and it probably was meant to be, but the third gimmick takes prominence. Well, sort of.

The third gimmick used is that of profiling, specifically profiling of serial killers. An example of where this is actually an integral part of a show is the awesome Criminal Minds, an America show that has been amazingly successful. Detective Oh is not just a detective, but a famous profiler and he and the third detective, Hwang Hwa Young played by Jin Seo Yeon, were both on the hunt for a serial killer 5 years before our story begins. They were both injured when the serial killer blew up a car in which Oh’s fiancee was trapped. Both detectives have made it their mission to find this guy and bring him to justice, though officially, the killer is supposed to be dead.

Hwang is Cha’s new boss, and she’s a tough cookie. By the end of the show I concluded she’s way, way more traumatized and damaged than Oh, and it really grated on me that he refused to show her genuine kindness or compassion.

So, three main detectives, three gimmicks, corruption, ineptness, and darkness all around. One thing the show does hands down, is showcase creepy serial killers. Very creepy and also very gruesome even though half of the stuff is blurred out. It is the stuff of nightmares and I don’t blame any of the characters for their somberness or melancholy. At the end of the series there’s a bit of a rush to add some light and hope. Corruption is routed, at least for the time being. The big bad is brought to justice, though in such a roundabout, drawn out way, it’s a bit hollow. The idea is stated that even if one is naturally programmed to do bad, one can choose to step into the light, just as good people can choose to give into evil.

The light is dampened, or at least it was for me, by Oh and Cha’s last conversation. He says there’s no divine retribution in this world, but they chase the killers and bad guys to uphold the law and that’s enough. Have to say, after watching the whole show, I doubt very much that Oh actually believes that. The character is saying it because that’s sort of a standard rah-rah line for government worker shows. Upholding human laws is why they exist, but it’s not a message of light and hope in and of itself. Now, maybe Oh was hinting that in the afterlife or the next world there is divine retribution, but he didn’t say that, and none of the characters seemed remotely religious except for some of the baddies. No, Oh’s statement is humanism that rang super hollow and pointless at the end. Maybe it was just that the story itself got too dark, very little humor or poignant human moments. Very little, too little, actual profiling. Until it was suddenly brought again in the last couple of episodes, I had forgotten that Oh was a profiler at all. I often forgot that Cha had a special memory and that she knew sign language. Terrible writing in that aspect, and it’s really the last half in which it goes downhill.

Let me go back to this idea that the point of these detectives jobs is to hunt down killers for the sake of the law. They can’t even do that well–it took them way too long to put some things together–and they risked so many lives by not shooting on sight at times. Not sure what the rules are for officers in S. Korea, but as an American watching it was frustrating. It was also infuriating how Detective Hwang’s story unfolded. She put so, so many people in danger by not dealing with her own trauma, and if she got any counseling at all or even informed her team and superiors of what happened to her, I missed those scenes. And detective Oh was the worst. As soon as he figured out who the killer was he should have either done a citizen’s arrest or shot the killer on sight. Both would have been better and more satisfying than what actually happened.

(Spoilers) No, Oh, doesn’t kill the bad guy like he wants to. He’s too superior for that, for some reason he think he’s owed a torture session. He also stupidly lets himself get almost killed, so he can’t help his fellow detectives. As a profiler, he should first of all, know that the criminal gets off on torture, and as a detective, should second of all, understand that he’s just giving the killer more chances to escape. This is the pride of humanism, one starts to think they are above even the human rules and makes mistakes, not only against other people, but also against oneself–a la Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment.

Detective Cha arrives just in time to pull Oh into the light, but I’m not sure what light she’s pulling him into. Even in humanism, aren’t the standards for “good” people more than just not killing someone? In some cases, isn’t killing the bad guy actually the best thing to do? Detective Oh might actually benefit from some jail time and counseling, so little thought did he–did any of the detectives have–for the safety of the public in general. Everyone was so inwardly focused, one could almost forget they are in the business of public safety. Tell Me What You Saw reminded me a bit of the movie Se7en, both stories so laser pointed on the dark, so nihilistic, that on a spiritual level it makes them not worth watching.

Although I never finished it, I thought Voice, also starring Jang Hyuk, had much more light to offer, at least in the first half that I watched. Other, better serial killer hunting down shows from S. Korea are Tunnel and Signal. These shows offer emotional impact, if nothing else, and the cops are good, and can be labeled as good, even if they are sometimes inept. In these shows the cops and detectives are clearly about saving lives, not satisfying their own revenge fantasies. As these far better shows don’t have religion or God in them per se, I think maybe part of the problem with Tell Me What You Saw‘s humanism, is that they forgot the human part. Any of the detectives could have easily been played by a long list of other actors. There was just no there there, which was a shame, because I did enjoy the first half. Detective Hwang’s story definitely had the most impact, and in the end she forgave herself, a very spiritual revelation. The other two detectives were emotionally blank, though Jang did make some use out of his signature laugh, and his character often made me wonder how wise it really is to think like a murderer, even if one’s goal is to catch him. Are serious profilers just one step away from being murderers themselves?

