Are You Human? [Neodo Inganini] (2018), my latest dip into the world of TV K-drama, adds an element of science fiction to the corporate family politics of the modern chaebol (“rich family”) drama, using artificial intelligence and robotics to create a variant on the identical twin/mistaken identity romance.
On the day his father Nam Jung-woo (Kim Seung-soo) died under mysterious circumstances, third generation corporate heir Nam Shin (Seo Kang-joon) was abducted by the security team of his grandfather, PK Group CEO Nam Gun-ho (Park Yeong-gyu), who had never approved of Jung-woo’s marriage. Devastated by the loss of her entire family in a single day but powerless to do anything about it, Shin’s mother – robotics genius Dr. Laura Oh aka Oh Ro-ra (Kim Sung-ryung) – moved to the Czech Republic and directed her grief into the creation of an exact robot duplicate of her young son (Oh Han-kyul), whose first words upon awakening are: “The rule is to hug you when you cry” (far from the last time that phrase will be heard). Over the following twenty years she continues to make advances in robotics and artificial intelligence in collaboration with her scientific colleague and potential romantic partner David (Choi Deok-moon), transferring the artificial Nam Shin’s intelligence into new bodies modelled precisely on her human son’s growth. David finally convinces her to allow Nam Shin III (also Seo Kang-joon) to accompany them on a shopping trip on the very same day that the human Nam Shin comes looking for her, having orchestrated a public scandal in order to slip away from his handlers. Stunned by a chance sighting of his exact duplicate on the opposite side of the road, before the two can speak to each other he’s wiped out by a hit-and-run truck driver hired by Choi Sang-guk (Choi Byung-mo) – a paid assassin sent by PK Group Director Seo Jong-gil (Yu Oh-seong) in order to clear his path to inheriting the corporation. While Laura and David make secret arrangements for the medical care of the comatose Nam Shin, they conspire with Ji Young-hoon (Lee Joon-hyuk) – Shin’s personal secretary and only friend – to cover up his condition by sending the robot Nam Shin III back to South Korea in his place.
Kang So-bong (Gong Seung-yeon) is from the opposite end of the socioeconomic scale, a once promising MMA fighter who suffered a career-ending injury after a referee was bribed to look the other way, causing her to become increasingly cynical and forcing her to shift careers into bodyguard and security work. She lives with her father/coach Kang Jae-sik (Kim Won-hae) in run-down boxing gym, along with his two comedy relief students Jo In-tae (Oh Hee-joon) and “RoboCop” (Cha Yub). Her best friend Reporter Jo (Kim Hyun-sook) convinces her to use her position as a member of Nam Shin’s personal security team to take surreptitious pictures for sale to the tabloids, a plan which backfires when Shin catches her in the act and knocks her to the ground in full view of the phone-camera-wielding public, resulting in her being fired and blackballed from future security work. Learning from her shame-faced friend that Shin was the one who offered her the money and secret camera in the first place (which, unknown to them, was part of his plan to give his security team the slip while generating bad publicity for his grandfather’s company), the enraged So-bong sets out to call him to public account for his actions at the product launch of the new self-driving M-car – a confrontation which unexpectedly ends in a hug from the far more pleasant Nam Shin III who has taken the original’s place. Inadvertently discovering his identity as a robot after a nightclub fire triggers his rescue protocols, So-bong finds herself brought into the conspiracy to protect his identity and is re-hired as his personal bodyguard.
The core of the show from this point on is the developing relationship between Kang So-bong and Nam Shin III. So-bong, confused by her response to being rescued from death by the man she had previously hated, is at first disgusted by the realisation that she felt attracted to a robot – but writer Jo Jung-joo does an effective job of gradually ringing the changes on their relationship as she comes to accept that, at the very least, his basic programming ethics make him reliable, pleasant and considerate company. These changes are not merely a one-way street, as Nam Shin III’s interactions with people in general and So-bong in particular inform his future decisions and the development of his personality, to the extent that he begins to form his own priorities and ethical guidelines (or “rules”) which are not always in accord with what his “mother”/creator would have him do. Ji Young-hoon – a considerate and soft-spoken individual who is exceptionally good at his job – is a harder nut to crack, due to his extensive history with the original Nam Shin, but with time even he begins to wonder whether Nam Shin III might be a better person than his model. (My working hypothesis was that Young-hoon was secretly in love with Shin – whether or not that turns out to be the case, however, is not something I’ll reveal here.) Complicating matters are the rest of Shin’s family. His grandfather is a cunning businessman who despises weakness (which, in his definition, means anybody who isn’t ruthlessly ambitious) and spends the first third of the series pretending to be hiding incipient dementia as a means of establishing who he can trust among his family and employees. Shin’s Aunt Nam Ho-yeon (Kim Hye-eun) is desperate to establish a legacy for her robot-loving young son No Hee-dong (Seo Eun-yool), doing her best to hide his heart condition lest he be disinherited for being weak. And then there’s his fiancée Seo Ye-na (Park Hwan-hee), the company’s PR Director, devoted to Nam Shin despite his womanising and open disdain for her and – oh yes – the oblivious daughter of the man who wants him dead.