Not only that, how wise is it to read and watch stories about killers? Is it the fun of the mystery or chase or is it the draw of the darkness that’s really what’s sucking me in? With Agatha Christie, it’s easy, God is incorporated and it really is about justice, not human law in and of itself. But with stories like these, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just letting bad writing get me down. It irks me because I really, really wanted to like it, but Tell Me What You Saw just left me feeling empty. Jane Austen of Pride and Prejudice fame began her writing career by considering the dangers of ingesting too many fictional stories. She was right. One can have too much of them and be pulled into the darkness. It’s telling that her stories push readers solidly into the light. I need to have more discernment, because humanity by itself is pointless and lost without God. That way be dragons, as the saying goes.

The Lies of Locke Lamora: A lie is a lie is a lie

Con artist stories are fun, if they are well done. The Lies of Locke Lamora is thought of as a con artist or “heist” story, and since many people mentioned it in the reviews of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, which I like a lot, I thought I would check it out. It is quite an impressive feat, a yarn of a tale, however there are certain aspects lacking about both the story and the characters.

At over 700 hundred pages, one could almost find the tale too long; however, the length is largely due to very detailed world building and description. As I found both engrossing, the book did not seem long at all to me. In fact, the story seemed to end too soon. There’s a great, long buildup to something, but like so much about Locke Lamora, he doesn’t really deliver. But maybe that’s how liars are. They tell lies when it profits themselves; they’re not in the business for it to benefit others, even readers of their personal history.

Locke is an orphan who grows up in the great city-state of Camorr. He gets sold to a Dickensian-type of handler, a man who runs a gang of orphan thieves. The young Locke is great at thievery, but has an affiliation for the dramatic, turning a simple con into a play or show for others to watch. It often gets him into trouble and ends up with a lot of unintended consequences, one of them disturbing the great peace that there is between the criminal world and the nobles. Locke’s handler quickly hands him over to a temple priest, also a con artist, and someone who will take him and instruct him in more elaborate cons in which his acting skills and theatrics can succeed.

The initial con in the book was clever, and it’s a bit intriguing that Locke’s gang, the Gentleman Bastards only prey on the rich, but once the story veers into the Grey King taking over it’s all rather disappointing. It’s seems to me that this Grey King would have planned a lot more than to come to the city only to rely on the money from Locke’s gang to see his plans out. That part didn’t really make sense to me, and it could very well be that I missed something. Although other people had mentioned a big heist in the book, I didn’t see one. What happened at the end was Locke merely saving his skin and getting a bit of revenge for himself. It wasn’t a heist, and there was no big reveal that con artist movies and stories usually had where they “show” you how they did it. This wasn’t a fault of the author, necessarily, but a fault of my expectations.

As a general story, I found the book fun and interesting to read, but severely lacking in moral quality. It’s hard to care about characters who have no morals and live in a kill or be killed world. Camorr isn’t a city I would want to set foot in, though it’s described well and in great detail. Everyone in it seems mercenary and not worth the words wasted on them, Locke most of all. In the end, he’s not really that clever, just lucky to have friends who are loyal to him. He can’t fight well, or do anything else well, and although he leads the Gentleman Bastards, it’s hard to imagine him being able to manage a larger number of people. Hero, he is not. As a character, he was profoundly disappointing and only likable because of his loyalty to his friends. His strange care at the end for the lives of the rich nobles that he steals from comes out of nowhere. I’m surprised he would care to save them at all, that’s how bad a job the author did giving him any sort of moral character.

Two other things were off-putting in the book as well, the egregious use of profanity and the violence. Both come across as, well, lazy. As I said, there’s no amazing twist or heist at the end, it just sort of ends once all the right people are dead. Of course in a world like this, people would swear left and right, but that doesn’t mean the swearing should stream continually from the author’s pen. The readers are shown from the other descriptions quite well what kind of people these characters are without having to continually use the F-word to prove it. It also makes Locke appear less intelligent than he’s supposed to be. By the end of the story, though, I have to say I second-guessed his supposed intelligence. He’s a lucky liar, and that’s all.

As to the violence, so much of it was unnecessary and also began to shed poor light on both Locke and his best friend, Jean. No good person would resort to such violence, no matter how much the other person deserved it. They just wouldn’t and shouldn’t. Such violence may be understood in the defense of harm done to one’s child or something of that nature, but even with that, there’s a limit. Also, even though there are religions in this world, there’s no evidence Locke believes or lives by any such code, and that we’re asked to believe that he does at the end, well, it rang false. Very false.

So, I started the book by liking it, prepared to overlook the swearing and some violence (interestingly enough there were no egregious sex scenes to skip over), but ended disappointed and a bit repulsed by all the violence. The story had minimal emotional impact as a whole. I did feel bad for both Locke and Jean when their friends were slaughtered, but I began to feel less sorry for them the more they instigated violence themselves and caused unneeded collateral damage and pain for other people. The Lies of Locke Lamora isn’t a con artist or heist story, no, it’s merely gang warfare set in a fantasy world. It could have been a great heist story, but an editor was missing somewhere in the process.

Despite its lack of morals, both in the story and the characters, I did enjoy reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, though I’m not sure it’s something I’ll keep on my shelves to read again. Like a good con that is engaging when one is involved or being hoodwinked, at the end it just leaves one empty. For me, I found Six of Crows to be profoundly better, especially when it comes to moral and emotional impact. Those characters I could root for, Jean and Locke, not so much. Perhaps both characters improve in the next book of the series, but I’m doubtful. Locke is an amazing actor and liar. That’s about the best I can say for him. I do think, though, it’s a book, that could do well as a TV series. Game of Thrones fans would, I think, appreciate this grimy yet intricate, kill-or-be-killed world.