As one might expect from the show’s title, the big theme is the question of what characteristics a machine intelligence must exhibit to be considered as a person. The self-driving car project allows the show to explore aspects of this debate in microcosm, discussing the necessary criteria for allowing an AI-directed creation to operate autonomously in society while making decisions with an immediate effect on the life or death of other humans. When Jong-gil hires a hacker to sabotage the project’s first on-road test, Nam Shin III not only prevents the M-car from causing serious harm but spearheads a further development, adding a variant on his own medical modelling capabilities to allow the car to take over in the event of driver incapacitation and drive to the nearest hospital. On a smaller level, Nam Shin III rather delightfully forms a friendship with his roomba (which follows him around like a puppy when not otherwise occupied) and, later on, gives So-bong her own little Pibo robot (named Maibo) to keep her company and relay personal messages. In another sense, the question raised by the show’s title also applies to the human sphere, querying the behaviour exhibited by the more ethically challenged characters such as Jong-gil.
The other major theme is one of generational conflict between parental figures who want to control the behaviour of their children and a younger generation trying to exert the self-determination which they have supposedly been raised to possess. CEO Nam Gun-ho values nothing more highly than the corporation he’s built and demands absolute obedience from his family, even resorting to physical threats and a willingness to lock people up in “rest homes”. Indirectly responsible for the death of his own son, he forces his newly-abducted grandson to choose between rejecting his mother to her face or being responsible for her death. As Shin grows older and begins to act out, Gun-ho informs him that Young-hoon will be his proxy – every time Shin does something wrong, his best friend will be punished in his place. The overarching effect of his tyrannical rule, however, is counterproductive – rather than creating the strength he values, his family members turn into either cowed sycophants or (in the case of Nam Shin) an emotionally volatile volcano who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a position of responsibility. Director Seo Jong-gil sees no conflict at all between caring for his daughter and trying to kill her fiancé – what’s good for him is good for her, and he’ll find her a more appropriate man to marry when she gets over her silly fixation. Even Dr. Oh becomes overly controlling of her “son”/creation Nam Shin III – she becomes disturbed when he stops blindly obeying her every command and starts making his own judgements, leading her to create a manual override which will allow her to take direct control. She also begins to consciously withdraw emotionally from Nam Shin III, convincing herself that she will have to activate his secret kill switch and destroy her “fake son” after her “real son” wakes from his coma – a decision which leads to conflict with Nam Shin III’s more genial “father” David (who happens to be hiding a secret of his own).
But the overall tone of the show isn’t as serious as I might have made it sound – by focusing in on the show’s broader themes and darker aspects, I run the risk of obscuring the dominant thread of fun romantic comedy as Kang So-bong and Nam Shin III grow closer together and develop the parameters of their unconventional relationship. So-bong is the first person to accept Nam Shin III for who he is, an autonomous individual with a right to self-determination. As her feelings transition gradually from friendship into something deeper, she comes to a mature personal accommodation with the idea that he may never be able to return her feelings in the same way (something which her father, when he learns the truth, has a much harder time accepting). Nam Shin III’s journey to a similar emotional destination may not work for all viewers, but I think both the writing and acting do an effective job of selling it – and honestly, if you’re not open to the possibility of a mutually loving relationship between a human and a robot in a work of fiction then I don’t know why you’d choose to watch a show like this.
Lead actor Seo Kang-joon juggles his dual roles effectively – he’s adorably sweet as Nam Shin III, while his more emotionally conflicted human twin is sufficiently different that the viewer can usually distinguish between the two even when one is pretending to be the other. Reversing the usual trajectory of K-pop stars becoming K-drama actors, Kang-joon is also a member of boy band 5urprise, the first South Korean pop group consisting entirely of actors. Gong Seung-yeon is suitably spiky, softening through the course of the series but never losing her edge. The pair won Best Couple at the 2018 KBS Drama Awards, with Kang-joon also winning the Excellence Award for Actor in a Mid-length Drama (Seung-yeon was nominated for the equivalent Actress award). Lee Joon-hyuk is a revelation in his role as Nam Shin’s modest and self-contained friend, quite a contrast to his role as a wild and ethically dubious Prosecutor in Stranger [Bimileui Sup] (2017-2020) (first season reviewed here) – although he lost out on the Excellence Award to Kang-joon, he would go on to win the Best Acting Award at the 5th Asia Artist Awards for his performance in the second season of Stranger. (Another Stranger alumnus is Choi Byung-mo, making a career change from corrupt police captain to hired killer.) Also making a splash in the 2018 KBS Drama Awards were Best Supporting Actor Kim Won-hae (playing So-bong’s father) – whose work in Black [Beullaek] (2017) I raved about here – and Best Supporting Actress Kim Hyun-sook (playing Reporter Jo), a comedian best known as the lead actress in long-running sitcom Ugly Miss Young-ae [Makdwaemeokeun Yeongaesshi] (2007-2019). I’d also like to give a shout-out to Park Bo-mi, who I loved as the main character’s best friend in Strong Girl Bong-soon [Himssenyeoja Dobongsun] (2017) (reviewed here) and appears here in a minor speaking role as a member of Nam Shin’s security team.
In concluding I have one last piece of casting to celebrate, although in this case it’s not a person but a building – Seoul’s 12 Pillar Building, which forms the local base of operations for Nam Shin III’s “parents” where they care for the comatose Nam Shin after their home in Karlovy Vary is compromised. It’s a gorgeous example of the organic melding of nature with urban construction, beautifully designed by architect Chan Un-ki (1955-2001), who has been described as the “Gaudi of Korea”. As an English-speaker lacking any fluency in Korean, it’s been frustratingly difficult to find much more information than that about either the building or the architect, but my thanks go out to Korean Dramaland for helping me to identify the location and learn at least that much.